Icons, Superheroes and Fantasies a Feminist Can Love?

By Linda Stein, cross-posted at On The Issues Magazine

I hate violent movies. I was never drawn to the shoot ‘em up genre that attracts so many viewers to the big screen with buildings and people blowing up, blood spewing everywhere, excruciating tortures writ large – those scenes never did it for me. Usually I had to avert my eyes or walk out of the movie theater.

Why then am I so fascinated with a character for whom violence seems to come with as much ease and lack of emotion as making morning toast? Why does Lisbeth Salander from Stieg Larsson’s The Millennium Trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest) obsess me and make me feel empowered?

I’m not alone in this attraction. Three million of Larsson’s books have been sold in Sweden alone, a country of only 9 million. So many people, women especially, have Lisbeth Salander’s name on the tips of their tongues that one can often overhear conversations in restaurants and elevators, on trains and campuses: “Have you seen the first movie? Have you read the second book? Salander is amazing, smart, cunning, strong, capable.” She has become the go-to person who gets the job (that is, stopping the evildoer in his tracks) done quickly and for-keeps. She’s the protector-par-excellence for those who cannot defend themselves.

Since the concept of protection has been the focus of my life’s work, my art, for the last three decades, I can’t help being drawn to this butt-kicking, catharsis-inducing avenger. She may be a moral quandary, she may pose an ethical dilemma, she may use astounding brute force in a way that borders on sadism, but she demands that her followers admire her outstanding intelligence and daring. She conforms to her own sense of justice/ethics as she exposes the corrupt individuals and prevents them from continuing to hurt the unprotected, especially at a time when the police and authorities will not, or cannot.

I am drawn to other icons of protection. I still turn to the 1940s Wonder Woman (in spite of her un-feminist flaws as sex object) for inspiration as a role model and symbol of security. I still warm to her simplistic, idealistic compassion for the downtrodden and her bloodless destruction of villains who die, not by her own hand, but miraculously by some kind of self-inflicted accident. I love that she never kills.

But Lisbeth Salander — as in a cathartic morality play — appeals to my primitive sense of justice. While engaged in her acts against what she sees as unjust, I don’t get caught up in the nuances of right and wrong, though I might wonder afterwards: How much would I hurt someone who hurt the one I love? How much violence is in my character? At the time I simply cherish the story’s reversal of traditional gender roles and take pride in this super-competent woman who transcends victim status using brainpower and the tools of modern day technology.

Tools of the Superhero Trade

And what are the tools for this superhero? While Wonder Woman has her golden magic lasso, invisible plane and bullet-proof bracelets, Lisbeth Salander has her Taser, computer hacking abilities and photographic memory. While Wonder Woman has a black/white traditional concept of righteousness, predictable in the way she responds compassionately and non-violently to bad guys, Salander, in contrast, is a walking time-bomb, a mess of contradictions and problems, a poster child for Asperger’s syndrome, more like the young anime outsider, Princess Mononoke, also entirely autonomous and not defined by men or a love relationship, and with a dark, damaged past – and violently vengeful.

In contrast to the tall, muscular, brightly garbed, ray-of-sunshine vision of Wonder Woman, with her pretty American Pie expressions and sexually-objectified postures, Lisbeth Salander is a small, queerly androgynous weirdo – sullen, introverted, self-doubting, socially awkward, gloomily clad in black leather and body piercing. She is a Gothic punk outsider, a vigilante genius with a cold penetrating gaze, a mesmerizing pop culture fantasy figure acting out unspoken desires with life-affirming results. With her lock-picking talent and high tech surveillance abilities, she gets herself into whatever places and positions she wants. It’s almost as if she can see and walk through walls.

Read the rest at On The Issues Magazine

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One Comment

  1. Posted January 10, 2011 at 5:00 am | Permalink

    I will limit my comment to the first film based on the books, because that’s the only one I have seen and I have not read the books.

    I think what makes Lisbeth so compelling to me, when I don’t tend to like revenge flicks well is that she is actually a well developed three dimensional character and the violence and pain do come of as visceral and real rather than contrived. This is not a faux girl power character, this is a morally complicated character in a world that isn’t so simplistic as “pick up a gun/knife start killing and it will be alright”. It is the same thing that makes Stephen King’s Carey compelling as well, that the pain and violence are deeply about the story and character development rather than torture porn followed by gratuitious blood. It is precisely because these films are complicated rather than being the simplistic “Rape and Revenge” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rape_and_revenge_films) formula that they are compelling. I find this character type compelling with a male lead as well, such as in Sweeney Todd or even V in V for Vendetta, it is just rarer to find a movie with violence and a female lead that is not “rape and revenge” to a t.

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