The heroine of Stieg Larsson’s Nordic noir picks up where Hedda Gabler, Nora Helmer, and Miss Julie leave off. The notoriously strong, complex female characters of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen and Swede August Strindberg are, like Lisbeth, victims of their male-dominated society—Lisbeth of the Swedish welfare state that entrusts women to men’s “better” judgment. But she doesn’t kill herself, doesn’t slam the door on a secure life only to face an unimaginable future. She fights.
Lisbeth is particularly sweet to me, I think, because of my Scandinavian heritage. More important, I hail from the state that coined the phrase “Minnesota nice”—a double-edged sword if there ever was one. Even when it’s applied to genuinely courteous, community-minded, non-confrontational people, it can be offensive, suggesting semi-idiotic cuteness. (Garrison Keillor, I’m talking to you.) And it can also be applied to those who only pretend to be nice.
Lisbeth never pretends. And, despite loving moments, she’s never nice. Consistently condescended to by middle-aged men, including Mikhail at first, she pointedly fails to get that she’s supposed to play a subservient and pleasing role. The most she’ll do is go along to get along—and even that has disastrous consequences. It’s as if Larsson is waging war on niceness, particularly in a crucial scene where Mikhail decides to maintain rather than breach a façade of politeness.
Yet Lisbeth’s lack of social skills—to put her “condition” in a mild Minnesotan way—has often been seen as pathological. In the books, Mikhail suggests she has Asperger’s, the syndrome marked by an acute inability to read social cues or respond to them appropriately. Others have called her a sociopath.
So how come nobody pathologizes or belittles the righteous avengers of Clint Eastwood movies? Instead they’re celebrated as thrilling exemplars of our frontier mentality.
To me Lisbeth is thrilling too. She’s the anti-Bimbo, the perfect antidote to Fincher’s previous directorial effort, The Social Network, where every woman was pretty and/or crazy—and utterly replaceable. (Notably, Rooney Mara played the only female onscreen with a brain, the Harvard girl who dumped Zuckerberg in the opening scene.)
Oddly—or not—Ibsen and Larsson were both driven to create their female revenge dramas by the real-life victimization of women. Ibsen had a writer friend, Laura Kieler, who—like Nora in A Doll’s House—forged a bank note to aid her ailing husband. When Kieler’s husband found out, he took their children away from her, threatened divorce, and put her in an asylum. The two reconciled, at his suggestion, when she was released. In Ibsen’s story, Nora doesn’t let Torvald take the initiative. She walks out the door.
Larsson had a much more violent experience of the oppression of women. As he reportedly told common-law wife Eva Gabrielsson, he witnessed a gang rape at 15 that haunted him for his remaining 35 years. He also told Gabrielsson, “To exact revenge for yourself and your friends is not only a right, it’s an absolute duty.”
Exact revenge Larsson does—and through a take-no-prisoners female character who looks as haunted as he must have felt. The novel may be pulpy, and the film may resort to telegraphing the wide-ranging plot. But together Larsson, Fincher, and Mara have given women a memorable new warrior heroine and a fantasy to relish, even if most of us wouldn’t dream of actually branding our sexist pigs.