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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  • doublestar

    I have read MANY feminist critiques (and feminist criticisms) of the Millenium books, and most of the takedowns are bam on the money — there was a very long comment thread on Tiger Beatdown that made me guffaw dozens of times. I would not actively recommend these books to other people. Yet, if asked, I would say that the books are worth reading. Not as ‘page turners’ (hello 20-page Ikea shopping trip), not as ‘feminist masterpieces’, but as commercial works of fiction that openly deal with issues of sexism, child abuse, and violence against women… as FULLY BAD things that are also real things in the world. I was sincerely surprised, after reading them, that they were so obscenely popular.
    I think what bogs down anyone trying to make a feminist reading of Millenium is in assuming that the main character must be feminist. Lisbeth Salander is not a meaningfully feminist icon, and was not intended as such, I don’t think. In fact, it’s almost everyone else who is– people who want to help Lisbeth because it’s the right thing to do, people who want to fight a corrupt system because it’s what needs doing. Lisbeth is Action Woman, clumsily hobbled by poor body-image issues in book 2 probably simply because the writer couldn’t think of a better flaw.

    • Julie

      The author of the trilogy is a feminist and intended Lisbeth to be a feminist. He named her Lisbeth after a 15 yr. old girl he watched his friends gang rape when he the author of the books was a teenager. He said it horrified and haunted him and made him a feminist. He later appologized to the girl for not reacting to her rape, who told him, “I will never forgive you.” There is a book on him on Amazon selling for a penny right now. I was also gang raped and although I have not read the books, nor this book, I love the first film of “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” – I think she makes a great feminist heroine.

  • I’ve only seen the movies, and i don’t remember there eve being a mention of breast implants. And i also felt the movies treated the subject of rape respectfully.

    But then again, what makes something feminist(or not) isn’t always clear cut, and i think this may be one of those cases.

  • I wrote a blog entry here (http://another-order.blogspot.com.au/2012/12/recently-i-reread-stieg-larssons.html) where I tried to say that the books are a meditation on the concept of “human security” and that links them to the feminist tradition. Lisbeth herself does have a bit of the fighting fuck toy thing going on.

  • Damelia

    Yes, in the books there is graphic descriptions of rape and explicit violence against women. There is also explicit violence in general, violation of pretty much every right there ever was or ever will be and other dark themes (I can’t go giving away everything, can I?) the books are actually fascinating.

    Lisbeth is a character who has endured abuse from the time she was a child and every time people seek to hurt her, she hurts them back, sometimes in unpleasant ways that shock some readers. I read Dragon Tattoo when I was 13, and found it more eye-opening than disturbing. (I feel it’s also important to mention that I am not a raving psychopath).

    Keep in mind that these books were also written in the early 2000’s, and several concepts have been evolved since then. Lisbeth is subjected to unnecessary violence, but so are many of the other characters. I recommend the books to people who aren’t squeamish and can stomach violence.

    The breast implants, even I can admit, were somewhat out of character and I didn’t at all agree with the decision, but I can respect it. If you were 26 and 4″11, 90 lbs, somewhat body-conscious and wanted bigger breasts, I commend you for your choice. Your body is yours to change as you see fit, in my opinion.

    On the fighting fuck toy remark: excuse me, but hell no. She may have had sex with men older than her, and she had casual flings, but really? Fighting fuck toy? She didn’t allow her guardian Advokat Nils Bjurman to rape her, he was 230 lbs vs a woman who could have passed for 12, if she wanted to. In the books, she doesn’t simply allow herself to be passed around, she fights it and it simply doesn’t happen. She doesn’t fight aimlessly: she fights to get out of these situations.

    I think that the reason they’re so popular is because, and I’ll have to quote Oscar Wilde here, “The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.” Grotesque as it may seem, we enjoy books that open our eyes. Perhaps not so brutally, but some people enjoy that in a book.

    From a purely literary perspective, these books were flawless. As you said, the English was refined but not to the point of being incomprehensible.

    BTW, rereading this, this is bordering on being a bdelygmia and I seriously hope I have not insulted you in any way, shape or form. Not my intention at all: I just really enjoyed the books.

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