Ana's Note: This is the second post in my series on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The post deals with rape and violence against women, and some of the ways in which the books may or may not fall down on the whole "feminist message" thing. I'm going to put the whole post after the jump because the image used in this post -- while probably Safe for Work -- is potentially triggery.
Last week I talked about the Millennium Trilogy and how Stieg Larsson wrote the books -- "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo", "The Girl Who Played With Fire", and "The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest" -- from the perspective of a feminist ally who had witnessed a profoundly disturbing rape in his childhood. He seems to have wanted his books to reflect his strong feelings about rapists and abusers of women, to the point where the original title for TGWTDT was "Men Who Hate Women".
As titles go, "Men Who Hate Women" is pretty descriptive of the whole series. The Bad Guys in the books are serial rapists, serial murderers, sadistic abusers, slavers, and men with deep-seated anger issues towards women. The people in the former categories -- the hardcore abusers -- are almost all people of Privilege who use their power to hurt women. The people in the latter category -- the facilitators -- are often ancillary characters like police officers, legal officials, or medical professionals who are just as much a part of the problem as the killers and rapists. And I believe this is a good point: not everyone who hates women goes out to rape and kill them. Some people who hate women 'merely' make their lives difficult by persistent marginalization and prejudice. So +10 for pointing that out.
Conveniently enough, there's a bit of a bingo game you can play with the facilitators. Any time a new character shows up, you can bet your hat that if they refer to women as "bitches" or to sex workers as "whores" or if they use "lesbian" as a derogatory slur, then they're not on the side of angels. If, on the other hand, they refer to women as "women" and to sex workers as "prostitutes", then they're probably okay. And since there is a lot of prostitution mentioned in the series, there is a lot of opportunity to weed out the wheat from the chaff in this regard. And I believe this is also a good point: Words Mean Things and certain words are frequently used to undermine and marginalize people. So +10 for pointing that out.
But... there is a problem with this story of Men Who Hate Women, and that problem is perhaps best exemplified in the person of Bjurman.
Bjurman is the legal guardian of Lisbeth Salander. Lisbeth has been illegally classified by the government as incompetent to handle her own affairs, and she has been assigned a guardian to handle her affairs for her. Bjurman completely controls her finances, her freedom, and her future. He controls all of Lisbeth's legal rights. He's a respected lawyer, a pillar of society, and a 100% credible witness against 'violent, crazy Lisbeth Salander'.
This situation would be problematic even on its own. Larsson notes pointedly that the system is ripe for abuse, and that putting citizens under the legal control of strangers without strict oversight is dangerous. If the guardianship program is a necessity, then should there should not be layers of careful oversight to ensure that society's most vulnerable members are not preyed upon by the most powerful? Or are we just going to let society's powerful and privileged members operate on the honor system? In TGWTDT, Larsson writes:
Taking away a person's control of her own life -- meaning her bank account -- is one of the greatest infringements a democracy can impose, especially when it applies to young people. It is an infringement even if the intent may be perceived as benign and socially valid. [...]
Occasionally there are reports that charges have been brought against some trustee or guardian who has misappropriated funds or sold his client’s co-op apartment and stuffed the proceeds into his own pockets. That those cases are relatively rare may be the result of two things: the authorities are carrying out their jobs in a satisfactory manner, or the clients have no opportunity to complain and in a credible way make themselves heard by the media or by the authorities.
Bjurman is white, male, wealthy, and powerful. He's amicably divorced and has been a member of the guardianship program without complaint for years. He's respected by his colleagues and regarded fondly by his prior wards. He's also a sadist who has been dreaming about finding the perfect victim for years, until he meets Lisbeth. Not long into the story, Bjurman begins to abuse his complete control over Lisbeth by raping her on two different occasions: once in his office at work and then a second time in his home.
It's important to note that any sex that Bjurman could conceivably have with Lisbeth would be abuse. The power differential between them makes it impossible for her to freely consent to sex with him: he owns all her legal rights, and he controls her money to the point where he can literally determine whether or not she will be allowed to eat that week. There is no room for willing consent in this situation; any sexual advance made by Bjurman to Lisbeth would be saturated with coercion and control.
But Bjurman doesn't rape Lisbeth by emotional manipulation or financial coercion. The rapes that Bjurman perpetuates on Lisbeth -- particularly the second rape in his home -- are extraordinarily violent. He beats her until she nearly loses consciousness. He ties her and gags her. He keeps her helpless for hours while he deliberately inflicts pain on almost every inch of her body. He abuses her so badly that she very nearly dies. There is no way that a well-adjusted observer could see this act and not classify it as brutal, horrific, and -- yes -- obviously rape.*
And this is the problem with Bjurman: he's a rapist who rapes obviously.
There is a tendency in society to "rank" rapes. Raping a drunk woman is Bad, raping a woman you deliberately drugged is Very Bad, raping a stranger who you jumped while walking home at night is Really Bad, raping your exceedingly vulnerable ward so badly that she nearly dies is Super Bad. And this "rape-ranking" is very problematic for a good many reasons.
I think many humans have a basic tendency to classify things, and that this tendency can be very hard to switch off. But I think we do need to switch off that tendency when it comes to rape-ranking. It's harmful to victims, because it creates this internal tension of well, yes, I was raped but I shouldn't complain because it wasn't as bad as it could have been. That internal voice is not something that we should inflict on victims. But even beyond that, we should stop rape-ranking because it's toxic to society and it contributes directly to our Rape Culture.
Rape is always very bad, no matter what method is used to accomplish it. No matter how Bjurman chose to rape Lisbeth, the rape would still have been a monstrous violation of her rights and her body. Any rape he could commit against her would still have been a crime against society and a disgusting abuse of the power and trust granted to him. Larsson does note this explicitly in the text. And yet... he still chooses the most 'obviously' awful method of rape imaginable when the time comes to paint a character portrait of a rapist. Why?
In the context of this particular text, I think maybe Larsson wanted to clarify just how badly the vulnerable members of our society can be abused and marginalized. I think he wanted to shock his audience: you think you know the worst thing that can happen to this woman? You're wrong. I'm going to show you something that sickens you. I think he wanted to paint the ugliness of rape as he saw it into an ugly scene that would horrify his readers.
And yet... and yet.
We live in a Rape Culture. We live in a world where people will admit to having sex with unwilling partners by use of force, threats, or drugs and yet persistently refuse to call the act 'rape'. We live in a world where people refuse to believe that 1 in 20 or even 1 in 50 men are rapists, in a world where people claim with a straight face that a woman who uses the word "rape" to describe something that clearly is rape but is not legally recognized as such is a 'false accuser'. We live in a world where 1 in 6 women are raped at some point in their lives and yet our society does not take rape seriously as a social ill...
...unless, of course, the rape looks like the kind of rape that Bjurman practice.
We live in a world where the Law & Order episode I saw last week -- a re-run that couldn't have been more than five years old -- seriously argued that the rape of an experienced sex worker couldn't possibly have traumatized her because wasn't it just another routine sex act, really? I mean, sure, there was a gun to her head, but did that really count if she wasn't being otherwise brutalized? Someone wrote that script. Someone else green-lighted it. A good many someones acted it out and aired it and what the heck am I the only one who sees the problem with that? What kind of messed-up society am I living in? And the answer is that I'm living in a Rape Culture.
I kind of think Larsson knew that. I kind of think he was working with that in his novel. I think he knew that when Lisbeth's rape came out later in court, both she and he needed it to be as damaging as possible if she was going to be taken seriously as a victim. I think he needed Lisbeth to not only be a rape victim, but also a rape victim that society will clearly recognize as such. And... I don't know whether to blame him for perpetuating rape culture or congratulating him for understanding it so well and brilliantly deconstructing that the only way Lisbeth would ever be taken seriously was if she had a video of a rape so brutal it nearly killed her. Do I hand out +10 for pointing out how incredibly messed-up our society is? I honestly don't even know.
No novel can send every possible good message. If Larsson's novels were written with the intent to illustrate how marginalized people can be horrifically abused in ways that the majority of us privileged people don't have to worry about, then maybe the "shock wake-up-from-your-comfy-privilege value" was something that couldn't be given up without compromising the underlying message. Maybe the framework wasn't there for seriously undermining rape culture. Maybe the next blockbuster trilogy can check that one off the to-do list.
And yet... and yet...
In the meantime we have Bjurman, the violent rapist. We have Gottfried and Martin, serial rapists and killers. We have Zala, the man who beat Lisbeth's mother nearly to death. We have a pedophile psychologist whose hard-drive isn't merely full of child-porn, it's full of violent child-porn. We have Erica Berger's stalker, a man who thinks nothing of slinging bricks through her picture windows. We have Men Who Hate Women In Obvious, Easily Definable Ways.
I like the Millennium Trilogy. But as much as I enjoyed reading "Men Who Hate Women", I'm still waiting for "Men Who Hate Women In Subtle Ways That Society Deems Acceptable".
That book actually probably already exists.
But I'll bet it's not a bestselling blockbuster trilogy.
* Ana's Note: I feel like I should make an addendum after writing this in order to clarify before someone brings up BDSM sex and we run off on a derail. I am not saying that the act of violent sex is "obviously rape". When I say that anyone who sees Bjurman with Lisbeth will classify the act as "obviously rape", I mean anyone who also has seen that she does not consent to what he is doing.