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Ilana Teitelbaum Headshot

The Girl Who Read Enough of Stieg Larsson

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So I didn't go to the beach this summer, but I tend to think of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as my beach read gone wrong. I'll explain.

I've wanted to read this book since before it went mainstream. Yet two weeks into the book and still barely halfway through, I found myself wondering what so many millions of readers are so excited about. Pushing through to the end, I continued to wonder. This was supposed to be my beach read, yet I was kind of... bored.

The mystery is conventional: murder, isolated area, wealthy and eccentric family with more than one skeleton in the closet. And I like conventional mysteries, but they have to be well-plotted; they have to twist and twist until the suspense is unbearable. In this case, Occam's Razor turns out to be the order of the day: the most obvious resolution is the correct one, which is a nice way of saying that the mystery is predictable from five hundred pages away.

Add the fairly dull main character of Blomkvist and an abundance of corporate jargon to the mix, and the question looms even larger: what is going on here?

That was when I realized that the only elements which differentiate The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo from the average murder mystery were Lisbeth Salander, and a hyperfocus on sadism and rape. And there is no separating the two.

In a book originally named Men Who Hate Women (and let's not even get into the irony that books meant to skewer the objectification of women became The Girl this and The Girl that. I love America) the character of Lisbeth clearly stands for female empowerment. She doesn't need a man, is smarter than most of them, and when she is raped, she gets revenge of a sort that is almost sublime in its completeness. The details of her rape are so horrific -- and more on that later -- that her victory over her rapist is made all the more triumphant.

That is probably the real climax of the book, even as it occurs somewhere in the middle. Nothing that follows carries an equivalent adrenaline rush.

But this is where it becomes problematic, because even as Lisbeth Salander is intended to stand for female empowerment, she is paradoxically a symbol of some of the most disempowering male fantasies. Right at the beginning, we get this description of Lisbeth -- and not coincidentally, she is introduced to the reader from the perspective of a much older man smitten with her beauty. At first he describes her as "anorexic" -- but then he clarifies:

"She did not in fact have an eating disorder...On the contrary, she seemed to consume every kind of junk food. She had simply been born thin..." (p. 34)

I think this was the point where my head hit my desk. It's one thing to make the character anorexically thin -- that is unhelpful enough, but everyone does it. It's quite another to emphasize that this thinness is in spite of devouring junk foods on a regular basis. That's where the description crosses the line into fantasy -- or science fiction.

Lisbeth goes on to channel Sidney Bristow by donning various sexy disguises -- including fake boobs -- and the appeal in that is obvious if you've ever seen Alias. What woman wouldn't want to be Sidney: stunningly slender, diving half-naked from a swank hotel window into an Olympic-sized pool, a diamond bracelet encircling her perfect ankle?

The combination of this fetishizing of the character with the graphic rape scene -- which features, among other things, "an enormous butt plug" -- seems to me to directly contradict the message of the book about the depravity of objectifying women. Even as the book ostensibly takes a stand against this objectification, such scenes only serve to provide a further dose of it. In addition to the rape scene, the book contains many more descriptions of the torture of women -- of murders that are inventive in their sadism and distinctly sexual in tone.

And since the rest of the book is rather bland, it seems that it's this kind of titillation which is responsible for the explosive popularity of this novel. I can't imagine it's really about the corporate gossip, or the garden variety mystery.

I'll be moving on to other books instead of the sequels. While eating lots of junk food, of course.