Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Gender Ambiguity of Lisbeth Salander: Third-Wave Feminist Hero? [Dissent Magazine]

by Judith Lorber


STIEG LARSSON’S Millennium trilogy describes a series of crimes that involve the violent abuse of women, and it also exposes not-so-fictional Swedish corporate and state crimes. But the novels are named, in English, for Lisbeth Salander, the “girl who,” and the second and third books in the trilogy in particular, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, are her story. Salander seems to be the source of the trilogy’s popularity. But why is she so interesting? I think that it’s her gender ambiguity that pulls in different readers, women and men, young and old. I don’t mean an androgyny of masculine and feminine traits, but a mix of attributes within her identity as a woman. She is both victim and avenger, abused child and iconoclastic rebel, punky teen in appearance and competent woman in behavior. 

Feminists might best describe Salander as a third-waver. She often decides how she will look for shock value—punk clothes, piercings, tattoos, bizarrely cut and dyed hair. She has bisexual relationships, sex with friends in non-exclusive relationships, recreational sex. As in third-wave “girlie culture,” she revels in sexual openness, outrageous gender self-presentations, and emotional coolness. But Salander never identifies as a feminist, nor does she use her (criminally acquired) wealth or her computer skills for any institutionalized activism. Third-wave feminists fight against restrictions on procreative choice and against racism, homophobia, and economic inequalities. By contrast, Salander’s personal, physical battle is against violent, sadistic men; her political battles, where she uses her investigative and hacking abilities, are against sex trafficking and international crime. She fights alone, mostly to defend herself or to get revenge on those who have harmed her. Once or twice, she fights for others (Erika Berger, when she is being cyber-stalked, and Mikael Blomkvist, to restore his journalistic reputation). But she belongs to no movement.

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