My first encounter with Lisbeth Salander was a Facebook status. In case you've been under a rock for a while, Salander is the heroine of the new film based on the New York Times best-selling novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by the late Swedish author Steig Larsson. The Facebook status had a young woman reading the book, proclaiming her own likeness to Salander. My immediate reaction, though I knew nothing at that point about the book or the character, was "uh oh"— for wannabes seldom want the right be.
I didn't add Dragon to my already long reading list, but the recent release of the U.S. film adaptation offered a promising girls' night out after a long bout of end-of-semester grading. Promise delivered. The movie was entertaining, if dark and rough, but not one I'd see again. To me, the most intriguing part of the story was Salander, who apparently has ignited a new obsession among moviegoers now joining longtime fans of the books. One website has compiled a lengthy list of the contradictory descriptions of Salander—ranging from hero to anti-heroine, from interesting to terrifying—proving her to be a kind of Rorschach test of cultural icons. The trendy clothing chain H&M has even announced a new "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" line. Clearly, the character the The New Yorker touts as a new kind of heroine is catching on.
And that's a shame.
For anyone who's unfamiliar with Salander, here's the lowdown. (Note, this isn't a film review and not having read the book, I offer analysis based only on the film.) Salander is an anorexic, pierced and tattooed, 20-something cyberpunk and ward of the state (having been declared mentally incompetent) who turns her hacking skills and photographic memory into adventurous private investigation gigs. A female Byronic hero haunted by a mysterious past, Salander is targeted by prowlers of the present, including the guardian who brutally rapes her, an experience she marks with one more addition to the sundry badges of physical and emotional wounds her body bears.
The film's prolonged rape scene and that of her swift and sure revenge have earned the film criticism and the loss of potential viewers, including women I know: reading about sexual violence is very different from seeing it acted out. To me, the sex scenes in which Salander was a willing participant seemed more unnecessarily pornographic. This confirms my evaluation of Salander as less a role model for women and more the projection of a base male fantasy. Many men would be only too happy for women to emulate Lisbeth Salander.
She has the smarts and independence men increasingly expect in a post-feminist world, makes a great work partner, stitches up a bullet hole with vodka and dental floss, rides a motorcycle, initiates sex (and does girls, too), makes breakfast the morning after, brings herself to orgasm while her partner lies back and thinks about work—all the while staying (largely) emotionally unattached. She's essentially a breasted boy.
This is not to say that Salander is not an interesting and believable character worthy of redemption. She is. Her story is set in a thoroughly modern and secularized European society, one in which the Christian belief of the male protagonist's daughter stretches his liberal tolerance to its limits. Such a cultural setting—one that lacks any rootedness in religious belief and is haunted by its Nazi past—joined with Lisbeth's own personal past, haunted by ghosts of her own, makes her emotional detachment and pan-sexuality both believable and understandable. With her independence, intelligence, resourcefulness, financial savvy, and vulnerability beneath it all, Salander might even be described as a pagan Proverbs 31 woman. But this doesn't make her a heroine worth emulating.
I'm not saying Salander (or the book or the movie) should be boycotted, rallied against, or tarred and feathered. As Christians, we too often fall into the twin traps of demonization or idolization. In the case of Dragon, neither is correct. I don't propose replacing Lisbeth Salander with Elsie Dinsmore, the dreadfully saintly heroine of the 19th century children's book series. Unlike Dinsmore, there are people in the world like Salander—tough on the outside, wounded on the inside—who need neither to be put on a pedestal nor pushed away. People who need the love of Christ.
People like someone dear to me. While one young friend of mine claims a naïve and ill-founded semblance to Salander, another friend is in fact a great deal like her—and this she doesn't wannabe. For many years, I've watched this friend undergo self-injury, sexual victimization, sexual deviancy, drug addiction, institutionalization, and the occasional come-to-Jesus moment. Her likeness to Salander (particularly as played by Rooney Mara in the American film) is so uncanny, I can't help seeing in the character the friend I have tried to help.
And in seeing this—in seeing someone I love in a cultural idol—I am reminded that all around us, in the real world, real people lurk beneath exterior layers of facade. Whether those exteriors make us look more like Elsie Dinsmore or Lisbeth Salander (or, more likely, somewhere in between), they—we—are all in need of being loved and accepted for who we are, not demonized or worshiped for who we appear to be.
There's only one pedestal that anyone worthy was ever placed upon, and that pedestal wasn't comprised of a silver screen or a bestsellers list or a Facebook status, but of a mere plank and a crossbeam.