In the 2009 film adaptation of the Stiegg Larsson novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the character of Lisbeth Salander is an enigmatic, aggressive, yet troubled girl who rebels against tremendous oppression subjected to her by the government and corporations. The film is a very interesting and fascinating example of radical feminism, as evidenced through Lisbeth Salander and the things that happen to her and the other female characters in the film (Harriet, namely).
Radical feminism showcases a society in which women are oppressed primarily by men. The patriarchy is a male-dominated society that seeks to take advantage of women whenever possible; while it is not a wholly oppressive society, it merely examines the dominance of men over women in society. Control is exerted by men over women in order to get what they want, whether it be to disenfranchise women and keep them from positions of power or prestige, or to gain their own sexual satisfaction, regardless of consent. Rebelling against the patriarchy is thought to be the only way to allow everyone to have equality in this society (James, 2004).
The tenets of radical feminism are very much present in the character of Lisbeth Salander, played by Noomi Rapace. Already a clear counterculturist from her appearance (which includes white makeup with black lipstick, long punk-style black hair, black leather jacket and combat boots, and her many face and ear piercings), she seeks to separate herself from the society in which she is oppressed. She is an intelligent computer hacker, and also very swift and quick on her feet, willing to fight for her rights and personhood. The system, represented all by men, serve to financially, sexually and emotionally disenfranchise her, and it is only with the help of someone else oppressed by the government system that she can truly take what is hers.
One of the clearest narrative threads for Lisbeth happens early in the movie, when her guardian has a stroke and is replaced with the lawyer Nils. This individual, despite Lisbeth’s apparent financial stability and responsibility with her finances, transfers her finances to his direct control, offering her no real economic agency. Instead, this is a means to exert power over her; as a sadist, he extorts sexual favors from her in exchange for the release of certain funds, though they are never the amount they agree to. The whole time, Lisbeth is brutally traumatized and tortured, as Nils ties her up and rapes her brutally one night in his apartment. This scene is meant to showcase the extremes to which men act around her; presumably, because of her extreme behavior and her ‘outsider’ persona, there is the attitude by men that they need to ‘straighten her out.’ This is evidence of the radical feminist outlook that most men are merely out to take advantage of her; despite the presence of good men, like Mikael Blomkvist and the computer hacker she borrows a PC from, the majority of men metaphorically and literally rape her.
As a defense mechanism, Lisbeth, like many disenfranchised women are intended to do under radical feminism, strikes back, with her torture of Nils by stripping him naked, sodomizing him with a dildo, and blackmailing him to release her finances lest she release a tape of her rape to the authorities. The male gaze is somewhat revealed in this scene; here it is Nils who is stripped naked, which is viewed as horrific. However, in the previous scene, and all others in which Lisbeth appears naked, she is seen as an object of desire. Lisbeth’s presence as a real protagonist, instead of strictly a love interest for the protagonist, allows her character to transcend such limited boundaries and become more than an image (Mulvey, 1975).
The presence of an implicit lesbian lover in Lisbeth’s bed during the scene in which Mikael seeks her help is possibly meant to stimulate the male gaze; while it also showcases Lisbeth’s sexually liberated attitude (perhaps as a response to continued male dominance and oppression), from a metafictional point of view it offers the possibility of lesbian sex between two attractive women. Since lesbian sex is often fetishized in male sexual culture, this can be seen as somewhat exploitative in this context.
The radical feminist approach of a patriarchy oppressing women is not limited to Lisbeth. The conclusion of the film, in which it is revealed that Harriet was continually raped by her killer (her brother Martin) and his father, shows yet another woman who is ruined by men. At the same time, she manages to escape her fate and live somewhere else as her dead sister.
The female characters (and some of the males) in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo all seek to find justice and agency in a world that constantly oppresses them in many different ways. From the corporate world of the Vanger corporation to the Swiss government itself, Lisbeth Salander must continually struggle to escape from the patriarchy. Her unconventional behavior is a bit of a smokescreen that she uses to keep the world of men at bay, and her actions as a coputer hacker seek to unravel the patriarchal system that has done so much to her. In the end, she manages to get her compensation for all of these unfortunate circumstances, and uses her own considerable abilities to do it, proving herself as a person and as a woman.
Oplev, N. A. (Director). (2009). The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo [Motion picture]. Sweden: Yellow Bird.
James, S. (2004). Sex, Race and Class. Autonomy and Solidarity. Retrieved 7 July 2007.
Mulvey, Laura. (1992). “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (pp. 746-757). Leo Braudy & Marshall Cohen Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, 4th Ed. New York: Oxford University Press.