I’m starting with Lisbeth Salander because she’s the one who got me thinking about this. I liked the idea of working more with female creators as well as female characters, and I still do, but I love Lisbeth so much that I can’t leave her waiting. It took me years to start reading this series, because it seemed like a fad, like a throw-away thriller. . . but no, no, no. They’re action-packed, yes, but also smart, creative, and thought-provoking. (There are movies, too— a Swedish triology, and an American version. They’re all pretty good, but read the books first. I’m just a book person, OK?).
First, a little background (but no spoilers): Lisbeth Salander is the protagonist of Swedish writer Stieg Larsson’s “Millenium” series, the first and most well-known of which is called The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in English. The translation of the original title, however, is Men Who Hate Women. They should have kept it, because it’s the heart of what makes Lisbeth a badass. Not her boxing, hacking skills, tattoos, or motorbike (but those are all pretty dope). Lisbeth Salander has a solid internal moral code, and she is not cowed by anyone or anything. She will not excuse men who hate women, and she has plenty of material to work with.
Lisbeth has been wronged, but she defies the inclination to think of her as a damsel in distress. She is loathe to ask for help, though she will accept it if it’s absolutely necessary, and the friends she has are understandably loyal. She will also also stand up for others who she sees as treated badly, often at great personal risk. Her tactics are ruthless but given her circumstances, both defensible and effective. She is not highly social, but neither is she a psychopath. She follows a highly developed conscience, it’s just not the same as the legal code. And she’s been through enough trauma and violence herself that the way her moral code developed makes perfect sense. Yes, she might break laws, including with violence sometimes. Although I tend to shy away from violent solutions, she makes a darn good case for why violence sometimes is the answer in a world that is violent towards women. And the book is full of violence against women. But to me, it doesn’t feel gratuitous or voyeuristic– it feels honest, and it feels like a powerful piece of Lisbeth’s life. Reacting with violence is an uncomfortable place for a treehugging space-muffin like me to go, but if we never get uncomfortable, we’re leaving a lot on the table.
I also appreciate that Lisbeth isn’t made into a princess. She’s described as skinny, pale, and lots of other things that are not cute, pretty, or sexy. Although we hear about her sex life, it’s never the point, and its hers. It’s never about “does she get the guy (or girl)?”. It’s about what does she want, and how does she get it? The book isn’t interested in a love stoy, which is good, because neither am I.
Lisbeth Salander isn’t a typical “role model”. She’s not an Olympic athlete, or an inventor, or a mogul. But she’s a righteous warrior for the victimized— and for that, she wins a spot as a true basass female.