The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: Yikes, and no thanks

TRIGGER WARNING for this film. Really. This film contains explicit scenes of graphic sexual violence. I almost walked out, so please be careful. I am going to mention that it happened in this review, though not discuss any specific details.

A while back, Heroine Content reader -J- shared a trailer link in the comments and wondered what we would think of the main character Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (Män som hatar kvinnor in Swedish, which means Men Who Hate Women). Since I am easily suggestible and it was playing up north at the art house theater, I set off one fine Sunday afternoon to relax with a little Swedish film entertainment. I had tried to avoid reading any reviews in much detail so as not to spoil the plot. What I knew: goth looking hacker girl investigates crime. So far, so good.

About halfway through the movie, I leaned over to my husband and whispered “I’m so sorry, I didn’t know.”

We both managed to stay in our seats, though it was touch and go. By the time we left, we both felt like we’d been kicked in the stomach repeatedly.

Remember back in my review of Kick-Ass when I was all “I don’t know if I can really get behind this character even though I thought I would want to?” Hit Girl, meet Lisbeth Salander. You two have a truckload in common.

Salander is one of two central characters in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Played by Noomi Rapace, Salander is a tattooed, pierced, bisexual hacker prodigy who is currently under the legal guardianship of the Swedish human services system. (I’m seeing comments online that in the book from which the film was adapted, she has Asperger syndrome, though this isn’t clear in the film. In the film it’s presented more as having a possible history of mental illness or possibly just being labeled as such due to a specific childhood incident. I don’t know enough about Asperger syndrome to speculate based on her behaviors on the movie.)

To give you a quick plot summary, Salander becomes involved in an investigation by a disgraced former reporter, Mikael Blomkvist. Salander was originally hired to investigate Blomkvist himself when he was on trial for libel. As she learns more about him, though, she can’t resist spying on his latest project and starts to offer him clues. They work together to solve the disappearance of a young girl 40 years ago. As they get closer to truth, someone is trying to stop them from revealing the dark secret, yada yada yada.

Figuring out how I feel about the film, separating that from how I feel about Salander as a character, and also how I feel about the choices she makes, has been really difficult. She is far more complex than 99% of the “heroines” I’ve reviewed on this blog. Of course, with my usual diet of shoot-em-up whizzbang action movies, that’s no surprise. This is a real movie, not a Hollywood action movie, though Salander rides a motorcycle and hits people over the head with the best of them. I really enjoyed watching her work. She’s obviously brilliant, magnetic, and she looks really cool. The film might be trying to place her as Blomkvist’s sidekick, but it totally does not work. He’s following her around as her mind puts pieces of the case together. Loved it.

But Salander is brutally raped in TWO extremely graphic and drawn-out scenes. She then recreates a similar scene to punish the rapist. I was appalled by all three scenes. I couldn’t figure out why the people who made the film felt like I needed to watch it. Or in my case, listen to it, as I was covering my face. (The soundtrack was bad enough, I don’t want to know what was actually shown on screen.) Was I really not going to understand how bad her situation was just from the beginning of an assault and the aftermath?

Other people’s mileage varies significantly. (And none of these have trigger warnings, by the way. ) The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo: Why, oh why, is everything filled with rape? by Elizabeth of Kills Me Dead was really helpful to me in sorting out my thoughts for this review, but for other takes on the rape issue in this film:

These assaults do give some context for one of Salander’s later decisions in the film, where she condemns a murderer to death. In both situations (and in a third which I will not reveal to avoid spoilers), she chooses to have grave bodily harm visited on the Men Who Hate Women of the film’s title. If that works for you, then so be it.

But showing in explicit detail all the bad things that Men Who Hate Women do to those women, before having a woman punish them for it, does not end up feeling female-friendly to me. A lot of screen time that could have been spent showing Salander’s coolness was instead used to show men beating the crap out of her. Whether or not I agree with Salander’s actions as an avenging vigilante, I can’t get past my disagreement with the filmmakers on whether it was necessary to go to these lengths to establish that violence against women is wrong. I’m pretty sure we can establish in a film that murder is wrong without showing a 5 minute scene of him bludgeoning someone to death with a baseball bat.

The other two films in the trilogy apparently will be released in the U.S. this summer. I have no idea whether I’m going to see them. But this one gets no stars from me.

This post was originally published on Heroine Content, a feminist and anti-racist movie blog that ran from July 2006 to May 2012.

12 thoughts on “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: Yikes, and no thanks

  1. Jemima Aslana

    I won’t defend the portrayal of the rapes. I will, however, say that they were actually *more* graphic in the novels than in the film.

    I’ve read all three novels, I’ve only watched the first of the three films. The film had me go “OMG, that was awful, but gods am I glad they didn’t include everything!” though they did get damn close. I threw up after reading the second rape scene. I guess at the theatre I was prepared for watching it.

    I’ll also say this: the novels are not so much intended as a trilogy as one long story, as far as I’m informed. So therefore much about the characters is incomplete in the first instalment.

    Believe you me, the bad things that Men Who Hate Women do to those women? They get no better. I don’t remember when we are introduced to Lisbeth’s mother and father… but ohhhh dear.

    And there’s a whole lot of issues in how Lisbeth is bed-ridden in the third book and thus becomes solely a behind-the-computer-screen-player at the end, and Mikael Blomkvist has to do much of the field work. For the work of a declared feminist that’s rather… stereotypical.

  2. Laura

    I’ve only read the first two books in the trilogy (I’m going to read the third, but I literally just finished the second an hour ago), but I have not seen the movies. I read the books on recommendations from my dad and co-workers (I work in a bookstore). My dad took my mom to see the movie when it was playing in town (I had yet to finish the book, so I didn’t want anything ruined for me), and my mom was horrified having not read the book and not knowing what she was getting herself in to (much similar to your reaction). But everyone that I have talked to who has read the book and then seen the movie has really good things to say about the movie. Maybe because they are fully forewarned about the scenes of graphic sexual assault.

    The main comment that I wanted to make though was about your comment about Lisbeth having Asperger’s. I know that this was not a main part of your review, but I think it is an important part of Lisbeth as a character. There is no mention of Asperger’s in the first book, we just know that she is socially awkward, has been declared incompetent, and has been in and out of mental institutions. In the second book they discuss a lot about how she was never formally diagnosed with any mental illness, but there is a passing mention of Asperger’s. Maybe there’s more in the third book, I don’t know. I can see the possibility of Asperger’s, but I think that it is important to look at Lisbeth as a character based on her actions that based on her mental illness history.

    And as an end note. From reviews that I have gotten from the movie from people who have and have not read the book, I think that if you are considering to go see the movie and you have not read the book first, you should take the time and read it first. It will prepare you for the graphic scenes and give you a better background. And for you, Skye, if you can get past your experience with the movie (which I can understand if you can’t), you should give the books a try. You can always skip over the pages with the assault, but the books are amazing!

  3. Jemima Aslana

    Laura, you’re right about there being another comment about Asperger’s in the third book. It is brought up by Mikael towards the very end. He brings her some info on the condition and prods her in that “don’t you think this might explain a lot?” way. I find that very problematic, too, because hey… as a girl she was horribly abused and neglected by the system – sounds like a story I’ve heard before in real life – and as an adult she was treated like a child and no one ever thought to think holistically and figure out what was going on with her. I can sign to that happening as well. I still have to find a medical pro who will acknowledge not only that I have Asperger’s as well as depression but that both need to be treated at the same time, and that they canot be viewed as independent of the other. Hello, both happening in the same skull? Probably related.

    Ehm, sorry, got side-tracked. What I find problematic about it is that permeating wish to explain every quirk with a diagnosis or whatnot. So… are they saying that if she didn’t have Asperger’s things would be different? I don’t honestly know. Maybe the would. Maybe she wouldn’t be a superskilled hacker, but rather a superskilled psychologist? Who the hell cares?

    I do really like that the book honestly portrayed how people with disabilities are so much more at risk of abuse in the system. People who only barely have the resources to get through a day, we definitely do not have the resources to complain about anything, nor fight any battles of any kind. And rarely are people with disabilities considered able to describe their own situation. I mean, shit, people don’t even trust us to be able to tell them how we’re feeling.

  4. Marina

    Thanks for the review. Somehow this movie got on my “to watch” list, but it’s definitely off that list now. Thanks for the warning!

  5. -J-

    Despite suggesting this to you, I still haven’t gotten around to watching this, but I will shortly, and will have more to say then. Regarding the gruesome nature of several scenes, I dis not know how it would be translated to the screen, but when reading the books it was certainly shocking. I don’t know how the adaptation treated all the plot points, but in the structure of the novel’s narrative (and that of its sequels) the aforementioned events are significant for the storyline and message to develop. I’ll reserve judgment on how it was done until I see the film, but your initial take did seem very harsh.

  6. Skye

    @Jemima Aslana and Laura, the only reason I even mentioned the Asperger’s issue was that I had read so many pieces that stated it as fact, then the movie didn’t mention it at all. So I was intrigued, especially because the movie didn’t seem to take a position on whether she even “needed” to be diagnosed or whether she was trapped in the that system completely due to other people’s perceptions of her actions. And it was a chilling demonstration of how much potential for abuse there is in that system.

    @ -J-, I honestly struggled with writing this review for a loooong time after seeing the film, and I’m still really conflicted about both the movie and my review, so I will be quite interested to see what you think after seeing it.

  7. -J-

    Ok, so I finally got around to watching the movie, and my first thought was “wow, they really didn’t leave anything out, and played every scene to its gruesome maximum.” Maybe it’s just me, since I know some people experience visuals more strongly compared to text and vice verse, but I felt that the written versions of the rape scenes were even worse, so anyone going to read the novel now should be forewarned.

    My 2nd thought was “that really wasn’t even close to as good as the book”, and I really think there was a pacing issue, especially in the 1st half. In the book, Mikael struggles his way through a long investigation, and breaks through in the end mostly thanks to Lisbeth’s help; in the movie breaks in the case occur pretty much on their own at regular intervals, and Lisbeth’s contributions are greatly diminished, consisting mostly of having a photographic memory or something to that effect. That being said, it is still made clear that the mystery wouldn’t have been solved without her help, and that she saved his life and not the other way around. For those last two points I’d certainly look much more fondly on the film than this review. In short Skye, I can see why you rated it how you did, and fully understand your rationale, but I guess I’m just more willing to overlook a few scenes in the movie as a whole.

    And to the Aspergers thing, although in the novel it is openly speculated by Mikael that that is the cause of Lisbeth’s talents and condition, it is not that simple, and this issue is discussed more fully in the 2nd and 3rd installments.

  8. Brinstar

    I saw this film a couple weeks ago, completely unaware and oblivious to the fact that it contained these rape scenes (and particularly violent ones as well). Luckily, one of my friends warned be on Twitter about the content, so I knew what was coming, and I’m glad for it. While I think I could have coped okay not knowing, it was definitely better to know about it in advance. For example, I didn’t know about the rape scene in Man Bites Dog, and my boyfriend at the time was touting this film was one of the best films ever. After seeing the film, given there was this graphic rape scene in it, and given my ex’s high opinion about the film–the entire experience made me feel queasy. So yeah, I was uncomfortable with the rape scenes in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and glad I got some forewarning.

  9. Heather

    I’ve only seen the film, but what I saw on film was not Aspberger’s but extreme trauma and attachment issues.

  10. David Thatcher

    Stieg Larsson wrote it, really you must read it yourself to come to your own conclusion, but Michael Blomkvist, Holger Palmgren and Dr. Anders Jonasson all three believe she has Asperger’s syndrome or something like it, she may also be a sociopath or psychopath (now known as Antisocial Personality Disorder), which The evil Dr. Peter Teleborian suggests, and Stieg may have agreed with this after the first novel, but the three people believing it is Asperger’s within the trilogy, never come across with that, both Asperger’s disorder and are defined within the DSM-IV-PR and the ICD-10. The author threw many references and keys to reference against Pippi Longstocking and her Villa Villekulla in the trilogy; Larsson stated in interviews that he based the character of Lisbeth Salander on what he imagined Pippi Longstocking might have been like as an adult. Lisbeth is a redhead although she dies her hair black.

    Excerpt, p. 367 “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”;

    Michael Blomkvist:

    Asperger’s syndrome, he thought. Or something like that. A talent for seeing patterns and understanding abstract reasoning where other people perceive only white noise.

    Excerpt, p. 414 “The Girl Who Played with Fire”;

    Holger Palmgren:

    “She has an extremely hard time relating to other people. I thought she had Asperger’s syndrome or something like it. If you read the clinical descriptions of patients diagnosed with Asperger’s, there are things that seem to fit Lisbeth very well, but there are just as many symptoms that don’t apply at all. Mind you, she’s not the least bit dangerous to people who leave her in peace and treat her with respect. But she is violent, without a doubt,” said Palmgren in a low voice. “If she’s provoked or threatened, she can strike back with appalling violence.”

    Excerpt, p. 167 “The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest”;

    Dr. Anders Jonasson:

    Jonasson looked intently at Dr. Teleborian for ten seconds before he said: “I won’t argue a diagnosis with you, Dr. Teleborian, but have you ever considered a significantly simpler diagnosis?”

    “Such as?”

    “For example, Asperger’s syndrome. Of course, I haven’t done a psychiatric evaluation of her, but if I had to hazard a guess, I would consider some form of autism. That would explain her inability to relate to social conventions.”

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