I spent today watching the film adaptations of the Millennium Trilogy by the late author Stieg Larsson and was blown away. The thing that struck me the most was just how amazing the main character is. Lisbeth Salander is an extremely talented “researcher” and works for a company that does security and background checks. The second main character is Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist who after being falsely convicted of libel, steps down from his magazine job and takes up work on solving a 40 year old murder mystery (which eventually blows up into the hunt for a religiously motivated serial killer.) Lisbeth, having done a “background check” for a client on Blomkvist, repeatable hacks into his laptop and learns of the murder mystery. Blomkvist is unable to decipher a code of phone numbers in the victim’s diary, but Lisbeth does. After solving the code, she decides to make herself know to Blomkvist and the two pair up to solve the mystery.
Meanwhile Lisbeth has major problems of her own. At the age of 12 she attempted to kill her father after he repeatably raped her mother, once beating her so bad as to cause brain damage. Because of this murder attempt, and the fact that her father’s identity and status in the country was a matter of national security, a conspiracy ensued to have Lisbeth locked up until she was 18 in a mental hospital, and then made a ward of the state, despite being 25.
One of the things that is amazing about Lisbeth is how resourceful she is. Despite being a ward of the state, she manages to get a job for a security company and manages her life like any normal adult. That is until her elderly legal guardian has a stroke, only to be replaced with a new one. This new guardian seizes control of her bank accounts and acts as a parole officer, each week writing reports on her behavior. He alone has the power to completely destroy her. Not surprisingly, this new “guardian” uses this leverage to extort oral sex from Lisbeth in order for her to have access to her money. This is where Lisbeth takes matters into her own hands. She sneaks a video camera into her hand bag on a trip to her guardian’s apartment. To her horror, this time he brutally rapes her, but it is all caught on film. Knowing the police have been no help to her in the past, she comes back to her guardian a third time, but this time ambushes him. When he wakes up, he’s chained to the floor. She shows him the video footage of their last “encounter”, then tattoos “I am a sadistic pig and a rapist” in big black letters over his stomach. She informs him that he will write lovely things about her in his weekly reports, and that she’ll have full access to her money, or else the tape goes to the police. Thus she regains complete freedom.
Over the course of the three stories, Lisbeth becomes an avenger of sorts for woman who have been battered, raped, and murdered. In the second story, “The girl who played with fire”, Lisbeth and Blomkvist take on a sex trafficking ring. There is an amazing bit of dialog when Lisbeth ambushes one of the perps (named Sandstorm) at his house. She ties him up and asks:
Lisbeth: In January you visited Irina in an apartment in Norsborg. Why?
Sandstorm: I don’t know… I wanted her. She was beautiful.
Sandstorm: Yes, she was beautiful.
Lisbeth: And that gave you the right to tie her up and fuck her?
Lisbeth: You’re a sadistic pig, and a rapist.
On top of being very resourceful and able to take control of things, Lisbeth is extremely independent. She moves freely around the world and even manages to consistently evade the police after she’s framed for a triple murder. There is this one scene, and it might sound trivial on the surface, but Lisbeth has just moved into a new apartment and is assembling all the furniture with power tools.
Again, it might be silly, but I felt the point of that scene was to emphasis that there is nothing she can’t do, simply because she’s a woman. Another interesting side note is her sexuality. Lisbeth is bisexual, sleeping with men and women at various times in the trilogy. I interpreted this as another example of how she’s in control of who she is, and doesn’t let other people dictate her behavior. The same holds true for her clothes. For a good part of the films she is wearing dark punk goth outfits, with her hair and makeup to match. Oddly enough, she seems to dress this way the most whenever she’s in a place where it would be the most inappropriate (conventionally speaking) to do so; like an office or court room. (I must say, I also very much appreciated how Lisbeth was never portrayed as a sex object. She is a fit and healthy woman, but at no point in the films does it come across like she’s being sexualized. She’s a normal, average woman doing great things.)
Another thing that really surprised me was the relationship between Lisbeth and Blomkvist. Whereas most movies are about the male main character somehow saving the weak female character, this story made them equals. Blomkvist is heavily dependent on Lisbeth in the first movie. He is unable to solve they mystery without her, and she even ends up physically saving his life.
There is some sex in their relationship, but at no point is it turned into a power thing, or as a form of payment/reward. (In fact, the first time they have sex, Lisbeth wakes Blomkvist up in the middle of the night because she just feels like it) But I digress… With Bloomkvist owing his life to Lisbeth by the end of the first film, the power balance quickly levels out as Lisbeth gets framed for three murders and requires Blomkvist’s help to clear her name. (Not to mention he saves her life too). The best part is that while she needs Blomkvist’s help in solving the conspiracy, she by no means sits back helpless. The entire time she’s out fighting and uncovering facts for herself while Blomkvist tries other leads. At the end, Blomkvist get’s a “thank you” instead of sex. This way the relationship remains one of equals helping each other out with mutual respect, instead of Blomkvist riding in on a white horse to save a poor damsel in distress and being granted sexual favors in return.
It was really nice to see an intelligent, strong, capable, independent, and resourceful female lead that wasn’t also sexualized. If anything, Lisbeth really reminded me of Ripley from Alien. I can only hope to see more characters like her.