Women and Men Who Are Ambivalent about Men Who Hate Women

by | August 16, 2012
filed under Books, Feminism, Pop Culture

Men Who Hate Women and Women Who Kick Their Assesby Jessica Critcher

I just finished reading Men Who Hate Women and Women Who Kick Their Asses. The title was so interesting; I jumped at the chance to review this book. It was only after the book arrived and I read the full title (Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy in Feminist Perspective) that I realized it was about the popular Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books. It seems the universe decided to throw some odd coincidences my way.

I have never actually read the Millennium trilogy, because I heard it was so problematic for feminists.  I heard, for example, that it was a thrilling page-turner. But I also heard that it featured a very graphic rape and several references to it and other explicit violence against women. For me, those can’t exist together. No disrespect to Glamour, but when I hear “rape”, I don’t think “sexy, addictive thriller”.

I heard that the heroine is tough and gets revenge on her attackers. That’s usually why people recommend the books to me.  But I also heard that she gets breast implants because she hates the way she looks. All of this combined sounded like it would feed into the fighting fuck toy trope, or at least the tired tradition in popular media of making a character a survivor of rape in order to easily provide a “complicated” back story—most of the time that’s just lazy writing.

It’s not that I won’t read or watch (or enjoy) things that are problematic—it’s that life is short, and I have a lot of great books to read before I die. This series can wait, I decided. And I never got around to it. Instead, I would apparently rather read a book of feminist essays about the series than read the books themselves.

The essays cover a wide range of viewpoints and opinions toward the books from love to hate and even that restless ambivalence we’ve all felt while grappling with problematic media.  There is some discussion of Sweden’s welfare state and actual violence against women statistics. There is also an essay about the reactions of feminist bloggers to the Millennium Trilogy. One of my favorite essays was an insightful comparison of Lisbeth to Pippi Longstocking. I was also intrigued by an essay which placed The Millennium Trilogy in the context of other Swedish crime thrillers, rather than other books originally written in English. Dragon Tattoo may be unique to us, but in Sweden it actually follows several genre conventions.

Some of the language is pretty academic, but not to the point of inaccessibility. This book would make a thoughtful present for the feminist Dragon Tattoo fan in your life. It would also be useful for book club meetings, or other discussions of the texts, as they help to unpack common concerns (and praise). Perhaps what I liked most about this book was that it treats this pop-culture phenomenon seriously. The first essay, “Always Ambivalent” focuses on “Why media is never just entertainment.” In it, Abby L. Ferber points out:

I cannot count the number of times I hear, “Can’t you just enjoy the book/movie/ television show/ comedy routine without always analyzing it? After all, it is only entertainment.” Sadly, that is not the case. As McRobbie points out, “Relations of power are indeed made and re-made within texts of enjoyment and rituals of relaxation” (2004, 262). Sara Ahmed’s (2010) explication of the “feminist kill-joy” comes to mind here. She explores how the term is used pejoratively to dismiss feminist criticism. In response, she asks, “Does the feminist kill other people’s joy by pointing out moments of sexism? Or does she expose the bad feelings that get hidden, displaced, or negated under public signs of joy?” (38-39). It is these “bad feelings” I want to bring to the fore. They do not negate the real joy I experience in reading the Millennium trilogy, but as long as we live in a rape culture, much of the joy to be found in popular media will remain tempered by ambivalence.

About midway through reading this book, I found a box full of books abandoned on the sidewalk while I was on my way home from the laundromat. Even though I have dozens of books I haven’t read yet taking up shelf and desk space in my apartment, I stopped to browse through the box. I just can’t ignore free books. There at the bottom was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Fine, universe. I’ll take the hint. Apparently I’m supposed to read this story.  I’ll read the book and see what I think about it. At least now I’m sufficiently armed with some feminist critiques.

Editor’s Note: The copy of the book Jessica reviewed was provided free-of-charge by the book publisher.

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