In October and November, the UMKC Women’s Center hosted two discussions on Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest). For a description of those discussions, see Arzie Umali’s post on the Women’s Center blog.
What I want to write about here is the conversation that we had about the last book, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Folks who loved the “kickass” Lisbeth of the first two books were unhappy with her lack of action in the third book (for those who don’t know, Lisbeth spends most of her time in the third book confined to a hospital bed followed by a stint in prison while awaiting trial). In particular, the thought that she is forced to depend on men for her survival was found irritating by many at the discussion. At the time, I pointed out that there are also plenty of strong women in the book who are responsible for helping out Lisbeth, so we don’t need to see her as dependent solely on men.
As I continued to think about it, however, it occurred to me that Lisbeth’s forced vulnerability is precisely the point and can, in fact, be viewed as a positive and even feminist development. What happens to Lisbeth in the third book is that her confinement forces her to learn how to trust and depend on other people (something she has avoided for most of her life thanks to abuse at the hands of the people she should be able to trust — her family, doctors, the Swedish authorities, etc.) — and this is what I find significant. It was feminism, after all, that pushed for society to value communal bonds and to recognize that no individual can do things alone. Lisbeth’s acting in a traditionally “male” manner in the first two books is precisely what gets her into trouble, as it is her decision to go off alone to find her father that gets her almost killed and lands her in the hospital, where she finally learns how to trust again. That Larsson surrounds her with strong female characters (her lawyer, the police officer, Erika Berger, and the detective who works for Armansky) in addition to the men who help her is, to me, just icing on the cake.
This is not to say that there aren’t things to quarrel with when it comes to Larsson’s feminism (the boob job in particular!), but I do agree with Melissa Silverstein that in Lisbeth Salendar, he created a heroine that feminists (or at least this feminist) can love.