[Content Note: Violence, Rape, Victimization, Serial Killers, Abusive Doctors]
Millennium Trilogy", especially now that we're in the aftermath of the American remake of the Swedish movie. This is going to be a multi-part series over the next couple of weeks, so I apologize in advance to those of you who have zero interest in the novels.
This first post will cover some background on the series and the classism I think it seeks to address. The second post will cover some of the violence and rape in the series and my concerns over where the narrative framing may have unfortunate implications. The third post will cover vigilantism in the series and where that framing may or may not address victim-blaming.
Please note that the posts will be considering the English translation of the books and the Swedish movies. Please also get your grains of salt ready to take since this is not the first or even second time I've found something positive in a problematic piece.
First, some background. The Millennium Trilogy ("The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo", "The Girl Who Played With Fire", and "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest") is a series of books published posthumously after Swedish author Stieg Larsson's death. The novels are written by a man who, in his youth, witnessed a violent rape that seems to have profoundly affected him. The books are marketed as a passionate attempt to explore violence against women and the unprivileged in society from a feminist perspective. Whether or not they succeed at that is a question left to the individual reader. Spoilers ahead.
The novels star decoy protagonist Mikael Blomkvist (owner of Millennium Magazine and author-insert character) and real protagonist Lisbeth Salander. Mikael is a child of significant Privilege. He is white, male, educated, able-bodied, heterosexual, relatively wealthy, and comes from native Swedish middle-class family. Lisbeth, the girl with the dragon tattoo, is none of these things: she is the embodiment of Marginalized People.
Lisbeth is female. She is non-neurotypical to the point of social disability, having some vague form of Aspberger syndrome. She is bi-sexual, preferring men but maintaining a long-term sexual relationship with a woman. She is foreign, the daughter of a Russian spy and a Swedish woman who may or may not have been forced to make a living as a prostitute. She is an orphan, under legal guardianship by a state-appointed representative. She has not excelled in the education system, her family is impoverished, and she has been questioned by the police multiple times for 'acting suspicious'. Lisbeth is small-boned, quiet and anti-social, markedly different, and obviously unusual. When abusers see her, they think: Victim.
Lisbeth doesn't see herself as a victim. Within the context of the books, she's an almost super-hero vigilante for her rights, fighting violently back against her abusers. And yet, despite her astonishingly effective means of self-defense, she's still constantly and systemically victimized by society. The government illegally locks her up as a child in a psychiatric facility in order to protect her valuable father (a defected spy who beat Lisbeth's mother almost to death). The lead psychiatrist at her facility keeps her in restraints for an entire year, because it sexually excites him to watch her tied down. Her legal guardian withholds her earnings from her unless she submits to brutal rape. Every time she tries to involve an authority on her behalf, the attempt backfires and leaves her more victimized than before. And when she finally fights back in the only remaining way she knows how -- by lashing out violently -- she becomes the victim of a media feeding frenzy, and every private detail of her life is dug up, twisted, and published in a state-sponsored smear campaign. As much as Lisbeth tries not to be a victim, society won't let her.
Lisbeth's lack of privilege means that there is nothing she can do to protect herself from the attacks on her safety. Oh, she has aforementioned vigilante super-powers, but those can't really solve her problems. No matter how good she is with a baseball bat or a tire iron or her uber-elite-hacking skills, she can't take on the entire country and win. Everything -- the courts, the police, the news, the laws -- are set up to put her at a disadvantage. And this is the point of the series: Lisbeth isn't marginalized little-m by individually mean men who are a stain on our society; Lisbeth is Marginalized big-M systemically, by flawed and toxic social systems. In the third novel, as Lisbeth goes to trial and fights for her right to not be locked up indefinitely under the care of her sexually abusive psychiatrist, she prevails only because Mikael Blomkvist and others like him -- others with privilege -- choose to step up and do the dangerous and difficult work of fixing society.
In the context of the books, it takes Privileged Allies to step forward and put their lives on the line to purge the racism, sexism, ableism, and homophobia that has been deliberately built into the social systems that unfairly tar Salander (and others like her) as a "Lesbian Satanist Serial Killer". In the context of the books, it takes Privileged Allies to effectively fight back against Privileged Abusers. And, in the context of the books, the Privileged Allies must recognize that when the battle is fought and won, it is their responsibility to give the Marginalized Person their space and not come around demanding privilege cookies for fighting the good fight.
I honestly do think that the entire series is built around an attempt to deconstruct Privilege, how it is used to prey on the marginalized, and how it can be used by people willing to change society for the better. And nowhere do I think this comes through more clearly than in the plot of the first novel: "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo". TGWTDT introduces Lisbeth and Mikael against the backdrop of a hunt for a missing girl, and the story culminates in the discovery of a decades-old serial killer.
The missing girl, Harriet, has been hunted for decades since her disappearance because someone who cared about her had the privilege, the influence, and the money to keep the hunt alive. Harriet is white, from an affluent Swedish family, blonde, tame, and tragically lovely. She's the series' Missing White Woman, and she sits in stark contrast to the anonymous victims of the local serial killer, as well as to Lisbeth herself. Here Larsson's journalistic frustration seeps through the pages: when you are dark, or quiet, or unusual, or poor, you can be spirited away by a serial killer or locked away by the government and no one will ever hear of you again. Your family may mourn for you, but they won't have the power to command a decades-long search for you. Odds are good that the police won't even drag the river for a Marginalized Person; instead, they'll scoff at your parents and suggest that you went off addicted to drugs or prostitution or a lesbian satanic cult.
Mikael and Lisbeth are only able to search effectively for Harriet because a person of Privilege subsidizes the entire long, expensive hunt. And when they find Harriet alive and safe at the end, the irony is not lost that she was only able to escape a serial killer because she herself was a person of Privilege, aided in her escape by an ally with a car, with money, with an identity to freely lend, with the willingness to believe Harriet and help her. It was Privilege that saved Harriet and it was Privilege that found her. The other victims of the serial killer -- the ones who are dead, the ones who will remain forever anonymous -- weren't so lucky.
The identity of the serial killer isn't really supposed to be much of a surprise. For all that the big reveal follows the standard thriller guidelines, Larsson has been dropping every possible bread crumb along the way to point to the fact that the serial killer is a person of immense Privilege. How could he not be? He's wealthy and well-traveled, with victims ranging far and wide over the country. He has access to his victims, and the power to gather exhaustive information about them. Like almost all the abusers in this series, he is wealthy, white, powerful, privileged, and capable of presenting as normal and neurotypical in public. I believe this profile of an abuser is crucial to this series.
In the context of the series, Privilege is practically a requirement in order to effectively abuse marginalized people without fear of retribution over a period of months or years. It is Privilege that allows the abusers to have access to their victims, it is Privilege that allows them to circumvent the rules, and it is Privilege that shields the abuser from the consequences for their actions. The fact that the abusers present as "normal" in society is key: all three of the rapists in TGWTDT have wives or long-term girlfriends. All three of them have powerful positions in society where they are respected by their co-workers. All three of them have friends and relatives who don't suspect anything. All three of them are perfectly normal, everyday people about whom many would feel entitled to exclaim "Not my Nigel!"
If TGWTDT is a treatise on class and the war of the Privileged on the Marginalized, then Mikael Blomkvist is an intrepid journalist for good reasons beyond being an author insert character. As an investigative reporter, he has already dedicated his life to using his Privilege to tear down the Privileged Abusers in society. From there it was a natural literary leap to go from exposing CEOs who marginalize their employees in order to gain a profit, to exposing CEOs who marginalize the weakest members of society in order to gain self-gratification. Rather than protect the Privileged Abusers in the hopes that he may join them on top someday, Mikael believes that it's our duty and responsibility to rigorously change society in order to ensure that the Marginalized are protected from the Privileged.