The Millennium Legacy: Dragon Tattoos and Social Taboos

The conception of this post was one part luck and seven parts desperation. Last week I experienced for the first time in my life, an extreme case of writer’s block. Having gone through seven drafts of ideas, each of poor enough quality or caliber to warrant dismissal, I was at my wits end. With hours to spare before my scheduled post was about to go live, I was about to write a cop-out “what would YOU, the reader of this blog, like to read” post when I was struck with an idea. While it was suggested early on to write an article reviewing a book, I had dismissed the notion because I limited my focus to outwardly feminist books like Manifesta, of which I have not touched. However, in my sullen desperation I remembered reading about domestic and sexual abuse of women and started to think about books that may be indirectly feminist. Immediately a whirl of storyline came flooding back to me in a memory of a personal favorite series known worldwide as the Millennium trilogy.9780307269751_custom-s6-c10

The trilogy, consisting of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, has become legend for challenging Swedish social practices and indirectly inciting a worldwide call for reform.  As I thought about it more and more, the pro-feminist lifestyle author Stieg Larsson lead, along with the message his books echoed made perfect sense to blog about and share. I realized early on though that to truly capture the narrative of these novels and accurately analyze them with a feminist perspective, I had to break it up into a series of three blog posts. Each post will be devoted to one of the Millennium novels and will focus on the events that occurred and how they mirrored Larsson’s own life. I hope to illuminate his social commentary and in the process explore the feminist implications of his final work. Let’s begin by exploring more of Larsson’s personal life before diving into his flagship novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

The mystique of the novels is shrouded in the author’s brief life. Stieg Larsson died shortly after submitting the last edits of the novels to his publisher at the age of 50. His series would go on to sell over 65 million copies worldwide; his last book alone, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, became the most sold book of the US in 2010 with 1.9 million copies. It’s been noted that many elements of his personal life as a journalist were included in the novels. The storyline (without any plot spoilers) revolves around the intertwining of two unlikely people, the first of whom is Mikael Blomkvist. Blomkvist is the secondary hero of the series; an investigative reporter and co-owner of a monthly left-wing magazine Millennium, his fictitious life directly mirrored Larsson’s neo-nazi exposing real life at his own anti-racist magazine EXPO. As Blomkvist considers how he can start to reclaim his honor, an unknown source offers him damning evidence to convict his accuser and clear his name, but on a condition that he attempt to solve a 40 year-old unsolved mystery. Accepting the term, he travels from Stockholm to Hedeby Island, home of the Vanger family, unaware his meddling will unearth scandal that may cost him his life.  Meanwhile, on the other side of Sweden an unlikely heroine is finishing tying up her own loose ends.

Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander in the American adaptation

The heroine in question is, Lisbeth Salander, a young, slender, goth-attired woman who at first glance looks like a helpless little girl but as the reader soon learns is fighter, a survivor who’ll stop at nothing for justice on her own terms. A categorical sociopath, Lisbeth prefers living in the moment for herself and the few people in her life who’ve earned her trust. As one of the most skilled computer hackers in the world, she earns a living doing thorough private-investigative work, but only to fund her exploitation of the same societal system that declared her mentally incompetent, and in need of an overseer. Shortly into the novel, Lisbeth is victim to a violent rape at the hands of a captor. Rather than go to the police, with whom she distrusts, she decides to take matters into her own hands and enact the first in a common thread of equally brutal vigilante justice. As the tides turn for her, she’s thrust into the same mystery as Blomkvist, and the two become allies.

They soon realize the scope of their investigation is larger than they anticipated, as the search for Harriet Vanger, eventually becomes related to the disappearance and murder of many other women scattered across Sweden. As the surprisingly blunt English translation to the original Swedish title suggests, Men Who Hate Women revolves primarily around Larsson’s intended message: hatred and violence is appalling. The unfortunate irony is that the series has become a taboo for its depiction of this violence. While writing this post, I asked many of my friends what they thought of the movie (because none had read the book), and it was clear that rather than acknowledging the social truth behind sexual and domestic abuse, they’d prefer keep it hidden from view and out of their minds. Many couldn’t get over how graphic the Swedish adaptation was to see a little of what I was talking about, and God help if they saw the American re-make. However, through their responses I realized another possible reason for writing the books was in fact to shock people.

Noomi Repace as Lisbeth
Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish adaptaion

When Larsson was 15, he saw a girl fall victim to a gang rape. Stunned in terror, he didn’t move to help her, and days later when he begged for her forgiveness she bitterly refused. While the memory served as a catalyst for the novels, it was the shock and regret that spurred him into action. In writing Lisbeth’s character, a victim of the same crime, he gives awareness to a crime that’s occurring across the world, but by giving her an anti-heroic sense of justice, he instills within her power and dominion over those who violate her. By taking away the power of those who are bigger and stronger, she turns the tables and emerges victorious. As sensational as the books and movies are, maybe what Larsson is trying to carry out is similar empowerment and courage through the shock value of the content that will stay with the audience.

If the gripping, edge-of-your-seat story is the pie, the social critique on the exploitation of women is the filling. People are finally pushing back veils of taboo and beginning to talk about abuse. What has caused people to open up and speak out in Western Hemisphere, is causing the Eastern to analyze laws on brutality, sexism and previous government inaction. While I’ll discuss it more in my third post, the European government has taken positive steps in the past decade and continues to end exploitation. To me the novel has served as an amazingly eye-opening exposure to a social problem that too often gets swept under the rug. The social change Larsson desired can’t be pushed aside for another 1:4 to be victimized, and luckily it seems his final work is causing others to step out in action as well.

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