Thoughts on Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy

This isn’t a review. Lots has been written about these books already. But there’s one element that persistently bugs me about the trilogy, and it’s to do with the treatment of women. If you haven’t read the books, you might want to skip this unless you’re not planning to. I haven’t gone all-out with the spoilers, but you will probably prefer to start with a blank slate.

Larsson doesn’t hide the fact that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is about sexual and physical abuse of women*. The stats quoted at the beginning of each section, the horrific scene of brutal sexual violence against one character, the twisted tale of sadistic murder; it’s pretty clear (and sometimes, I think, a little more graphic than it really needs to make the point). But then the trilogy starts to be about the abuse of a specific character, and her history and that’s where I think the point loses its way.

It comes to the point where every single unpleasant character – and they’re ALL men, the bad guys; the women are all either laughably perfect or appallingly damaged – is a violent misogynist. It’s not enough for them to be a bit of a turd; no, if you’re a man and a bad guy, you must also want to rape women, sexually abuse small children or think every woman who isn’t interested in you is a twisted lesbian Satanist (seriously, read it, you’ll see). Oh, or you’re a pimp.

The main male character, however, Mikael Blomkvist, is none of these things. No, he’s the perfect embodiment of journalistic integrity, and he’s disgusted by the pimps and abusers, murderers and rapists. As well anyone decent might be. But at the same time, he treats the women he actually cares about pretty shabbily, bouncing from bed to bed and refusing to renounce his lover for the sake of his marriage or subsequent relationships. He trundles from one sexual encounter to the other, assuming that no-one could possibly be any more emotionally invested than he is. This is not to say that women can’t be dispassionate about casual encounters at all; it’s just that Blomkvist never troubles himself to find out either way.

So on the one hand we have a bunch of cartoon bad guys who all want to destroy womankind, and yet womankind’s defender is at best a rather self-obsessed bedhopper. Oh yay; just what we need to save us. Of course, even the most independent and powerful of all the female characters – the dragon-tattooed girl herself, Lisbeth Salander – can’t free herself without his help. And even his lover, the irrepressible Erika Berger, is stalked by a man (of course) whose favourite epithet for her is ‘whore’.

I’m really not sure where Larsson was going with all this. They’re well-written and gripping books – the murder mystery, the family saga and the post-Cold War spy thriller – but this relentless casting of women as victims is frustrating.

That, and the fact that no-one seems to be able to do a damn thing without hourly infusions of coffee and sandwiches.

*Update: I now know a little more about Larsson’s history and why violence against women was such a preoccupation of his (look it up); the casting of Lisbeth as a victim that is saved by Blomkvist makes a certain kind of cathartic sense (I wish I’d known the book’s Swedish title was Men Who Hate Women. However, the whole trilogy wasn’t called that, much though it felt like it). And I’m afraid it doesn’t stop the relentless one-sidedness – man = bad, sexually violent – being annoying; it would have been even better had Lisbeth had the strength to save herself.

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4 responses to “Thoughts on Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy

  1. Well, the latter makes a nice change from the British obsession with tea, or many heroes’ obsession with something stronger… But I think you’ve pretty much put me off the books now 😉 I wasn’t that bothered either way, but I’m pretty sure I’d find them very wearying in their treatment of women.

    • Of course, it’s possible you’d read it completely differently! I think Larsson was trying to do a good thing, but it became a bit simplistic in the other direction; virtually all the women were thoroughly modern specimens of feminist principles, which is lovely but as thoroughly unrealistic as suggesting that every ‘bad guy’ is also sexually violent.

  2. Are they worth reading? I’ve not gotten around to them yet, and seem to have missed most of the trilogy … oops. Worth a look, or too irritating?

    • They’re certainly gripping, and well-written. There were things I found annoying (obviously), but I wouldn’t say that makes them not worth reading. If you like suspense / thriller type stuff, then I’d say you’ll enjoy them anyway!

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