Girls on Film: Softening and Sexualizing Lisbeth Salander

Girls on Film: Softening and Sexualizing Lisbeth Salander

Dec 22, 2011

Girls on Film is a weekly column that tackles anything and everything pertaining to women and cinema. It can be found here every Thursday night, and be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter Feed for additional femme-con.


Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander against snowy backdrop

The casting for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s Lisbeth Salander was a long and arduous fight for Rooney Mara. She didn’t have the same clout as the big-name actresses circling the role. David Fincher himself wasn’t sure that she was right. Telling off Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network wasn’t enough; the actress had to battle through a series of auditions and prove to the filmmaker that she was right for the role – that she was prepared for the challenging scenes she would have to partake in.

Now Mara’s Americanized Salander is hitting theaters and grabbing rave reviews from American critics enamored with the character’s evolution into a more relatable and tough heroine. But is it really a better, or equally powerful performance? Or, more precisely – since the new Lisbeth Salander is not just a creation of Mara’s, but of director Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillian – does the American characterization of Salander really invoke the spirit of Larsson’s creation, or does it fall prey to the pitfalls that plague Hollywood’s artistic output?

Stieg Larsson and ‘Men Who Hate Women’

Swedish-born Stieg Larsson (1954-2004) was a man of many hats, including activist, writer, and journalist. He fought against right-wing extremism, racism, and sexism, leading him to create the story of Mikael Blomkvist (intrepid, moral journalist) and Lisbeth Salander (fierce victim of sexist men). But it wasn’t only politics that inspired Larsson.

As Kurdo Baski revealed in 2010, Larsson was haunted by a dark memory. In the summer of 1969, when he was camping with friends at the age of fifteen, he saw three of his friends rape a girl he knew. Her name was Lisbeth. “Her screams were heartrending, but he didn’t intervene. His loyalty to his friends was too strong. He was too young, too insecure. It was inevitable that he would realize afterwards that he could have acted and possibly prevented the rape.”

Larsson was haunted by his failure to act, inspiring the creation of Lisbeth Salander – the woman who survives in spite of men’s inadequacies. He was also fueled by the continual, perpetual violence against women, such as the 2001 murders of Melissa Nordell (a model murdered by her boyfriend for breaking up with him) and Fadime Sahindal (a Swedish-Kurdish woman murdered by her father because she wanted to lead her own life), and Sweden’s polarizing, unsolved murder and mutilation of prostitute Catrine da Costa in the ‘80s. Larsson told his friend: “There’s no such thing as soft or hard oppression of women: men want to own women, they want to control women, they are afraid of women. Men hate women.” He, therefore, refused to change the title of the first novel – Men Who Hate Women – though translated texts and films didn’t follow suit. These books were his way of responding and dealing with all of the imbalance and injustice he saw in the world.

The Millennium Trilogy

Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth SalanderIn 2008, four years after the author’s death, Danish filmmaker Niels Arden Oplev teamed up with Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist to bring the world of Salander and Blomkvist to life. With Oplev in charge of the first, and director Daniel Alfredson stepping in for the second and third parts, the story was outlined in three long television miniseries subsequently cut into smaller feature films.

Though the adaptation made some changes, Lisbeth Salander remained the same – a strong and solitary woman almost universally mistreated by those near her, a woman with a photographic memory who can never forget the terrible things she sees and experiences. Violence against women infuses every part of her life; it defines her existence as well as the world that revolves around her: “By the time she was eighteen, Salander did not know a single girl who at some point had not been forced to perform some sort of sexual act against her will. … In her world, this was the natural order of things. As a girl she was legal prey, especially if she was dressed in a worn black leather jacket and had pierced eyebrows, tattoos, and zero social status.”

Lisbeth is cold, distant, and presumably autistic, though we’ll never know because she doesn’t trust shrinks, cops, or any authority figure. At the same time, she has the ability, as Larsson described it, to “get under the skin of the person she was investigating.” Lisbeth is alien in her looks and action (“a foreign creature” as described in the novels) due to how she’s been treated, but she’s also human.

In a video interview on the extended version discs (a must-buy for fans and those curious about who Salander is) Rapace talks about merging Lisbeth with herself, allowing her to completely and utterly understand and embody Lisbeth. Her Salander has a rigid gaze, a silent face that speaks to her discomfort and the chinks in her armor that reveal a woman in crisis. Rapace warped her body to look more masculine, to appear like the slight, easily misjudged Salander. She’s sexual, but not sexualized; she has vulnerabilities without being vulnerable; she cares for people without ever seeming warm or romantic. She’s an enigma to the modern moviegoer, and we’re the better for the challenge of knowing her, the challenge of not understanding her.

Pre-Fincher Press

The first teaser poster for Mara’s Americanized Lisbeth showed Daniel Craig’s Mikael holding her half-naked form close, protecting her as she held onto him. This one image immediately coded him as the troubled girl’s tough protector. Her image was further tarnished by the R-rated version full of bare breasts and sexual intrigue. Lisbeth became the objectified and sexualized heroine, the goth punk Bond girl saved by 007 himself.

Sadly, the leads didn’t see the problem. Daniel Craig liked it because Mara “looks great. I think it sort of really illustrates the two characters in the movie very well.” Then Mara defended it, asserting that “people have a hard time with strong females and with nudity. … It’s just a teaser poster. I think it did just that. It teased people.” Now Lisbeth was a sexual tease, and it was okay because she looked good doing it.

Rapace’s fully clothed Salander was replaced with Mara’s sexy Lisbeth – baring her cleavage for the camera, baring her ass for a tattoo, standing in front of a wintry landscape topless, straddling a bike in underwear and tights, or posing in a tutu. (All can be seen in Movies.com’s Image Gallery.) The woman fighting against objectification had become a sexual commodity to the public at large. Eventually, the marketing material changed focus, but it was too late – Salander was already made into the sex object. She had become another female ass-kicker swathed in sexy, revealing clothing, balancing tough smarts with alluring sexiness.

Dragon Tattoo Teaser Posters

David Fincher’s ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’

If Larsson’s books didn’t exist, if there was never a Swedish version and no one knew who Lisbeth Salander was, Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo would be a great bridge to something more. It mixes typical female characterizations with a harsh toughness that begins to break out of that rigid mold. As it stands, however, Fincher and Mara’s Lisbeth must co-exist with Larsson’s creation and Rapace’s apt portrayal.

There are improvements. Mara embodies Larsson’s Whedonesque vision of an ass-kicker you’d discount because of her appearance. She certainly has “doll-like, almost delicate limbs, small hands, and hardly any hips.” You’d be more surprised by Mara showing physical prowess than the muscular Rapace (though that musculature certainly helped the Swedish actress look more “boyish”). Mara’s Salander gets more to do on-screen. We see her work more, and we see how she’s an outsider at work. There is also a nice forcefulness to her words that shows the strength behind her slightness.

But Mara’s Lisbeth is an entirely different woman, and while some differences are welcome between interpretations, it’s chilling to see what Fincher and Co. changed. A tar-filled opening credit sequence is a metaphor for the inner Salander, giving her a muddled and messy inner persona rather than the meticulous, photographic mind she has, one that solves complex math theorems and mysteries. Fincher removes the suffocating, repetitive sense that Lisbeth is prey. Bjurman starts off warm and seemingly logical. In comparison, Lisbeth appears like a rude, antisocial child spurning honest help. Mara’s version snarls before he gives her reason to. When she then gets attacked in the subway, it’s not a physical, sexual attack; one man merely steals her bag.

This is a subtle but important difference. Rapace reacts rather than instigates. There’s an unwritten understanding that she can’t go to the police. We see that her moments of self-defense are always misjudged. Her “helpers” abuse her. We see how the outside treats her as the sexual prey Larsson outlined.

Mara’s Lisbeth is seen through a Hollywood filter. She’s sexy, tough, in-your-face, always belligerent, and childishly snarky. Instead of t-shirts about aliens and Armageddon, hers are laden with cheap, Hot Topic-esque f-bombs. In one moment when Lisbeth wears a disguise, Fincher has her strip down to her expensive and revealing underwear. We watch her walk around like a Hollywood bombshell from the neck down, rather than a troubled girl so uncomfortable in her skin after years of abuse that “what she saw in the mirror was a thin, tattooed girl in grotesque underwear.” The Lisbeth who saw “her skinny body as repulsive,” but still had “the same desires and sex drive as every other woman” has become the modern femme fatale.

Lisbeth and Mikael in Dragon Tattoo

Larsson’s Salander is not a lesbian (as some viewers have seen her) set “straight” by Blomkvist’s manly ways. She commands her sexual encounters because she can’t bring herself to be vulnerable. She has learned to always have control, yet Fincher has Blomkvist quickly flip her over during sex and take command, as if Lisbeth is ready for a father figure, partner, and savior. When they later have sweet sex in grand romantic tradition, she becomes a romantic figure who softens as she takes on an older man of guidance.

In a pivotal moment in the book, Lisbeth says: “I’m going to take him” and runs off as Blomkvist tries “to shout to her to wait.” In Fincher’s film, she asks him for permission, and only acts with his blessing. Perhaps we can accept the changes in how Mara presents Salander. But it’s unacceptable to take a woman made into a phenomenon because of her solitary strength and particular moral compass and drive, and turn her into a romantic girl saved and guided by a man.

The final scene of the film sledgehammers this idea home if the rest of the subtle and obvious changes to Salander do not. Both end on the same note, but it means wildly different things on the page and screen. On the page, there’s an air of miscommunication – the reader can see both side’s motivations for what arises and how it’s all a sad comedy of errors. On screen, every sexy, romantic addition makes the final moments all about villains and victimization, especially when matched with a whimsical, child-like score. Lisbeth loses her agency.

The Critical Reaction

The critics have noticed the change, their comments reframing the appeal of Salander. Studying over 100 reviews seen on Rotten Tomatoes and elsewhere, almost every film critic that mentions Mara’s portrayal and Lisbeth as a character misunderstands her. “Vulnerable” comes up time and time again, as does “soft.” Eight even describe Lisbeth as feral, as if she’s an animal needing to be tamed by Blomkvist. As our Erik Davis summed it up: “she will turn you on and kick you in the face at the same time.”

The sex, the softness, the widely un-Salander comments continue through most reviews. Wesley Morris notes her “sense of decorum” and calls her a “doll of danger,” and “both a feminist fantasy and a male fantasy.” Anne Hornaday calls Mara’s Lisbeth a “fierce, brooding creature whose feral intensity proves as alluring as it is menacing.” Rene Rodriguez calls her a “vulnerable, almost child-like person,” while Gary Thompson believes that she “craves a father figure.” She’s seen as a “knockout,” “the epitome of cool,” “flashier” yet “diminutive,” “desperately fragile,” an “alluring outcast,” “more nude” and able to “warm up” and give off a “ripely kinky, menacing glow;” she’s “a woman enough for the guys, as you’ll see when she bares all.” Mark Rabinowitz thinks he’s “in love” with her.

Mikael and Lisbeth are often referred to as a couple or romantic pair. As Andrew O’Hehir summarizes, “Mara’s Lisbeth is voluptuous, spectacular nude, and Blomkvist literally can’t believe his good luck.” Damon Wise calls the film more about “broken hearts than broken people.” Brian Orndorf describes her progression as a character who “thaws,” and he’s “triumphantly sold through Mara’s warm-blooded sexual forwardness.” To David Germain, Blomkvist is the “anchor” Lisbeth “revolves like a demon” to have what Peter Keough calls “the hottest sex scene of the year,” though some, like Joe Lozito, luckily note that “she’s far too quick to play house with Blomkvist” in a relationship “reduced to the worst kind of pillow talk.”

Dragon Tattoo Swedish opening sequence

Conclusion

Fincher’s Lisbeth is not Larsson’s. She is sexualized, softened, romanticized, and less empowered. Whether he intended this or not, it’s what countless critics see in the film; they don’t mind it – in fact most like it – but they’ve recognized it and have written about it.

There seems to be a relief that Mara’s Salander is a more relatable person, that classic “female” tropes like softness and vulnerability are visible. It speaks to society’s overwhelming discomfort with the unclassifiable, whether it’s a person’s sexuality, a terrible people who does good things, or the motivations of a young woman who has been horrifically mistreated, mentally and physically, for decades.

Yet the entire point is that Lisbeth doesn’t seem real to the regular Joe or Jane walking down the street. Even those closest to her don’t truly understand her. She’s got the double-whammy of an autistic mind and a hellish life with experiences we can’t begin to fathom. We’re not supposed to understand her, or lust after her. As A. O. Scott noted in his review: “We see all of Ms. Mara and quite a bit less of Mr. Craig, whose naked torso is by now an eyeful of old news. This disparity is perfectly conventional – the exploitation of female nudity is an axiom of modern cinema – but it also represents a failure of nerve and a betrayal of the sexual egalitarianism Lisbeth Salander argues for and represents.”

And if nothing else, any portrayal of Lisbeth Salander shouldn’t inspire the following words: 

“The film was not made by men who hate women, but certainly by men who are more comfortable with women as love interests for male heroes” (Lozito).

Categories: Features, In Theaters
blog comments powered by Disqus
Advertisement

Facebook on Movies.com

The Burning Question

In the movie Rob the Mob, what is the name of the character played by Michael Rispoli

  • Dusty (Mullet Lady at Bar)
  • Maurice
  • Felicia
  • Sal
Get Answer Get New Question

Sal