The Gender Ambiguity of Lisbeth Salander: Third-Wave Feminist Hero?

The Gender Ambiguity of Lisbeth Salander: Third-Wave Feminist Hero?

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
by Stieg Larsson, translated by Reg Keeland
Knopf, 2008, 480 pp.

The Girl Who Played with Fire
by Stieg Larsson, translated by Reg Keeland
Knopf, 2009, 503 pp.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest
by Stieg Larsson, translated by Reg Keeland
Knopf, 2010, 576 pp.

STIEG LARSSON’S Millennium trilogy describes a series of crimes that involve the violent abuse of women, and it also exposes not-so-fictional Swedish corporate and state crimes. But the novels are named, in English, for Lisbeth Salander, the “girl who,” and the second and third books in the trilogy in particular, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, are her story. Salander seems to be the source of the trilogy’s popularity. But why is she so interesting? I think that it’s her gender ambiguity that pulls in different readers, women and men, young and old. I don’t mean an androgyny of masculine and feminine traits, but a mix of attributes within her identity as a woman. She is both victim and avenger, abused child and iconoclastic rebel, punky teen in appearance and competent woman in behavior.

Her guardian, Nils Bjurman, who violently raped her, says of her:

She was defenseless. She had no family, no friends, a true victim, ripe for plundering.…And then out of the blue she had destroyed him. She had struck back with a power and determination that he had not dreamed she possessed. She had humiliated him. She had tortured him. She had all but demolished him.

For this she is a hero, cheered by women and men, straight, bisexual, and gay; she could equally well be everybody’s sexual fantasy.

Feminists might best describe Salander as a third-waver. She often decides how she will look for shock value—punk clothes, piercings, tattoos, bizarrely cut and dyed hair. She has bisexual relationships, sex with friends in non-exclusive relationships, recreational sex. As in third-wave “girlie culture,” she revels in sexual openness, outrageous gender self-presentations, and emotional coolness. But Salander never identifies as a feminist, nor does she use her (criminally acquired) wealth or her computer skills for any institutionalized activism. Third-wave feminists fight against restrictions on procreative choice and against racism, homophobia, and economic inequalities. By contrast, Salander’s personal, physical battle is against violent, sadistic men; her political battles, where she uses her investigative and hacking abilities, are against sex trafficking and international crime. She fights alone, mostly to defend herself or to get revenge on those who have harmed her. Once or twice, she fights for others (Erika Berger, when she is being cyber-stalked, and Mikael Blomkvist, to restore his journalistic reputation). But she belongs to no movement.

Third-wave feminists created their own online media—the zines. Salander is not part of zine culture, but her Swedish girlfriends are. She herself is a member of an international group of gender ambiguous hackers—the Hacker Republic. Apolitical and anarchic, they use their skills to punish those who have wronged members of their group and their friends. They could certainly bring down a company, a police department, or an army; they could rally forces for a cause; but they almost fastidiously refrain from mass action.

The Layers of Her Life

Salander’s gender ambiguity is embedded in the different layers of her life, none of which is feminine or masculine in the conventional sense. In the present, she is an Amazon who gets breast implants. She is smart, independent, very rich by the end of the first book, sexually aggressive, physically fearless, and indomitable (you can’t kill her or bury her). She is a world-class computer hacker, extraordinarily good at chess and mathematics, and has a photographic memory. Her gender ambiguity is revealed in her femme alter ego, Irene Nesser, who has long blond hair, wears heels, sexy clothing, and padded bras bought in a transvestite shop (and later replaced with the implants). This feminine masquerade allows Salander to pass as a wealthy, conventional woman in her dealings with banks and to remain invisible to the Swedish police when she is being sought for triple murders in Played with Fire.

On the surface, the Nesser identity exudes second-wave feminism. This persona is a model of independent, assertive womanhood, with the economic assets to buy attractive clothes and travel, and the self-confidence to get men to do her bidding financially and sexually. But what about those implants? Feminists immediately pounced on this clue that the swaggering woman Salander was portraying was a façade, needing the props of false breasts, false hair, false eyelashes, expensive jewelry and clothing—all of which she dumps in the garbage when she has finished transferring her stolen money into the Nesser accounts.

But she keeps the breasts. Salander is willing to undergo cosmetic surgery to get a permanent asset of grown-up womanhood. The use of cosmetic surgery for one’s own self-esteem and self-confidence is, some second-wave feminists have argued, a legitimate part of establishing one’s identity, even if it replicates conventional norms of beauty. The third-wave version of body manipulation are tattoos and piercings, which Salander has in abundance. So breast implants are not so remarkable for her, even though they seem to count against her defiant unconventionality.

Salander’s third identity is the reverse of soignée Irene Nesser, but equally a gender performance: she sardonically parodies the punk appearance taken for real by the police and the press. To them, she is satanic, witchy, lesbian, explosive, and dangerous to respectable citizens—a member of Evil Fingers, a gang of “hard-rocking lesbian Satanists” (who were actually, in the universe of the Millenium trilogy, a popular girl rock band ten years before; Salander was on the fringes of this group).

Her punk persona is just as much a disguise as her feminine alter ego. Her court costume at her trial in the third book is a vulgar, Goth masque that reminds Blomkvist “of a vampire in some pop-art movie from the sixties”—frayed leather miniskirt, a black top with the legend I AM ANNOYED, all her tattoos and piercings showing, grey lipstick, and heavy mascara. Here she is the very exemplar of a rebellious, in-your-face third-waver. But we see her put on and take off this costume the same way she put on and took off her Irene Nesser costume, using both for specific purposes. All this is very familiar to social-construction gender feminism and performance theory. The in-joke is that the police and prosecution take this identity for “what Salander really is.”

Overlaying the lesbian Satanist portrayed by a media that regurgitates what the incompetent police feed it is Salander’s fourth identity—the violent avenger. She is an annoying wasp to predatory men, especially to her father, Alexander Zalachenko; like the women they rape and the whores they traffic in, she is someone to be snuffed out without a thought. But she can also sting them badly—tattooing the evidence that he is a rapist on her guardian Bjurman’s belly; scarring Zalachenko with the gasoline she threw at him, and then lit, when she was twelve; bludgeoning the murderous Martin Vanger with a golf club; and driving nails into her monstrous half-brother’s feet with a nail gun. Ironically, in her ruthless, violent retaliations, she is her father’s daughter, wily, paranoiac, and lawless. Her motto could be what Zalachenko says about himself: “Don’t call me crazy. I’m a survivor. I do whatever I have to do to survive.”

The immediate response from feminists, young and old, is, “Right on, sister! You got those bastards!” But should we be celebrating the violence done by a woman when we deplore the horror of men’s violence? I think this “equal-opportunity” violence is the guilty secret of Larsson’s phenomenal success. We know it is fiction, so even if it isn’t properly feminist, we exult over Salander’s successful physical battles with men twice her size. It may be a vicarious purging of the constant threat of violence that women experience from men. Not only Salander, but Harriet Vanger and Erika Berger as well, are threatened with violation by fathers, brothers, and coworkers. By taking retaliation into their own hands (Harriet pushes her father into the river, Salander burns her father and drives Harriet’s sadistic brother to suicide, and a woman bodyguard captures Erika’s harasser), women bypass the male-dominated police and justice systems and protect themselves. The readers’ satisfaction with womanly justice trumps the violent means used.

Salander’s self-protectiveness has a long history and is part of her fifth identity—as a vulnerable child. Her past has left her with a buried layer, the memory of her abused mother and her incarceration and physical and psychological abuse by Peter Teleborian, a respected psychiatrist. It surfaces with her rape and sexual violation by Bjurman, a respected lawyer. Here she is a lonely outsider with no social skills, living on the fringes of society. In many ways, this is her most real identity, the one she deals with in her sexual as well as emotional life. In radical feminism, this subterranean layer of violent physical and sexual abuse, while not experienced by all women, is the universal threat through which patriarchal men exert control. I am sure this vulnerability in Salander reverberates for women readers, especially those who grew up before second-wave feminism took hold.

The seesaw between cool and calculating sex partner (very third-wave) and vulnerable woman (much more second-wave) emerges in Salander’s sixth identity as a bisexual lover. She chooses her partners, short-term and long-term, at will—abroad, a married German businessman and a poor black teenager. In Sweden, she has had an ongoing and sexually satisfying relationship with Mimmi Wu, a lesbian into S&M, who says to her, “…you’re not really a dyke. You’re probably bisexual. But most of all you’re sexual—you like sex and you don’t care about what gender. You’re an entropic chaos factor.”

The one person who engages Salander emotionally is Mikael Blomkvist, her co-investigator in Dragon Tattoo. She seduces him and then falls in love with him, which cracks open her armor:

Not since before reaching puberty had she lowered her guard to let another person get so close as she had with him. To be quite honest, he had a trying ability to penetrate her defenses and to get her to talk about personal matters and private feelings….It frightened her and made her feel naked and vulnerable to his will.

This is the first time in her life she’s been in love, but to him, she’s still the companionable and clever sex friend of her initial self-presentation. On her way to his apartment with a Christmas present, she sees him with his long-time lover Erika Berger going in the same direction: “the pain was so immediate and so fierce that Lisbeth stopped in mid-stride, incapable of movement.” She wants to kill Berger; she dumps Blomkvist’s present in a garbage can, calls herself a “pathetic fool,” goes home, and proceeds to restore the cool and controlled gender performance she displayed earlier. Shortly after, she gives her apartment to Mimmi, goes to Italy for breast implants, and travels around the world for a year, choosing temporary sex partners at will.

But we have seen that she is thrown back to the emotional vulnerability of her childhood: “Salander’s greatest fear, which was so huge and so black that it was of phobic proportions, was that people would laugh at her feelings. And all of a sudden her carefully constructed self-confidence seemed to crumble.” The only person she talks to about her hurt feelings is her lawyer, Annika Giannini, Blomkvist’s sister, who guesses the truth because she knows her brother’s propensity for casual affairs.

At the end of Hornet’s Nest Salander is completely on her own, but beholden to many men and women. She is grateful enough to Blomkvist for saving her life and helping her regain her freedom to accept him as a friend once again, and she is openly thankful to her former boss, Dragan Armansky; her former protective guardian, Holger Palmgren; and her doctor, Anders Jonasson, who smuggled a handheld computer into her hospital room: her “knights.” But face to face, she can barely bring herself to thank Giannini, her superb lawyer, who treats her like an adult daughter in need of guidance. Salander is more the men’s daughter (including her notorious father) than the women’s—not exactly what we’d expect of a feminist hero. She has grown into independence. It’s no longer totally a performance. She seems to be more appreciative of the older women, but she’s too much aware of their vulnerability to the rampant sexism of a superficially gender-egalitarian society to want them as role models. She is thus neither an independent but caring second-wave feminist prototype like Erika Berger and Anika Giannini, nor, in her continued emotional vulnerability, does she fit the frame of a third-wave feminist.

Salander as a Third-Wave Feminist Hero

Why doesn’t Salander fit into a third-wave pantheon? Like many postmodern feminists, she distrusts established institutions, recognizing that they are for the most part still run by men for men. Salander does not fight corruption and misogyny as part of any feminist movement, but as a lone fighter against men who hate women. Salander’s “family” is her anonymous, degendered international Hacker Republic, which includes all genders, all sexualities, and all kinds of bodies.

Lisbeth Salander personifies men’s and women’s relationships and their permutations by gender, sexuality, friendship, and love. Very much of the twenty-first century, she is bisexual, independent, a moral fighter for survival and justice. Alone, she raises the trilogy above other page-turner thrillers. She is an avenger who triumphs against the violent abuse of women, but in her personality and behavior, she is a vulnerable woman. I think that makes her appealing to both women and men. She emerges more or less intact by the end of Hornet’s Nest, but except for Blomkvist, now a friend and no longer a lover, she lives and acts on her own. Are the loss of love and intimacy the price of survival? They are for Salander.

What are we admiring then? You can read the Millennium trilogy to identify with Salander’s identities and feel satisfaction at her successful physical and virtual revenges against misogynist and violent men. Lisbeth may not engage in feminist politics, but in the sense that she exemplifies bravery and defiance in the face of violence and evil, and triumph in a misogynist, patriarchal world, I think she is a feminist hero.

An expanded version of this essay will appear in Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Kick Their Ass: Feminist Perspectives on Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, edited by Donna King and Carrie Lee Smith, published by Vanderbilt University Press.

Judith Lorber is a professor emerita of sociology at the Graduate Center and Brooklyn College, CUNY.

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