The World's -- and My -- Love Affair with Lisbeth Salander

Lisbeth Salander -- a misfit -- may be the most beloved figure in the world

Posted Dec 16, 2011

Noomi Rapace, the first screen Lisbeth Salander, will be hard to beat

Lisbeth Salander is "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," the title of the first of a trilogy of novels by the late Swedish writer Stieg Larsson (they were published posthumously) that have achieved international popularity as books and movies.  Americans have bought almost nine million copies of the book so far, and it has sold 27 million copies worldwide.  The Swedish film version of the novel was the highest grossing European film of 2009, and an American version is expected to be a blockbuster when it appears in a couple of days. (I'm going to see it over Christmas!)

It is hard to encapsulate Larsson's crime novels.  Most critics agree that they are not particularly well-written.  They are noirish -- Lisbeth lives in an anonymous urbanized ghetto, and much of the action in "Tattoo" takes place in a barren Swedish countryside.  The stories combine two principal characters and points of view -- the other chief character along with Salander is journalist-investigator (like Larsson himself) Mikael Blomkvist.  Blomkvist has more social skills than Salander, but is an outsider himself, a much-maligned campaigner against corporate greed and corruption.  His main squeeze, his colleague and long-time sexual partner, is married to another man (did I mention this was a European story?).

I love Lisbeth -- an androgynous, asocial, bisexually active (I told you this was a European story, didn't I?) loner who makes a living as a computer hacker -- and, come to think, hacks in her spare time too.  I guess I'm uncertain why everyone else loves her as well as I do -- I mean, most people don't want their daughters to be bisexual (we don't even believe in that in America), antisocial outsiders who regularly break the law.  She affects the demeanor and dress of a Goth -- which Americans associate with high school kids who shoot up schools.

Director David Fincher has decided to focus more on Salander than the novels did, which veer in several directions simultaneously.  Here is his description of the character:

She's somebody with a safety pin in her cheek. It's original punk. She has created a way to be seen as trash. Part of that is a stay-away thing, and part of it is a self-conscious agreement with what everyone thinks of her. She thinks, 'I'll live with that if it means no one ever takes advantage of me.' "

As this description indicates, Lisbeth is not a happy person -- she is tortured by her past, particularly a father who abused her and her mother.  She doesn't get along well with -- doesn't really deal with -- others.  She is frustrated in her love for Blomkvist -- she simply abandons the idea of being with him by throwing a thoughtful present in the trash when she sees him with his main squeeze.  My favorite scene in the Swedish movie is when Lisbeth appears naked in Blomkvist's room to have sex, and he hesitates.  "What," she sneers in contempt for him and simultaneous self-loathing, "aren't I sexy enough?"  He screws her.

Larsson and Blomkvist and Salander hate "men who hate women" (which is the Swedish title of the novel).  The first story deals with a mass murderer of women; in the novel, Salander turns the tables -- quite sadistically in her own way -- on a state worker supposedly supervising her who is instead holding her hostage to his perverted sexual urges.  (Did I mention that this is a European tale?)  As for novelist Larsson himself, he was a revolutionary socialist who spent time in Eritrea, "training a squad of female Eritrean People's Liberation Front guerrillas in the use of grenade launchers" -- a person completely beyond the pale in America!

So why do we love Salander?  Because she is unique?  We hate people who are beyond the social pale.  Because she is an outsider?  We hate outsiders -- that's why they are outsiders.  Because she is poorly adjusted?  We avoid the maladjusted like the plague.  Because she casually breaks the law and strikes out at authority?  We fear and kowtow to authority and teach our children to do so.  Because she tortures her social worker who has abused her?  We recoil from such behavior.  Because she is totally self-contained, and has her own world?

This may get closer to the heart of our infatuation with Lisbeth Salander.  She seems to have total control of this encapsulated world (as in her hacking skills and the rewards they produce).  She puts up with nothing she doesn't want to -- which is hard to do and to live in our world.  So, we return to the question -- why do we love someone who is not psychologically successful, which is what Psychology Today blogs are dedicated to achieving?

Perhaps we love Lisbeth because she fails to meet our criteria for psychological health, and yet retains her existential being and dignity -- which gives us all hope for ourselves, even when we fail by the high standards we set for ourselves.

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P.S.  (December 19): The last two sentences of the Times review:

The story starts to fade as soon as the end credits run. But it is much harder to shake the lingering, troubling memory of an angry, elusive and curiously magnetic young woman who belongs so completely to this cynical, cybernetic and chaotic world without ever seeming to be at home in it.