Recently, I read Marie Haws’ enlightening essay about the brilliance of Mary Harron’s adaptation of American Psycho. While the essay has some strong ideas about Harron’s female perspective and its ability to deconstruct the male ego at the heart of Bret Easton Ellis’ satire, she made one statement which really rubbed me the wrong way:
I still remember how peeved I was when I saw the teaser poster for David Fincher's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." It amounts to the sexualization of a rape victim. And then later on, I heard about the changes he'd made to Salander's character - softening her appearance somewhat to make her more attractive, while modifying the relationship with Blomkvist so as to make it less threatening to men. WTF?
Not that I was surprised. It's par for the course. Like "Drive" with Ryan Gosling - it's ultimately about what men want to see - even if it means having to regurgitate then eat what's come before to maintain an illusion of political correctness, while being just as clueless about itself as the genre it’s a homage to.
Using the texting term “WTF” in an essay aside (oh, man did the English teacher in me cringe at that), I was very disappointed that such a progressive opinion about a film like American Psycho would lead to such a short-sighted opinion about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Drive. To suggest that these two films are “clueless,” and that David Fincher softened Lizbeth Salander to make her more attractive and politically correct is narrow and, frankly, wrong.
I don’t want to focus on Drive here, mainly because the two films Ms. Haws sites are vastly different types of films with vastly different agendas. Since she focuses mostly on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and uses Drive as a supplementary example, I’ll stick to Fincher’s film. She is essentially accusing it of being misogynistic, an attitude that has been expressed by several other critics in their reviews of the film. Dragon Tattoo is far from a misogynistic work.
Before I break this down, I have to make one thing clear: I am a man. I know, my name is really ambiguous, but I do, indeed, have a penis, and it says “male” on my driver’s license. This needs to be mentioned, though, for the simple fact that I’m a part of the audience Ms. Haws says the film is being “softened” for. The suggestion is that men, in general, are threatened by aggressive female characters, so they have to be reduced in some way by filmmakers in order to make men feel more comfortable in the theater. After all, we have to maintain our perceived gender superiority, right?
The problem with being male and writing a defense of David Fincher’s adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s novel is that my opinion on what is and isn’t misogynistic can easily be dismissed. After all, the movie is made for people like me, so, of course I’m going to find nothing wrong with it. That sort of ad hominem drivel is silly, though. Anyone who has read this blog knows that I am frequently critical of the rampant misogyny in romantic comedies, which I feel prey on the stereotypes of romance-seeking women and ultimately view them as foolish, shallow creatures. I can’t stand stereotypical women in film, and want more aggressive female characters.
Lizbeth Salander is this type of character. And even more important than being aggressive, which is satisfying in and of itself, she is complex. Complex female characters are even rarer than aggressive ones, especially in male dominated films like Dragon Tattoo, and that should be celebrated. I think a lot of critics were challenged by this, trying to define Lizbeth Salander as a rape victim who fights against victimization, but ultimately unable to reconcile the perceived contradiction of her attraction to Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig). That’s the point Fincher’s trying to make about Lizbeth, though, that she is unable to be classified. Once you think you have her pegged, she takes an unexpected turn.
When we first encounter Lizbeth, we see her through the perspective of men. Her employer, Armansky, and an old school lawyer, Dirch Frode, ask for her report on Blomkvist. We see her through their eyes as a misanthropic punk, quiet, angry, but capable of doing quality investigative work. Armansky recognizes her skill, and by the end of the scene, Frode is asking for her opinion of the disgraced journalist she has been researching.
As Lizbeth is developed, we begin making assumptions about her lifestyle, only to have them subverted. Of course she lives alone, but she seems to prefer the company of women. She doesn’t have any family, but she is loyal to Homer Palmgren, a man we discover is her court appointed guardian. This must mean she is a poor ward of the court. But, then, how does a sullen, dark, lesbian, punk rock, chain smoking youth become a prized researcher for a high-end security firm? Fincher never really explains, allowing us to admire Lizbeth’s skill set as others seem to do while being less than appreciative of her social skills.
But then Palmgren is incapacitated by a stroke, and rendered incapable of tending to Lizbeth’s affairs. The autonomy she has valued since being assigned to him vanishes the moment she meets her new guardian, the loathsome Mr. Bjurman. The moment she arrives in his office is the first time Lizbeth is sexualized in the film, but we do not see her through his eyes. The scene is set up from her point-of-view, in which we recognize Bjurman as the disgusting lecher he is, using his power as her guardian to solicit sexual favors from her. Her sexuality is stolen from her in her initial scenes with him as she is turned into a victim. Bjurman looms over her in the framing, showing Lizbeth not so much as a victim, but as a woman who has suddenly found herself without the power to which she has become accustomed.
But as her scenes with Bjurman mount, Lizbeth becomes the power player, especially in the scene when she gets her revenge for being raped. Suddenly, she is the aggressor, using her sexuality as a weapon. Fincher allows this complexity, which is definitely offensive and frightening. We expect Lizbeth to get revenge – after all, she was wronged, and everyone believes rape is evil – but we do not expect her to get her revenge in such a sexual fashion. If anything, Fincher makes the connection in this scene between rape and power, revealing that rape is not about sex at all – sex is just the means to the end of obtaining power through forcing someone into submission. Lizbeth forces Bjurman into submission, rapes him with a dildo, them tattoos “rapist” on his chest, meanwhile blackmailing him with a video of the time he raped her. Not only does she become the power player here over a definite demon of a man, but she seems to get off on this. This may be the scariest element of the revenge scene; Fincher sexualizes her to show that she is enjoying revenge. That is not misogyny, it is complexity. There is a release to be had in revenge, which is why it is such a common human reaction.
But the biggest issue most of the critics, including Ms. Haws, seem to have with Dragon Tattoo is Lizbeth’s relationship with Mikael Blomkvist. The general feeling is one of frustration over the fact that such a proud character who seems to hate men could fall in love and become hurt when he betrays her at the end by maintaining an open relationship with another woman. I agree that if we take a simple interpretation, this is as shallow as the third act marriage between Dejas Thoris and John Carter in John Carter, but Fincher’s story earns the ending, because it reveals Lizbeth’s development as a character.
Part of what defines Lizbeth Salander is her inability to trust anyone, especially men. She keeps everyone at arm’s length: her employer, her guardian, her hacker friends, and her lovers. Initially she tries to do this to Blomkvist – after all, he’s just a man whose computer she hacked, and whom she followed to file a report as part of a job – but Blomkvist challenges her by approaching her on her own turf. In the scene in which they first meet, Blomkvist comes to her, and Fincher’s composition of the shots in this scene reveal them as equals. It’s important that the scene is shown from Blomkvist’s perspective because it makes it clear that Blomkvist has the same view; he does not see himself as superior to Lizbeth. Like the other quality men in her life, he does not judge her and values her for her abilities. Over time, he comes to value her company, too.
As their relationship progresses, Lizbeth and Blomkvist become lovers and friends. This doesn’t seem to trouble many people – it’s a typical beat in these sorts of stories. What bothers people, though, is that Lizbeth develops an attachment to Blomkvist that she intends to pursue as a long term relationship. Again, Fincher allows Lizbeth the freedom to go where her character’s journey takes her. Falling in love with Blomkvist is a definite left turn because it defies everything we know about Lizbeth. She is not the sort of fall in love. She doesn’t trust men. She is autonomous. But through her feelings for her guardian, we discover that she is a woman searching for connection, if on her own terms. She finds this in Mikael Blomkvist, and this is one of the story’s greatest revelations.
Lizbeth doesn’t have to be the victim. She can own her sexuality, find passion in pain, and choose to fall in love if the person she desires is worthy of her love. This is a complex character, and the only reason why the movie succeeds. Fincher may show her through the male lens because Lizbeth lives in a male world, but she is always her own woman, making her own decisions, even if those decisions ultimately turn out to be conventional ones. Her ultimate triumph as a character is not getting revenge for being wronged, but for learning how to trust and love a person. That’s a powerful message, not a detrimental one.
Ms. Haws says that all this is done to make Lizbeth less threatening. I’d say the opposite holds true. What is scarier to a man than a woman who loves and trusts him? Giving love and trust is relinquishing power, and that sort of sacrifice is not to be taken lightly. The tragedy of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is that Blomkvist is so self-centered that he does not recognize how far Lizbeth has come as a human being, not just as a woman. His perception of women may be progressive as far as most men are concerned, but his attitudes are too cavalier and insensitive, which leads to Lizbeth’s inevitable heartbreak.
Now, had Blomkvist understood her, and had they ended the film in a loving embrace, would the critics be sated? Is it the fact that the plot is cruel and destroys Lizbeth’s newfound trust that is where the misogyny comes from? I’m not sure. I find the irony of the ending to be one of the best parts of the film. Lizbeth’s initial perspectives are confirmed, making her harder, and perhaps more dangerous. This experience will sharpen her, making her even more formidable and challenging a character. That’s how female characters should be treated in films – they should be afforded the respect of formative experience, for good or bad.
Is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo misogynistic? Absolutely not. It’s a powerful film about the progression of a complicated woman who stands on her own as a person in an awful world that is full of misogynists. That’s a huge difference. Fincher’s lens is every bit as important to building up the female ego as Mary Harron’s lens was for breaking down the male in American Psycho. Before making an offhand comparison between the two in her essay, I wish Ms. Haws would have thought twice about this.