Steig Larsson: Feminist?

Steig Larsson: Feminist?

A while back I read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and hated it. I bailed on it halfway through. (I bailed right after the scene with the parakeet. 'Nuff said.)

I was genuinely confused as to why people kept calling this a feminist classic. How could it be? It was filled with violence towards women. Every woman who wasn't being brutalized was busy getting it on with the protagonist, who seemed to be a pretty obvious Mary Sue for the author himself.

Granted, Lizbeth eventually got revenge against her abuser. Well, one of them. But how is that feminist when it comes at the very end? And aren't there better ways for her to have resolved her situation than staging an elaborate revenge/blackmail plot (which required her to submit to being brutally raped)?

Then last week I read an article about Larsson's partner, and some of this was made clear to me. It turns out that when Larsson was 15, he watched a young woman being gang-raped, and he hated himself forever after for not doing more to stop it. That woman's name was Lisbeth, which is the name he gave to his female protagonist in the Millennium series.

Larsson wrote his books the way he did because he wanted to goad the audience into caring. He wanted to break that wall of apathy, and make people realize how bad things can get for women. (And, secondarily, he wanted to write Lisbeth a better ending than the one she received in real life.)

But where is the line between "making a point" and "lurid exploitation"? What distinguishes Larsson's books from any of a thousand of other crime novels which enact unspeakable violence upon their female characters simply because the plot demands it?

I'm put in mind of a series of books that was quite popular in the 1980s when I was a teen. These books were ostensibly autobiographies of young people who had Gone Off The Rails. Each of them started out as a model young citizen (like you!). But then they turned into bank robbers, drug addicts, underage prostitutes, and so forth. It was lurid as hell, and we read them eagerly.

At the end, the kid turns to God, straightens up, and finds the one true way.

We always skipped that part.

The lurid stuff was in service of a greater message (which we ignored). How is that different from Larsson's books?

Call it the Contradiction of the Freak Show. It doesn't matter how much TLC claims to be promoting the cause of human understanding and bringing knowledge to the masses. When you get right down to it, we're only watching "Hoarders" because it's titillating.

It's one thing when your message goes wrong. It's quite another when you take a straight-up presentation of lurid entertainment and dress it up with empathetic trappings. This allows you to both pander to the crowd AND look like the self-righteous hero.

Having learned a little more about Steig Larsson, I truly believe he wrote his books with the best of intentions. It's just a pity that they come off so poorly.