I don't like vigilantism. I don't think society is served by letting private citizens take the law into their own hands and settle their disputes violently. I think that the fantasy of vigilantism can be a fantasy that invites victims to exercise revenge in their heads while never feeling free to demand reparation in real life; a catharsis without social reform. I think that vigilantism can edge into victim-blaming, and the idea that if a victim doesn't react to a crime violently, then the crime must not have been serious. I have many problems with vigilantism.
The Millennium Trilogy -- a trilogy of novels I very much like -- is in many ways a story of vigilantism.
I honestly do not know what Larsson was going for in his story, when it comes to the issues of vigilantism in the series. For one thing, I'm not very familiar with the spy/thriller genre in general, so it's possible that he was falling back on established narratives rather than blazing a new trail. For another thing, it's worth noting that except when it comes to information gathering, the vigilantism in the series is something of a mixed-bag in terms of actually generating positive results. Let's look at a couple of examples -- the story of Lisbeth, and the story of Berger -- and then let's look at a real life example that is tied intimately to the novels.
In "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo", Lisbeth Salander is raped by her guardian Bjurman. She doesn't go to the police, because she has learned through extremely painful past experience that the police can and will do anything to illegally silence her in the name of 'national security'. So what can she do? She could flee, disappear into Swedish society with a new name and a new identity, but doing so would require her to give up her mother's apartment, the job that makes her happy, and the few friends and long-term lovers she's managed to acquire. Lisbeth chooses another option: vigilantism.
Lisbeth walks into Bjurman's apartment, tasers him unconscious, forcibly uses his sex tools on him in a re-creation of how he previously brutalized her, shows him the video tape that she plans to use to blackmail him into leaving her alone, and then as a reminder that she is dangerous, she tattoos the words "I AM A SADISTIC PIG AND A RAPIST" on his stomach. It's not a pretty scene, but it is a very effective piece of characterization. Lisbeth may not be "crazy", as her opponents label her, but she's not entirely working on the same behavioral rules as a lot of people in her society. After years and years of being victimized by almost everyone around her, she has hardened into someone who violently and markedly lashes out in response to violence. Her philosophy leads her to leave such a lasting impression on her abusers that they think twice before risking her revenge again.
Probably not surprisingly, her philosophy doesn't actually go very well. Bjurman takes out a contract killing on her, and this act will end with several people dead or seriously injured, including Lisbeth's long-time girlfriend and her kick-boxing mentor. Lisbeth herself will be framed for the crime, and a nation-wide manhunt and smear campaign will drive her to end up in a hospital with a bullet in her head and a prosecutor anxious to lock her away for life. Even Lisbeth's small actions of vigilantism backfire on her. When a man tries to attack and rape her in the scene shown above, she incapacitates him with her kick-boxing abilities. While he lies helpless on the ground, moaning and calling her a "bitch", she 'punishes' him with a gunshot wound to the foot. This action will end up causing her a good deal of legal trouble in the end, and she is ultimately only acquitted because the police have so badly muddled the handling of the case that further prosecution would be politically dangerous for them to engage in. In the end, Salander is saved from the consequences of her vigilantism by the dictates of narrative fiat.
Lisbeth Salander's story seems to be one where vigilantism is understandable but not effective. Her older, kinder guardian Palmgren outlines this in "The Girl Who Played With Fire" by saying:
"I've never been sympathetic towards people who take the law into their own hands. But I've never heard of anyone who had such a good reason to do so. At the risk of sounding like a cynic, what happens tonight will happen, no matter what you or I think. It's been written in the stars since she was born. And all that remains is for us to decide how we’re going to behave towards Lisbeth if she makes it back."
All this is said right before Lisbeth's final act of vigilantism -- her attempt to murder her father -- ends up backfiring to the point where she has a bullet lodged in her skull and she's buried in an unmarked shallow grave on the edge of a mobster's property. And yet I'm not sure that the series is really a story of vigilantism being an ineffective non-solution to marginalization in society. In stark contrast to Lisbeth Salander, we have the story of Erika Berger and Susanne Linder.
Erika Berger is a woman of privilege in the trilogy. She comes from a financially well-off family, and has been given the best of educations. She is the head of a popular magazine and in the beginning of the third book ("The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest") she is recruited to head a nationally renowned publication in the hopes that she can turn it around and breathe fresh life into the failing company. She also has a stalker.
Berger's stalker represents a threat to almost every aspect of her life. He represents a threat to her safety by visiting her home at night, throwing bricks through her windows, and causing her to seriously injure herself on glass shards. But since Berger has the privilege of money and connections, the threat to her physical safety is one she can somewhat mitigate: she lays out the necessary expense to install a comprehensive security system with monitored cameras and locks and safe doors and her Own Private Bodyguard. What she can't easily mitigate is the threat to her career and reputation when her stalker steals a collection of private "home movies" that -- should they be released on the internet -- will completely ruin her life.
The stalker arc of Berger's story treads a fine line between legal solutions to social problems and vigilantism. The man who comes by to inspect Berger's home and install the new security system warns her of the dangers of taking her safety into her own hands:
"I notice that you have golf clubs planted here and there around the house."
"Yes. I slept here alone last night."
"I myself would have checked into a hotel. I have no problem with you taking safety precautions on your own. But you ought to know that you could easily kill an intruder with a golf club. [...] And if you did that, you would most probably be charged with manslaughter. If you admitted that you put golf clubs around the place with the intent of arming yourself, it could also be classified as murder."
The man from the security system is kind. He's not trying to frighten Berger; he's trying to warn her. Society has institutionalized rape culture to the point where you will be legally punished for defending yourself in your own home, he warns. Be sure you're aware of that before you bash in the skull of an intruder trying to rape and kill you!
Once Berger's stalker has stolen her private collection of videos and writings, there is almost no way for the narrative to cover the loss without resorting to vigilantism. Salander volunteers her illegal hacking services to Berger as a means of determining the identify of the stalker; Susanne Linder volunteers her extensive police training to track the stalker and catch him in the act of vandalizing Berger's home. Knowing that an official police action will almost certainly ruin Berger's reputation as handily as the stalker would have done (Berger is a public figure and the police department is riddled with leaks), Linder takes the law into her own hands by forcing the stalker to turn over all the stolen material, as well as his computer hard-drive, and destroys the evidence of his -- and her -- crime.
The approach to vigilantism within The Millennium Trilogy is muddled at best. Taking the law into your own hands doesn't work... except when it does. Revenge may be satisfying but dangerous... except when it works out perfectly. Violently defending oneself is illegal... except that the police are probably going to be even less help, so you might as well. As a caustic criticism of a flawed society, the books may hit the mark, but as a useful prescription for behavior, they fail utterly.
I want to believe that Larsson knew that. I like to think that the muddled mess of vigilantism in The Millennium Trilogy is a way of saying, This world? Completely messed up. No matter where you fall on the spectrum of victim responses -- whether you lash out at your attackers or stand up and go to the police or just huddle under and hope that the violence passes by -- no matter what you do, you will be blamed. And we need to fix that. I want to believe that's the point of the novels. But I honestly don't know. And then we come to Eva Gabrielsson.
Eva Gabrielsson was Stieg Larsson's live-in girlfriend and partner for 30 years. Because Larsson's job as a journalist caused him to be targeted by neo-Nazi groups, the two lived intensely private lives and did their best to keep their living address off the Swedish public records. They never formally married because to do so would put their address in the Swedish public records. Their wills were never properly formalized because to do so would put their address in the Swedish public records. And when Stieg Larsson became an internationally bestselling author after his death, his family went to court to have his will broken so that they could disenfranchise Eva and claim Larsson's inheritance for themselves. The irony of the story surrounding The Millennium Trilogy is palpable. A story written by a feminist ally about Men Who Hate Women has been awarded by the Swedish courts to a father over a common-law wife.
The fan reaction to the story of Eva has been bumpy. In the early days of her disenfranchisement, the fans were largely sympathetic. There were public calls on the internet for a Real Life Lisbeth Salander to rise up and electronically pilfer the Larsson inheritance and give it back to Gabrielsson. The sentiment behind these calls was clear: a woman had been hurt by an unfair legal system and it was time for someone to take the law into their own hands and make it right.
But the world doesn't work that way. The legal system has stood by its ruling that Gabrielsson deserves none of the inheritance left by her late partner of 30 years. No internet vigilante has intervened to right this wrong, nor is it likely that they could. And Gabrielsson has soldiered on and -- like Lisbeth Salander -- she seems a little annoyed about how she's been treated. And in a manner that I find heartbreaking and yet not even one bit surprising, the fans are starting to turn on her. Gabrielsson's recently released biography ("Millennium, Stieg, and Me") has been criticized as "a biography of Eva Gabrielsson, not about Stieg and 'Millennium,' Lisbeth Salander or Mikael Blomkvist".
If I can be permitted to paraphrase that, that quote says to me that people are upset because Gabrielsson released a biography about her life, and the readers are annoyed that the book is a biography about her life. Rather than, you know, about the fictional characters they'd prefer to read about. And readers are additionally annoyed at being called out for buying Millennium coffee mugs when the trilogy is about social justice instead of novelty entertainment. Once again we see that it is beyond the pale for a woman to be vocally upset about her marginalization.
Where I have a problem with the vigilantism in The Millennium Trilogy is perhaps with the depiction of vigilantism as something flashy and sexy and exciting. It's easy to cheer on the badass women of the series as they single-handedly stop rapists and stalkers and murders with their bare hands. There's a visceral feel of victory when Salander or Linder or any number of strong, competent, fearless, capable women batter down the doors of the worst elements of society in order to say This stops here.
The problem is that the assertion of women's rights generally doesn't look like that. The same people who cheer for Salander's violent outbursts and cold attitude then shy away from real victims like Gabrielsson who commit the social crime of being angry in public. The same people who appreciate Mikael's willingness to give Salander her space and not come sniffing around for privilege cookies then become angry and hurt when Gabrielsson fails to recognize their awesomeness for feeling sort of sorry for her in vague, not-acted-upon ways. We come to the problem that just about anyone in our culture can appreciate a good James Bond style beating-up-of-the-villain, while still feeling like women really need to be nicer to everyone because being angry doesn't help anything.
The idolization of vigilantism blames victims for not solving their own problems in cold, calculating Lisbeth Salander style. That whole thing? She's still complaining about that? Why doesn't she do something about it? When we write story after story after story about victims getting fed up and standing up for themselves and kicking butt and taking names, we create the impression that this is even possible. We feed into the cultural narrative that the world works that way. We create the impression that someone like Gabrielsson should be willing to hire/become a hacker, set right her own wrongs, and get on with not bothering the rest of us about the little details. We use what is ostensibly victim-cheerleading to really engage in victim-blaming.
I'm hesitant to condemn vigilante literature. I think there's a time and a place to remind the abusers in society that they are not untouchable. And yet I think when we indulge in vigilante literature, there's an important point to be remembered, that most victims simply don't have the resources to engage in vigilante retribution, and that no victim should be expected to.
I think Larsson got that. But I also think that a good many of his readers don't.
Ana's Note: Please remember while commenting that Eva Gabrielsson is a person who has been through a significant emotional loss and who has been thrust rather unexpectedly into the public eye by the death of her partner, the success of his books, and the loss of her inheritance. Please tailor comments accordingly and try to avoid victim-blaming.