The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Over at the New York Times, there's a trend piece on "newly empowered petites" on TV and in the movies by Maria Ricapito that declares, "In books, movies and TV shows, tiny women are shattering stereotypes and appearing as aggressive characters spoiling for a fight." Ricapito goes on to list a number of characters in the media that qualify, such as Lisbeth Salander of The Girl Who Played With Fire, Sookie from True Blood, Fiona Glenanne from Burn Notice, Hit-Girl from Kick-Ass, and the Powerpuff Girls as examples of characters whose looks disguise their strength.

While it makes sense to run an article about the diminutive but dangerous Salander since Fire opens on July 9th in limited release, it's a stretch to lump her in with Sookie, Hit-Girl, the Powerpuff Girls, and a former IRA agent who looks like she could be on the cover of Vogue. Although it's been over ten years since Natalie Portman grabbed a gun as Mathilda in The Professional, she's at least as timely or appropriate an example as the Powerpuff Girls.

Salander, "the ultimate pixie with attitude," receives special attention because her small and wiry frame and the considerable damage she doles out with it is described in detail by writer Stieg Larsson. "Often described as waiflike, she is constantly reducing thugs to a bloody mess," writes Maria Ricapito. While it's true that Larsson describes in detail Salander's physique to the point of fetishization, it seems simplistic to lump Salander in with these other characters.

The Girl Who Played With Fire

Larsson's trilogy is about the evil that men do - the first book and movie were originally called Men Who Hate Women. No other character in the series bears the brunt of this hate more literally than Salander. Even as a woman in her twenties, she's still a sort of ward of the state with a legal guardian and very few rights of her own. She's been abused her whole life by those meant to protect her, as well as strangers she encounters who see nothing more than a tiny punk chick to pick on, and because of this, she responds with immediate brutality or calculated plans for revenge. She's not a superhero or an antihero; she's a badly damaged product of the system. She long ago decided that no one would believe anything she had to say, so why bother saying anything at all? Instead of calling the police, she simply takes matters into her own hands. While Salander was written to be and has been embraced as a feminist heroine, she herself would probably not give a crap either way as long as everyone would just leave her alone, already.

To include Lisbeth Salander in this group also overlooks a major aspect of her persona: her androgyny. Salander isn't a "violent femme"; she's not femme at all. She adorns herself with typically masculine signifiers, from the giant dragon tattoo on her back to her leather coats and big boots. Her closest friends are other hackers across the world who have rarely, if ever, met, although it stands to reason that most of them are probably men. She takes lovers regardless of gender with a brusque "Wanna f*ck?" attitude. And more frequently than not, the insult hurled at her is that she's a lesbian who just needs a really good man to show her what's what.

Ricapito's conclusion is that "perhaps Americans feel powerless in an era of gushing oil, ongoing wars and a slippery economy, and want to believe that the little people can vanquish the big bad guys." Personally, it leads me to wonder how Salander will be portrayed in the US adaptation. Will the screenplay be faithful to Larsson's characterization of her, or will she have to be sexed up for an American audience? Will she have to be made more feminine to appeal to our lust for hotties with big guns and flying fists, or will Finch et al allow Lisbeth to remain in her grey zone when it comes to gender and sexuality?