film review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire

By | August 1, 2010

Still from The Girl Who Played With FireThe Rejectionist offers a powerful and persuasive feminist critique of Stieg Larsson’s series of mysteries starring Lisbeth Salander. Actually, “critique” is probably too mild of a term; it’s more accurately a “complete smackdown.” She writes:

There are some problems with Dragon Tattoo, and let’s talk about the main one: There are a lot of dead ladies in this book. Literally: hundreds. There are other beefs I have with Dragon Tattoo, on the level of Literature: the plotting is sloppy; the sentences are decidedly unlovely; the villainous family is SO BAD they are Nazis AND serial killers (yes, plural) AND rapists (yes, plural) of their sisters/daughters/many murder victims. But the bottom line is not so much that of a Reviewer, but that of a Lady: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo creeps me the fuck out. In my gut, right there, the place that is like GET ME OUT OF HERE AND FIX ME A DRINK AND START TELLING ME ABOUT UNICORNS AND KITTENS OR SOMETHING. The novel’s original title in Swedish was Men Who Hate Women; but reading the book, you start to get the feeling it’s not a polemic so much as a manual….

People who write about dead ladies make a shit-ton of money (see: Patterson, James; Cornwell, Patricia; Koontz, Dean; &c ad nauseum). Even more people want to read about dead ladies than want to write about them; which, as a lady, stresses me out. I like murder mysteries and I like thrillers. But I am getting fucking tired of those stories revolving solely around rape and torture. Packaging that nastiness up as feminist is icing on an ugly cake. There are men who hate women: I am aware of this. Anyone who has ever tried living as a woman is aware of this. I don’t need a ten-page explicit rape scene to bring this point home; I need only to leave my house.

I have not read the novels, but I’m certain The Rejectionist’s assessment is accurate. In general, her critique holds for the film adaptation, as well: women’s mutilated bodies are paraded across the screen like cattle at the 4-H fair; women are in constant danger at the hands of men; and Lisbeth is victimized so frequently and so brutally that she seems to accept her role as victim even while she is fighting back.


Lisbeth, we learn, lives her life at the mercy of men–men who hate her, men who are simultaneously repulsed by and attracted to her, men who want to humiliate and control her. This is, as The Rejectionist points out, not an uncommon theme in the real world, either; men who hate women exist, and they exist in great number; and they will, if given the chance, wield their hatred against any woman they can. This is simply a fact of life for Lisbeth, and has been since her childhood. And yet–this is the important part, so pay attention–and yet she forges a life of her own choosing anyway.

Lisbeth has been declared mentally incompetent, which means she is given a guardian who has the legal right to make all decisions for her. Lisbeth’s guardians are men; and in the opening scenes of Dragon Tattoo we learn that her newest guardian does, indeed, hate women. He immediately demonstrates that she is at his mercy by taking total control of her finances and declaring that he will give her a small allowance for living expenses. Yet she finds a way–watch the movie to find out how–to take back some control, to gain access to her finances, which to her, equates to her (relative) freedom.

Lisbeth is commonly physically attacked by men, who see her as an easy victim because she is small and looks vulnerable. She simultaneously accepts her victimization as a fact of her life and resists her victimization, not only physically fighting back but throwing up the very landscape of her body as a carefully guarded terrain. She wears black; she has pierced her face; she holds her lips pinched closed. Men who hate women may very well invade, but they will know that they are not welcome; and if they invade she will resist with every last inch of herself.

Lisbeth is a woman who is at the mercy of men who hate women, and yet without breaking free completely of these men–that would be unrealistic–she finds a way to craft an independent life, to make choices about how to live, to extend the walls of her cage. That may not be the kind of feminism that makes us feel good–it may leaves us wanting to wash our eyes out with mouthwash–but to refuse to call it empowerment is to refuse to acknowledge the empowerment tactics of millions of women for whom men who hate women and also have total control over women is a constant, inescapable fact.

There you have it: the film adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo offers a complicated example of a sort of shadow feminism.

I do not feel the same about the sequel, The Girl Who Played With Fire.

cover art for The Girl Who Played With FireIn this film, the hero Lisbeth Salander, whose very body is a fortress designed to turn away men who hate women…well, in this film, the body of Lisbeth Salander is offered up for the camera to devour with its emphatically male gaze. In her first appearance in the film, Lisbeth is naked with her back turned to the camera. The camera takes the opportunity to travel down her dragon tattoo-decorated back, over her tan lines and down her backside before heading back up again. There’s a sex scene early on which pairs Lisbeth up with a hot Asian chick; the scene is dutifully recorded in minute detail by the voyeuristic camera, which hovers to one side like a guy just waiting for his chance to jump in.

This sort of thing peppers the movie, breaking up the lengthy graphic scenes in which women are brutalized by men until they are rescued by other men. And then, of course, there is the half-hearted attempt at social commentary, with a plotline about journalists investigating a sex trafficking story in which girls and young women are sold into slavery and subjected to the whims of–you guessed it–men who hate women. The young reporter who breaks the story explains that these girls can’t hope for protection from the law because “they’re just not a priority.”

When the police start poking around, the journalists decide not to hand over their research because, as the editor Mikael Blomqvist explains, the lives of the young women may be placed in danger, and they must be protected at all costs. It’s a nice gesture, but sort of contradicted by the fact that as soon as this plot point serves its purpose (which is to put Lisbeth in danger at the hands of even more powerful men who hate women), the plight of the trafficked young women is completely dropped, never to appear again. It’s almost as if they’re just not a priority to the producers of this film.

Who cares, right? It’s just a movie. It’s just entertainment. Feminists need to loosen up, right? Why does it even matter?

I saw The Girl Who Played With Fire with five friends whose physical appearances announce, more or less, that they will not be at the mercy of any man, thank you very much, least of all men who hate women. We’re talking shaved heads. We’re talking tattoos. We’re talking long strides taken in comfortable shoes.

As I walked with my friends to our seats, I saw a young man watching us. After we passed his row, I watched him lean over to his girlfriend, whisper in her ear, and point to us.

“How do you know what he was saying to her?” one of my friends asked when I told them later about this dude. I know; I just know. I could tell by how he was watching us. I could tell by the dickish little smile pasted across his smug little face.

And that’s why it matters.

3 thoughts on “film review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire

  1. Aaron Brown

    Note that I haven’t read any of the books or seen any of the

    > my ladybusiness take

    >> The novel’s original title in Swedish was Men Who Hate
    >> Women

    I didn’t know that!

    > men who want to humiliate and control her

    I didn’t unequivocally like the movie *True Romance* (it was
    too violent and dark for my taste) but there’s a scene where
    Patricia Arquette’s character kills someone (who Wikipedia
    tells me was played by James Gandolfini) and I found this
    scene just beautiful. It was as though she was taking
    revenge simultaneously on him and all the other men
    throughout her life who’ve treated her like shit.

    > the body of Lisbeth Salander is offered up for the camera
    > to devour with its emphatically male gaze

    Can you tell just by watching the movie that the camera is
    looking at her in a male way? If so, how? I’m sorry if
    these seem like rhetorical questions, but they are sincere.

  2. Jenna McWilliams Post author

    Thanks for your comment!

    The notion of the male gaze in cinema was first identified by Laura Mulvey in a 1975 piece, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (available at Typically, the male gaze is characterized by the fragmentation of the female body (by showing a close-up of, for example, a woman’s backside or legs or breasts and so on); a sort of voyeuristic examination of the entire female body (camera slides up and down the body of a woman, while the woman is oblivious to this examination); and, importantly, the objectification of the female body and subjectification of male characters. Male characters are often shown gazing at women, and the camera depicts this gaze by doing some or all of the things I noted above; but the opposite (a woman objectifying a man) is rarely to never seen, and is generally not treated as erotic in the same sense.

    I should also note that simply reversing the roles–depicting a woman objectifying a man and using the camera to pan across or fragment the man’s body–does not resolve the problem of the male gaze. The act of fragmenting and objectifying is a gendered behavior, and the solution in my view is not to reverse the roles but to find other strategies for showing on film an appreciation of the human form.

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