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Understanding Lisbeth Salander: The Dragon Tattoo Series

written by: Daniel Robson • edited by: Sarah Malburg • updated: 3/1/2013

Lisbeth Salander is the anti-hero of the Millennium Trilogy, a high-functioning autistic who leaves behind her a trail of bleeding bikers and cracked security systems. But what motivated Stieg Larsson to create this oddly sympathetic character?

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    Who Is Lisbeth Salander?

    Noomi Norén playing Lisbeth Salander The character of Lisbeth Salander in the Dragon Tattoo series means many different things to different people. For many she is a modern fairytale; interchangeably a blood-soaked feminist avenger or a sociopathic murderer. Either way, she is a character rooted firmly in the imagination of Stieg Larsson. Some of Larsson's critics claim that Lisbeth is little more than a sadistic outpouring of his misogynistic fantasies, quoting scenes like the brutal rape in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

    Others see more subtle nuances to the characterization, hints of the trials endured by real abuse victims. Salander takes actions that are consistent with her experiences, knowing with a despairing certainty that no authority figure will deign to help her.

    The first four pages of The Girl Who Played with Fire describes how Lisbeth had been manacled to a bed by a tyrannical psychologist, the thought of the revenge she had taken on her father being the only thing sustaining her. Later, in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest, we see Salander's revenge for that trauma. But the revenge, unlike that dished out to the guardian who had raped her, was through the courts.

    The court case forms the dénouement of the Millennium Trilogy, with a video of Dragon Tattoo’s brutal rape becoming a key piece of evidence. As the trial is abandoned there is a sense that, seeing authority figures actually helping her, a small chink might form in the mental fortifications Salander has built around herself.

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    Autistic Anti-Hero: Misinterpretations of Lisbeth Salander

    Critics of The Girl who Played with Fire deride the novel's opening for turning Salander into a Mary Sue character, a perfect hacker and mathematician. But they often overlook the flawed character, a high functioning autistic who is almost incapable of being close to others. This is highlighted by Lisbeth’s internal monologue near the end of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo:

    “Her problem was that she could not interpret her own feelings for him … Blomkvist was no erotic fantasy or daydream. It would have to come to an end. It could not possibly work out. What did he need her for? Maybe she was just a way to pass the time…”

    Some feminists take issue Lisbeth’s breast augmentation, claiming it shows she has ‘a great amount of disdain for her body’. However this reaction fails to take into account the character’s real motivations. Rather than undergoing augmentation to make herself more physically attractive, the procedure is used to give her greater confidence and change how people react to her.

    As Salander weighs in at just under 90 pounds, people often mistake her for a young girl; this can be seen when she attempts to buy an apartment. Athough it can be argued that having the surgery is a reaction to her heart being shattered from seeing Blomkvist emerging from a bar with Erika Berger, the augmentation also allows her to distance herself from the child who suffered so much at the hands of others--the child that people still see when they look at her.

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    Hacking: Intellectual Stimulation and Respect Without Social Interaction

    Choosing hacking as a profession for Salander was a canny move. Movies tend to show hackers as modern anti-heroes, clever people who can take on the establishment and win. However, unlike movie portrayals, hackers tend to be isolated from normal society. Instead they form their own cliques, with their own pecking orders based on intellect and skill.

    Making Lisbeth Salander part of this society serves an important purpose beyond just progressing the plot. Hackers are the ultimate anti-authority figures, something that immediately appeals to "I don't talk to policemen" Salander. Interaction is also done through the safety of a computer screen, removing all need for physical contact. This allows Lisbeth to dissociate what she is doing from the people behind the interactions. This allows intellectual stimulation unpolluted by other people’s opinions of her body, experiences or other proclivities.

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    Media Reaction

    The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Lisbeth Salander's Early Book Cover The real-world media reaction to Lisbeth Salander has, ironically, mirrored that of the novels. Journalists who, one senses, have barely read the books produce reviews that twist some small facts into a newsworthy story. In the Millennium Trilogy Lisbeth is characterized as 'a one-time member of the rock band called evil fingers', which the media perverts into as her being part of a satanic cult. Similarly Mirriam Wu, one of her female lovers, becomes known as the 'S&M dyke'.

    Stieg Larsson wryly characterizes how a story can be spread from a single source, in this case a police officer with no love for Salander, and soon become a full-blown sensationalist outrage. An especially good example is during the court scenes in The Girl who Kicked the Hornets' Nest. Blomkvist's sister, defending Salander, calls out a witness for mentioning Salander's sadistic sexual tendencies, with no evidence to back up the assertion other than 'reading too many evening newspapers'.

    Back in the real world we find that Daniel Mallory, in a book review for the L.A Times, talks of Stieg Larsson 'even introducing a lesbian satanical cult.' Things like this lead to the conclusion that some people in the media, whether they like Lisbeth Salander or find the anti-hero's characterization an offense, are not actually analyzing the character based on the novels but on hearsay and other reviews.