Tropes: Classism and Systemic Marginalization in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

[Content Note: Violence, Rape, Victimization, Serial Killers, Abusive Doctors]

I'd like to run a short series of posts on Stieg Larsson's "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.


Patrick Knipe said...

Fantastic opening deconstruction, Ana. I've never read the books, but I've always sort of been intrigued by them.

Idly, the idea of the Privileged driving reform in society- ie, the Unprivileged's hopes cannot be capitalised upon without help by the Privileged- is a rather interesting duality to the idea that enough people without Privilege can work together to bring about that same change. In my view it feels very much like a curiously capitalist view, although it's hardly limited to capitalism.

The idea is related to the political belief called Reformism, actually. It eschews mass revolution for gradual shifts by the people of privilege.

Ana Mardoll said...

Fantastic opening deconstruction, Ana. I've never read the books, but I've always sort of been intrigued by them.

I recommend the audio books, if you ever decide to try the books. The first novel starts SO SLOWLY that I couldn't get through it the first time I tried, but the narrator for the unabridged version has such a musical voice that he really helped the pacing and I was able to work through the novel with his help. And this is coming from someone who usually dislikes hearing a book before reading it visually, so that was a bit of a surprise for me.

Ana Mardoll said...

It eschews mass revolution for gradual shifts by the people of privilege.

Ironically, I think Larsson would have preferred the mass revolution route (based on certain statements by his surviving girlfriend), but that wasn't where the books went. They may well have been going there, though; Lisbeth is a member of a "Hacker Republic" that seems to be loosely defined by benevolent anarchy goals (<-- that may not be the best terms to use, but I'm not as up on my revolutionary terms as I would like to be. Corrections welcomed.)

Makabit said...

As I've said here, I only read the first third or so of the second book before giving it up as rather dull. At that point in the saga, oddly, Lisbeth seemed almost annoyingly financially privileged--she's on vacation on some tropical island, where she's having a thing with a local teenager (which squicked me out), she owns an apartment which she can afford to offer to her girlfriend as a place to live while she rents elsewhere...

Aside from that...I don't know, somehow this sort of plot, with the extreme abuse and the very privileged abusers, and the triumphant take-down has just never appealed to me. I don't even much like it coming from Sara Paretsky, who seems much more realistic about sexual abuse. And it seems to me to ignore what's most malevolent about most abusive systems, which is not that they leave you vulnerable to wealthy sadistic psychiatrists, but that they leave you vulnerable to bureaucracies, economic booms and busts, the small endless struggles to survive...

That said, I LOVE Hothead Paisan, so make of this what you will.

One question, for those who have read it: does Blomquist ever learn that sexual abuse happens on the less-than-epic scale, to and by people like the people he knows? One thing that mildly bothered me in reading and flipping was the fact that every example of abuse given was High Drama, Done By More Than Ordinarily Evil People.

Ana Mardoll said...

Not sure if it would count, but in Book 3 he mentions disliking an ex-colleague because -- prior to the trilogy -- the colleague was accused of sexual harassment at work and Blomquist believed it was probably true. Blomquist relates ruefully that the company covered everything up and let the woman's contract expire (the passive equivalent of firing her).

No mention is made of what form the harassment took place.

JenL said...

I read the first book. Liked it but didn't love it. Intended to read the next two, but after the opening of book 2 .... decided I didn't need the depression.

Fluffy_goddess said...

I've been avoiding the trilogy because I'd heard it was graphically and exploitatively violent, but this makes it sound much more interesting. (Get-it-from-the-library interesting, but still interesting.)

Loquat said...

I haven't read the books and am basing this off having seen the first Swedish movie, so apologies in advance if I'm getting things wrong.

But is she really only under the authority of a legal guardian because she's an orphan? I thought it was because she'd committed at least one act of horrifying violence as a child (presumably as a reaction to abuse, but still) and therefore was considered too mentally unstable and/or incompetent to manage her own life. Obviously, forcing all possibly-mentally-unstable-or-incompetent people to submit themselves to a legal guardian who can control their money has vast potential for abuse (my first thought, not anticipating all the rapeyness, was actually that he'd steal from her and call her a liar if she ever protested) but I can see how the voting public might have supported such an arrangement.

Anonymous said...

According to the author's partner, “Everything of this nature described in the Millennium trilogy has happened at one time or another to a Swedish citizen, journalist, politician, public prosecutor, unionist or policeman,” she writes. “Nothing was made up.”

Ana Mardoll said...

No, your understanding is correct: her legal guardianship stems from being steam-rolled by the government into an illegal declaration of mental incompetence (illegal because they did not follow due process and instead bribed a psychiatrist to fill out the paperwork). I'm sorry I gave the impression otherwise, but I didn't want to get bogged down in backstory.

Loquat said...

That's interesting; I had no idea the guardianship was illegally done. You may have noticed the movie cuts that part out entirely, leaving viewers who haven't read the novels beforehand with the impression that she was, in fact, sufficiently mentally imbalanced to fall into the category of people Sweden allows to live on their own but with restrictions. The movie presents just enough hints about her past to suggest she was abused in some fashion in childhood, to the point of lashing out violently against her abuser, but we're left to fill in the blanks ourselves as to what happened between child-Lizbet trying to murder a man and adult-Lizbet being required to obey a legal guardian.

Ana Mardoll said...

[tw: authorities, psychiatrist abuse]

Yep. Though I should stress, she really is non-neuro-typical and she faces a substantial amount of social marginalization because of it. But a major problem is that:

1. At least some of her behavior and attitudes have been shaped by constant abuse from the authorities. Because she was abused by the police, she acts out violently to protect herself because she doesn't see any alternative for justice (which is basically the root cause of vigilantism, I think). Because she was abused by psychiatrists (she was illegally institutionalized under the care of a psychiatrist who abused her in a variety of really horrible ways during almost her entire childhood), she refuses to talk to any psychiatric doctor. And so on. So it's a chicken/egg problem.

2. Because she was declared incompetent via illegal means, the decision pretty much legally HAS to be overturned. (Assuming the judge cares about the law, and by narrative fiat he does.) At that point it's a moot point whether she should have been declared legally incompetent or not: the authorities acted illegally, and that becomes the bigger issues.

3. However, she really does not qualify for legal incompetence as it's apparently intended in Sweden. The point of the system (as I understand it) isn't to protect society from mentally imbalanced people; the point is to protect mentally imbalanced people from themselves (which is why the guardian handles all their finances). Lisbeth is perfectly capable of holding a job and handling her finances, and several people in the series note that if she could just TALK to a (good) psychiatrist (see point #1), she'd be correctly deemed mentally competent pretty much right away. The problem is that Lisbeth can't/won't do that and even if she could, the Thriller Shadow Government is constantly poised to prevent that from happening.

And, yeah, the movies have to cut a LOT. I guess that's the nature of movies.

Kit Whitfield said...

I've only seen the first two movies in the original language - caveat.

I have some serious problems with the series, but I guess I'll bring them up if and when it's relevant. One thing I do think the films do well, which seems relevant here, is Lisbeth's 'look'.

Her Gothy, spiky image is presented, I think, as a double meaning.

What she's 'saying' with it is: leave me alone. I'm not pretty: don't want me. I'm not friendly: don't bother me. I'm not sweet: don't mess with me.

But what predators read from it is something different. I'm not conventional-looking: I'm outside the bounds of polite society. I'm not traditionally feminine or pretty: there is no powerful man in my life whose favour I court. I act tough: I have nobody to be tough for me.

In other words, her 'leave me alone' look is read, correctly, as a sign that she's unprotected. She isn't defenceless, but her 'back off' signals are a sign of vulnerability. Which is not to blame the victim, but to point out how attuned predators can be to signs of isolation.

Ana Mardoll said...

For having only seen the movies, you've nailed her character, Kit! This is definitely spot-on; her "fashion" is described, I think, in one place as her "armor" and she wears 'slogan' shirts that proclaim her a b-word and tell people to back off.

I'm fascinated by your interpretation of how victimizers interpret her differently, because it makes a lot of sense. And I wonder if we can't extrapolate that to society at large (because, rape culture) and say that people read her "leave me alone" look as someone not worthy of protection...?

(This is one of many many MANY reasons why I bristle when people make personality assessments based on clothing choices.)

Launcifer said...

That's quite an interesting thought, actually, because it entirely depends on certain cultural assumptions based upon the perception of Lisbeth - certainly in terms of appearance. When I bring my own cultural assumptions to the table, that image breaks down somewhat, but only because she's more indicative of "normalcy" to me than just about anyone else in the books, if only because she's more representative of the people I know in real life than any other character in the books. Obviously, that says more about me than anything, but still... I'd never really considered it that way before.

Kit Whitfield said...

I'm fascinated by your interpretation of how victimizers interpret her differently, because it makes a lot of sense. And I wonder if we can't extrapolate that to society at large (because, rape culture) and say that people read her "leave me alone" look as someone not worthy of protection...?

Well, I've heard it said that if you genuinely want to intimidate people, your best strategy is clothes that are both fashionable and expensive. Fashion says you have the intelligence, the social insight and the spoons to keep up with rapidly-changing trends in a competitive and judgmental milieu; expense says that you have status and resources. Fashionable, costly clothes may say on one level that you wish to be visually pleasing, which might imply submission, but in practice they're more likely to say, 'Tangle with me and you're taking on my brains, connections and money.'

Goth fashion, on the other hand, is fairly straightforward and hasn't changed much over the decades, and it's also comparatively cheap. They're also clothes that would get you excluded from most high-paying workplaces. Don't get me wrong, I quite like the look, but one of the things it could 'tell' a predator is, 'I'm almost certainly poor.'

I'm a big fan of Gillian Bradshaw's historical novels, and there's an exchange in one of them, Render Unto Caesar, that comes to mind. Our hero, Hermogenes, is facing off a big guy who touches his cloak with the butt of a whip he carries for his work:

The familiarity was, Hermogenes recognized irritably, an implicit thread: I am a big, tough, strong man and I could beat you bloody if I wanted to. He responded with a look of disdain and an implicit threat of his own. 'You may well admire it,' he remarked, easing the cloak away from the whip. 'I imagine it would cost more than a year's worth of the wages your sort get. I am wealthy and powerful, and I could buy more trouble than you could possibly survive.

In the first movie, Lisbeth actually looks most intimidating when she's disguised in expensive clothes.

I remember years ago, when I was an undergraduate, a girl in her early to mid-teens was sitting on the street as she passed wailing 'I wanna die, I wanna die!' I stopped and talked to her; she kept telling me to F off and leave her alone, but she clearly wanted help or she wouldn't have been shouting to the street like that, so I stuck to it and eventually persuaded her to give me her mother's number and her mother came and picked her up. She was a poor, unhappy kid who was very fragile inside. But she was dressed tough as can be: short denim skirt, fishnets, combat boots, shaven head, loads of heavy earrings; armour every which way. It was quite a lesson not to judge from appearances - or at least, to see appearances as something people choose to don for a reason, and that reason may be that they want to impress people with something they don't actually feel themselves to be.

Runeless said...

So confession time, because Ana has perfectly pinned one of the most important pieces of advice here: dressing tough is a giant warning sign of vulnerability.

Look at how people with *real* power dress. Suits. Big dresses. Fancy clothes. That's *power*. That sends a perfect signal. Send a man with that kind of outfit on into a situation and watch people bow. Women, due to gender issues, don't get bowed to; but she'll get respect.

Dress punk, goth, tough? Might as well be a blinking "I'm a target" sign.

I used to go cruising for sex based on that. Goth chicks and anybody wearing tough clothes are frankly kind of easy to get close enough to for sex. I'm not proud of it, but it happens.

Makabit said...

There's a scene in one of Roger Tannenbaum's novels where the protagonist confronts the bad guy in a BDSM club. This man is an extremely unpleasant person, a sadist into extremely unpleasant nonconsensual things, very wealthy, very sophisticated--he'd probably do really well as a bad guy in one of the Millenium books. Anyhow.

She's in scanty leather, dressed to blend in to the room. He's wearing a very expensive three-piece suit. She tells him he's not in costume, and he tells her that actually, what he's wearing is much greater statement of power than anything anyone else there is wearing.

He is, of course, correct.

Launcifer said...


I've actually done that. There used to be a fetish tradeshow that passed through my area. They'd hire a pair of local deejays, rent a two-floor nightclub for the night and people would come in costume and so on. I once got invited by a friend of mine and, well, all I had to work with was my suit. I always assumed the sheer number of doubletakes I got from people - espexially women - that night was because I was out of place. Never occurred to me that there might well have been another reason for it.

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