“Don’t ever fight with Lisbeth Salander. Her attitude towards the rest of the world is that if someone threatens her with a gun, she’ll get a bigger gun.”
Stieg Larsson, The Girl that Played with Fire (2006)
So, in the Violent Lesbian world: if Villanelle from Killing Eve represents the contemporary fictional psycho-killer and Aileen Wuornos represents the real-life female serial killer: in other words, between the fictional and the real, and the fantasy stories that are played out therein, where does Lisbeth Salander stand?
I’ve been fascinated by the Millenium trilogy since 2009 or 2010 when I binge-read Steig Larsson’s novels and then watched the fantastic Swedish films in the cinema one by one as they came out. I think they are the best book to film adaptations ever made and Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth is iconic. The American remakes appear completely pathetic in comparison (including the awful-looking Girl in the Spider’s Web which is coming out soon, which I’ll probably still go see to get my Lisbeth fix).
I think that simply being a Swedish work as opposed to American origin makes the series and Lisbeth much more nuanced and complex, as she is from a world that is at once alien in language and culture, but still influenced by Western medias. She is of course inescapably embedded in the violent lesbian cliche but she moves so far beyond it, expanding the tired narratives into the future.
Lisbeth as a character is intriguing because the violence she commits is in perfect balance with the violence committed against her. She is equally victim and criminal; though she is vindicated by a sustained argument in her defence throughout the novels, she remains unforgivable by wider society, never to be celebrated or truly accepted. She is active, never passive, working tirelessly to strengthen her own agency, fighting against the structures and systems that rob her of her autonomy.
As a ‘mentally deranged’, queer, penniless, friendless young woman, fresh from an institution for the criminally insane, she occupies a vulnerable and marginalised position in society, but despite her apparent powerlessness she uses every tool she has at her disposal to enact revenge and win freedom. She is abused by her father, raped by her legal guardian, attacked by men in the street, controlled by financial and employment restrictions; in response she uses her intelligence, fitness and psychological strength to resist her oppression. Only her oppression though; she is completely unconcerned with the wider society that failed her, aiming solely for her own personal satisfaction (understandably). Her actions makes for an empathetic and compelling underdog character, despite her closed, antisocial persona.
In many ways Lisbeth exemplifies what Ann Jones talks about in Women Who Kill when examining the contexts of real-life female-perpetrated crimes: the only women that are driven to extreme violence do so because they are the most marginalised, vulnerable and hopeless individuals, and because they have been rejected by society in terms of support or education, they can only react destructively, to defend themselves but also often against their own interests. I started to discuss this in relation to Aileen Wuornos. Lisbeth’s actions ring true in this frame because she is only out for herself, to defend herself and win her freedom, and often this has precarious results or damages her in the long term; though she has few other options.
My favourite scene in the books and films is Lisbeth’s trial at the end of the trilogy, the climactic scene, where the forces of the narrative face off in a fictional courtroom: on one side, the State’s prosecution lawyer and dodgy psychiatrist star witness, attempting to imprison Lisbeth for the rest of her life for trying to kill her father twice; on the other side, Lisbeth, her pregnant defence lawyer and loyal friends, who argue that she has been the victim of a systematic social failure and a government conspiracy designed to silence her. The prosecution lawyers use classic tabloid techniques to poison the jury and community against her: they attack her Goth style, her tattoos and piercings, her lesbian relationship, her isolation to portray a deranged psychotic killer who needs to be locked up. All these points are very satisfyingly destroyed by the defence, and Lisbeth eventually wins her freedom, though at some cost. The duality between powerful and powerless, institution and individual, rich and poor, self and other, male and female is crystal clear.
I guess that for me, Lisbeth’s lesbianism works in harmony with her ‘other’ status, as someone who exists outside of normal living and relationships, and with her spiky, Gothic armour. It doesn’t feel contrived; and her violence doesn’t seem contrived either. She does fall in love with Michael Blomkvist, but I find this plot point realistic as it is a love that is driven by trust, friendship and respect; love naturally develops from these starting points, outside of gender, and her doomed foray into a more conventional relationship is poignant. Could Lisbeth be the impossible – a fictional individual whose violence and sexuality are equal parts in a larger character of complicated history, trauma and abilities? A character whose violence and sexuality are not caricatured to reflect familiar cliches, but both make sense in the wider picture of an autonomous, ambiguous life?
Perhaps it’s ridiculous to fixate on a fictional character as if she was real, or actively contributing to this discourse; undoubtedly, Lisbeth’s story is fantastical, implausible and constructed to achieve certain polemical aims. But I think every living person, especially a person such as Aileen Wuornos, is already heavily fictionalised; we hear stories of others, dead or alive, that have been distorted and adapted by so many conflicting voices to fit varying agendas, that the reality is irrelevant; the story is key. So I think Lisbeth Salander can contribute a huge amount to perceptions about violence, sexuality and gender in our cultural fantasies and shared narratives; and she opens up a bit more room, with a story that only gets more relevant every year.
(Last rant: It’s incredibly important to remember the original Swedish title of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is translated as Men Who Hate Women. I’ve always felt not enough attention was paid to the courage of the original title and instead in English we get rubbish like ‘The Girl Who did this or that’ which go some way to infantilise or patronise an incredible character.)