Pop Culture

The Girl Who Played With Queer Utopia

By Jack Halberstam

Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander

So, once the commotion about the lesbian non-event of the year – the release of The Kids Are All Right – blows over, and the dust settles, and those who want to defend it are now stuck with it, the rest of us can finally move on to something bigger and better. Indeed, those of us who were searching for something more in terms of representational drama, narrative excitement, queer fantasy and edgy cinema would do well to look to Sweden and to the rapidly unfolding global phenomenon of Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander in the Millennium series. For those of you who don’t know who Lisbeth Salander is, or anyone who has spent the summer in a cave, Salander is the awesomely queer, righteously violent and stunningly smart anti-heroine of a brilliantly plotted crime series by the late Stieg Larsson, now made into a series of films. Larsson, author of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, died in 2004 and he never knew just how mega-successful his mini crime franchise was to become. Larsson left a mess in his wake involving his estate and his long-time girlfriend, Eva Gabrielsson, has been pitted against his brother and father in competing claims for the money that comes pouring in from the books. Larsson himself was an intriguing character: a part-time journalist, a socialist, a libertarian anarchist, a feminist and a writer, Larsson spent considerable time researching Sweden’s right-wing extremist groups and uncovering a longer tradition of Swedish Nazism. This research makes its way into the Millennium trilogy and ties contemporary corporate greed, sex trafficking and domestic violence, in really interesting ways, to the long aftermath of European fascism.

The crime novel and its contemporary cousin the techno-thriller tend not to be vehicles for lefty politics and more often, in the last few decades, these have been fairly conservative genres pitting good guys (Americans) against bad guys (Russians, terrorists, etc.). This is a vast simplification of these genres and yet conservative writers like Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton tend to dominate the field with conspiracy theories and leftover Cold War politics. And the movie-plexes are similarly full of action features pitting double or triple American agents against bad Russians or nefarious middle-easterners. In fact, in this summer’s dreadful Angelina Jolie blockbuster, Salt (byline: Who Is Salt? Answer: Who Cares?), the twists and turns of the crazy Russian brainwashing plot are laughable and Jolie’s anorexic frame and mono-syllabic acting made her seem less like a high-powered super agent and more like jet-lagged, starving and washed up super model …especially after seeing Noomi Rapace bring Lisbeth Salander to life in the first of the Millennium books to hit the big screen: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Stieg Larsson’s heroine and her sidekick, the cool Mikael Blomkvist (played by Michael Nyqvist), are not fighting imaginary commies or North Koreans, they actually have some real fish to fry. In the first novel in the series, Blomkvist goes after a fraudulent businessman and then he gets hired to investigate the murky past of a prominent Swedish family who have murder, incest and Nazism hidden in their family closets. In the second novel (and then film), Salander becomes more central and the scene shifts from international finance and domestic violence to international sex trafficking and patricide.

Mån Som Hatar Kvinnor

The original title of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo in Swedish was Men Who Hate Women (Män Som Hatar Kvinnor) and indeed this title, one to which Larsson was totally committed, could easily be the master title for the whole series. Salander, a slightly autistic hacker with a violent past, repeatedly goes after the individual men who have screwed her over in her own life but also the organizations and institutions that support them (psychiatry, banks, the law just to name a few). Indeed, these novels seem to thumb their noses at the ridiculously elaborate conspiracy theories of a Dan Brown novel and they seem to say that if you want a good conspiracy theory, just start with a radical feminist take on patriarchy! Critics have debated just how feminist the Millennium series actually is given how much rape and violence and incest is represented here but Larsson’s point in showing so much violence against women is to underscore how ubiquitous the violence really is. The feminist component to the trilogy rests partly with the character of Salander and partly with the complex plotting which repeatedly links family violence to larger systems of political and economic violence and which implies that any resolution to the plot has to seek social justice by connecting the intimate and personal politics of the home to the public and transnational politics of the economy. The Swedish films made from the novels retain all the complexities of the plot but apparently American versions of the films are in the works and who knows how that will go – maybe they will star Angelina Jolie and the corporate criminals will suddenly all be Russian double agents!

Anyway, while we have a moment to revel in the manic, caffeine induced mayhem of Millennium before the American versions appear, let’s celebrate Salander, a queer utopian and feminist vigilante. In Valerie Solanas style, Lisbeth Salander tries to take down the men who hate women one at a time and with a variety of tools and weapons. Noomi Rapace, who plays Salander in the Swedish films series, shares a very slender build with Angelina Jolie and like Jolie, she does a lot of scowling and pouting (although Jolie often tries to do both at the same time to hilarious effect in Salt). But Rapace as Salander brings a genuine sense of rage to her role and in The Girl Who Played With Fire, she channels her rage into a few well-executing scenes of punishment! Indeed, in the film version of The Girl Who Played With Fire, in addition to a truly feminist plot, we also see excellent lesbian sex between Salander and her hot femme girlfriend, kickboxer Miriam Wu. We also learn about the intricate connections between government, police forces and international sex traffickers, and there is some good old patricide thrown in for good measure. Like I said, The Kids Are All Right begins to look like an after school special in comparison!

The real appeal of both the Millennium books and the films made from the books is definitely the queerness of Salander. And while Salander has sex with men as well as with women, her demeanor, her politics and her attitude in the books and the films is determinedly queer. What’s more, she manages to hate men (as in the meaning of men in a male-dominated world) without losing the ability to have interesting friendships and occasional sex with men (as in individual people living in masculine gendered bodies). Salander is a perfect queer heroine in terms of the intensity of her commitments, the flexibility of her sexual orientation and her gender and her complete commitment to a world beyond the conventional family. In moody scenes of Salander staring out of her Stockholm apartment window, drinking coffee and kicking her boots up onto the window seat, Salander seems to be rooted in the real world of corporate crimes and domestic violence but always looking across the cold city towards some other realm of vigilante feminist violence, queer dark clubs and cyber worlds of misfits and loners. Like Neo in the Matrix, Salander knows that the line between the real and the virtual is fast disappearing; like Ripley in Alien, Salander imagines herself as the last line of defense between masculinist corporate greed and the little people; and like a queer comic book hero come at last to save the world, Salander reaches into her bag of tricks and always manages to pull out the right tool for the job. In his depiction of Salander and her struggles, Stieg Larsson has single-handedly redirected the techno-thriller away from conspiracy theories about incipient world socialism and away from narratives bashing the very idea of global warming, and he has pointed clearly to the true potential of the genre: the techno-thriller, after Larsson, can be and must be a vehicle for some weird customized combination of postmodern radical feminism, queer sociality, anti-fascist anti-capitalist neo-anarchist ass-kicking, and some “in your face” doses of what Jose E. Munoz in Cruising Utopia calls “critical idealism.” And now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to the last book in the trilogy…


15 replies on “The Girl Who Played With Queer Utopia”

Thanks for writing about the Lisbeth Salander trilogy here. I’ve been having discussions with a few feminist friends lately about the level of violence, especially sexual violence in the books and movies, trying to convince them, sometimes unsuccessfully, that Larsson’s not just voyeuristically reveling in the violence. From now on, I think I’ll just quote you on the ubiquity of such violence being part of the point. (You’ve said it much more succinctly than I ever managed.)

I also wanted to mention that the Swedish title really translates as “Men Who Hate Women.” It’s not a big difference, but I think it even more forcefully makes your point about it working as a master title for the entire series.

Finally, the Swedish spelling for the first word of the title is “Män”.” Mån som hatar kvinnor” is “Moon Who Hated Women.” (I’m now imagining a parody of “Good Night Moon,” as written by Stieg Larsson.)

brilliant, thanks for this Amy and I will make the changes so that we don’t have the lunar confusions!

Excellent article! Helps with with some of my qualms about certain U.S. straight male media figures making claims of Salander as the new heroine of our time.

Trenchant analysis of my favorite series in along time. I would add that Blomkvist isn’t entirely exempted from patriarchal atrocity, but compared to the violence Salander has to deal with via her own series of ‘fathers’ his unwitting violence towards her–breaking her heart through his casual sexual attachments–is small stuff. Long live Lisbeth, our very own female terminator!
P.S. Can I say also as an eighteenth century historian that the hand-wringing about representations of violence–against women or French aristocrats– is frequently disingenous. Violence is ubiquitous; nation-states are but ideological cloaks for it, and it’s important to keep it–always–in view.

brilliant, thanks, i knew that the 18th century angle would reveal much…especially about French aristocrats…as for Salander’s heartbreak, that strikes me as a contradiction in the conception of her character by Larsson – it struck me as not credible that Blomkvist and Berger would easily share sex partners but that Salander would become so attached…and if she did, why not to Wu instead? anyway, just a thought.

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Hello Jack! Long-time reader, first-time commenter.

Anyway, I love and respect your writings, but I find it troubling to read your description of Angelina Jolie as “anorexic” and “starving” – I can’t really articulate why this is so, but it just feels…unnecessary?

Also, about Miriam Wu: isn’t there a quick scene in The Girl Who Played with Fire in which a policeman examines Lisbeth’s proxy apartment and wonders about the surname Wu? I remember thinking how striking that moment is because I feel like his scoffing tone indirectly expresses to the audience how absurd it is to him that a person of Asian descent lives in Sweden or is Swedish. If I’m not making this scene up, then it fits in with your point about Larsson’s theme of unveiling racism/fascism in Sweden, which totally undermines my simplistic, general idea of Sweden being this egalitarian paradise.

And yay for Lisbeth obtaining a secret apartment in the first place – it’s her own Batcave! She’s a total badass superhero.

Amazing review! Thank you very much. I read all 3 books and now excited to see the last 2 movies. In other countries such as Mexico, they did respect and translate the original title. I think it makes a difference.

Like JF above, I am commenting for the first time, also on the same subject.
I find it problematic to criticize any woman’s body size, regardless of that woman being skinny, fat or in-between. Assuming someone is anorexic, simply because they are very thin seems like a judgmental accusation. Also, later, you compare actress Noomi Rapace’s body with Jolie’s, saying they are similar. However, you describe Rapace “slender,” not anorexic. Is it because you dislike Jolie that you use the negative adjective when describing her?
I think we all need to check ourselves in thinking it’s okay to say a woman is “too skinny,” especially when we are people who would never describe a woman as “too fat,” which I’m assuming you are opposed to. Please correct me if I’m wrong in that assumption.

Chill…women who are in films are constantly in circulation as images of beauty, perfection and imperfection. They self-consciously manage their image and they receive millions of responses to that image. I called Angelina Jolie “anorexic” first because her arms were stick like and second because her character calls for a much bigger and more muscular woman. Rapace plays the character as she is written…this kind of by the book reaction to the discussion of female images is a bit old…

Jolie is probably devastated after reading this harsh aside, and she can be found downing steroids at your local Equinox.

In all seriousness, though, how do you legitimize narrative propriety (“because her character calls for a much bigger and more muscular woman”), especially after relishing in the queerness of the Swedish inked action heroine?

Also, what you describe as queer with regard to the fluidity of her actions has been going by the name of American individualism for the last couple of centuries or so. Perhaps we can start a dialogue around the topic of queerness, nationhood, and colonialism.



I am glad I found this post. I have debating about whether to read these books. This review helps push me toward reading them.

Given the information that was presented here. I am thinking that people interested in reading these books (and seeing the movies) would also be interested in watching Joss Whedon’s tv series Dollhouse which recently came out on DVD.

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