I seem to have missed a pop culture step. How exactly did we go from Harry Potter as American icon to Lisbeth Salander, a tattooed, pierced, bisexual, motorbike-riding, computer hacker with a photographic memory? There was Twilight, but that doesn't help explain Steig Larsson, the now deceased Swede whose first-time novels have sold over 40 million copies with only subtitled film adaptations thus far released. Bella Swan isn't much better than Hermione Granger in the women's liberation department. They are both quite constrained by men with supernatural powers.
But the current focus of mass hysteria is a woman of a vastly different kind, touching more than some seemingly primitive need of girls to be swept off their feet by men of unusual character. No, Larsson's 700-page books are driven forward not by men of unusually good character, but by the core truth that women are often treated badly -- very badly in fact. And it's just about time for these men to pay, and pay dearly.
It's no accident that Larsson's original title, now bastardized by the American publishers, was Men Who Hate Women. The answer to how and why Larsson has taken the literary world by storm is not so much the sparkling writing -- because it's not -- but the deep-seated subconscious itch that these books scratch for us as we look at the gender wars of 2010. Let's face it, we live in an era dominated not just by celebrity sex addiction but by pornography, teenage prostitution, a Catholic church marred by pedophilia, rich old farts getting ready for diapers with hot young wives, and Roman Polanski and the cult of childhood female beauty as if Lolita were not a novel but a national obsession; we have all had just about enough.
But we don't talk about any of this openly. We point fingers at Tiger Woods and read People Magazine instead of looking around the neighborhood. Still, it's troubling. We all know that something is deeply wrong when girls are exploited.
So into the social milieu enters, purely by chance, a fictitious savior who single-handedly puts some justice back into the gender wars. Salander is 25 yet is 90 pounds of pre-pubescent girl. By the time we meet her, she's got plenty of ink and attitude. She can and does cast a sexual power on just about whomever the hell she wants, male or female. She barely speaks if she doesn't feel like it and her computer-hacking prowess enables her to solve crimes. But really, all that is window dressing.
Salander is the ultimate female victim. Through bad luck, this young girl with Asperger syndrome ends up a ward of the state, as do so many girls in real life. She is tortured as a mental health patient, and is saved by a friendly legal guardian, only to find herself in the clutches of a second guardian with malicious intent. He savagely rapes the young girl, in an act that symbolizes in so many ways the sexual exploitation that is a reality unfolding around us every day; crimes that we have to witness and endure repeatedly in silence.
But what makes Salander different, what speaks to us so deeply, is that she doesn't just accept the abuse. She is a justice seeker like Batman, only dealing with a crime that is a thousand times more real due to both its prevalence and our collective silence as witnesses to the ordeal. Salander turns from victim to vigilante in a way that breaks the cycle of sexual exploitation and has us all out of our seats in a standing ovation, just waiting to see what the hell she does next, even if it is a watered-down crime novel series with a plot that takes way, way too long to unfold.
Salander videotapes her tormentor as he commits rape on her person and then ties him up with the same restraints before tattooing "I AM A SADIST PIG" across his stomach. She has the chance to kill him but decides that it would be way better to use her genius computer spy skills to track his every move with the threat that if he makes one wrong move the film will be released showing him as a rapist and he will be killed. In the process, she is liberated of more than her physical torment, regaining access to her money and no longer needing to subject herself to a legal system which has misunderstood her so profoundly. In a way, her liberation frees us all of the sexual exploitation that has come to plague not only the news headlines but our very lives.
If raping children, either literally or virtually, has become a national pastime, then this one series of books has the chance to change all that once and for all.