Lisbeth Salander has triumphed as a heroine despite all the circumstances within her fictional world and beyond that made this unlikely. When men write women heroines, there’s a tendency to make them lusty, busty bombshells. But, there’s also the exception. Jamie Hewlett’s Tank Girl captured the mid-90s riotgrrrl, DIY attitude so prevalent in counter-culture at the time. With her shaved head, bizarre artillery of found weapons and unclear sexuality (does she prefer men, women or kangaroos?), Tank Girl was weird, captivating and empowering. Lisbeth Salander, too, is the embodiment of the fears, hopes, furies and complexities of a Millennial generation.
She exists as the figment of Larsson’s feminist imagination, created to avenge the purveyors of rape, sexual assault and violence against women in Sweden. In 2020, 16,461 assault cases by men towards their partners were reported by the National Council for Crime Prevention, an increase from 14,261 the year before.
Larsson’s fury was at the disparity between the perception of the Nordic nations as progressive leaders in gender equality, when the reality remains that the majority of management roles are taken by men, and sexual harassment and assault are endemic across various ages and areas of Nordic communities. Salander’s own father was a violent brute who beat and sexually assaulted his wife and daughter and it is her vengeance upon him and all the men who are predators upon women, that fuels the narrative of the Millennium trilogy.
When, as a teenager, she protects her mother and younger sister by attacking her father, she is subsequently declared “mentally incompetent” by a court and sent to an institution. Salander is not incompetent nor lacking in empathy, compassion and humanity. She is a traumatised young woman, who is also unusually intelligent and insightful in regard to mathematics, engineering and systems.
While it is never explicitly stated, Salander seems aware of her own autistic tendencies. She exists on a spectrum, never clearly diagnosed nor labelled, though Mikael Blomkvist speculates that she may have Asperger Syndrome. This lack of definition is liberating, in a sense. She is not pigeonholed, nor simplistically presented as a collection of symptoms and textbook traits.
In being diagnosed by the judicial system as mentally incompetent and declared a ward of the state, she is vulnerable to menacing guardians – and Nils Bjurman exploits this power dynamic to rape Salander and imprison her. When she violently takes revenge upon him, she only confirms the worst of what is rumoured about her to onlookers – and sows a seed of fear in herself – that she may be out of control, chaotic and undeserving of love and gentleness.
In a sense, the current Britney Spears court cases in which she is fighting her father’s ownership of her money, her freedom and her professional obligations is not so different to the dilemma Salander faced: under a brutal regime of demands and faced with aggressive and predatory men, women lash out.
Like a rat in a cage, to elicit a Smashing Pumpkins song, Salander is only further enraged by being trapped. Perhaps it is this ongoing cycle of being trapped in various settings, by different men who are all operating under the premise that they are superior, that explains her fluidity across all facets of her identity.
From the moment she first appears, Larsson describes her as pale, slender and androgynous in appearance. She is a curious creature, one who is compelling without being heartbreakingly beautiful or enchanting. Throughout the series, she changes her appearance to gain entrance to certain sites, or to manipulate her enemies, or – later – because she has the enormous financial freedom to spend on superficial surgeries.
She is a chameleon, a survivor. And much as she changes her hair colour, or segues from playful and funny to poker-faced and secretive, her sexual identity remains fluid and undetermined, too. She has a sexual relationship with Blomkvist, but also with Miriam ‘Mimi’ Woo. There is never a need to define her sexuality.
She is not deprived of love and lust, even if it is not the conventional version of desire, affection and fulfilment that fiction typically feeds us. She may have been let down over and over again, but she believes in loyalty and family. In that sense, her deep understanding of wrong and right, her compassion and empathy make her so relatable.
Salander heralded a new version of the heroine in books and movies in the mainstream, thanks to the popularity of the Trilogy. She was the prototype for possibly autistic, insightful and vulnerable, sexually ambiguous heroines on screen, including Saga Norén (The Bridge), Caitlin (We Are Who We Are) and Jana Liekam (Bad Banks). She brought the underground into mainstream bookstores and cinemas. She’s a heroine for our generation in being unapologetically herself.
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