Posted by: nordicnoir | May 31, 2010

The Girl Who Wasn’t a Girl

The Girl Who Wasn’t a Girl


Spoiler Alert: I discuss some minor plot elements

of Stieg Larsson’s novels in the following post.

            At some point (rather soon) I want to look into the representation of women in Scandinavian crime fiction to determine whether or not feminist social reforms have had a significant effect on the development of ‘Nordic noir.’ But for now, I can’t resist another Stieg Larsson centered post—and in a way, it will set up the ‘women in noir’ theme precisely because Larsson’s remarkable heroine is so unlike most female characters in the genre. 


            Since the revelation that Stieg Larsson witnessed the gang rape of a girl when he was a young teenager and found himself unable to intervene, a lot has been said about his feminism.  In particular, many have accused Larsson of blatant voyeurism–of merely pretending to be a feminist while indulging in sadistic fantasies.  For me, this particular criticism oversimplifies the matter.  After all, cruel and gory fantasies have been a part of storytelling at least since the Greeks.  What matters is the context of those fantasies and any overriding message—which I think is discernible in Larsson’s work.  Feminism abounds here…but the Millennium books (which after all are only the first of a planned ten novels) also use the character of Lisbeth Salander to point the way beyond feminism.

Larsson’s Women in General

               In general, Larsson’s women are tough; they ‘kick ass’ in bloody brawls, and they are security officers and boxers.  Throughout The Girl who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest—he sprinkles historical interludes about female warriors, from Boudicca to the Amazons.  Further, these women read—not romance novels, but books about math and ancient religion.  They write and hold editorships and are lawyers and detectives.

He also defends women’s—and men’s—sexual freedom to a great degree, without ignoring the complicated reactions they may have to their chosen entanglements.  It seems like women everywhere jump into bed with Blomkvist with no regrets; but by the end of –Hornets’ Nest, things are getting complicated in a more realistic way (thankfully!).

Lisbeth Salander

                Yet even setting aside concerns about the voyeuristic aspects of Larsson’s novels (the detailed rape scenes etc.), I find myself confused about Lisbeth Salander herself.  I think it’s because this ‘heroine’ is about as far from being a typical woman as she can get.  I am not talking about her bi-sexuality, but rather her lack of emotion—that human feature so often associated (rightly or wrongly) with femininity.  True, at the end of the first novel Salander experiences a wave of romantic jealousy when she sees Blomkvist with Erika Berger.  And I admit, I was intrigued by the idea of a character with Asperger’s slowly learning to feel the way most people do.  But I also felt a slight sense of loss.  Oh no, I thought, she’s going to become normal.

But that didn’t last.  Soon enough, she pushed him out of her mind.

Then, the breast implants.  Her plastic surgery seems to indicate her own feeling that she is not ‘woman’ enough.  But it also shows, more importantly, that she views herself as a construct to manipulate. [1]  She can make herself either more or less feminine as she sees fit.  It’s not a sign of ‘low self-esteem’; it’s a sign of calculated control over her own body.   And besides, the implants wind up being a relatively unimportant feature of her personality because she’s so nonchalant about it.  I can’t recall any mention of them in the third novel.

Is Lisbeth Salander a Feminist Character?…

            But I’m particularly bothered (or intrigued) by the action sequences.  As far as kicking ass goes, Salander does it not like a man, still less like a woman—but more like a robot.  In a fabulous fight scene in –Hornets’ Nest, in which Salander is all alone, locked up with a brutal killer with no weapons of her own, she never seems to experience fear, panic, or helplessness.

                   Salander took an appraising look around. Click….

                   No weapons.  

                   Only tools. Click. Her eyes fell on the circular saw…Click. Click.  She saw an iron rod…

I don’t currently have access to the Swedish text here, so I don’t know if the ‘click-clicking’ is Larsson’s doing or Reg Keeland’s, but the point is that she’s got a hard drive for a brain, which is in any case a favorite theme throughout all three novels.  It is Salander’s primary social defect, and her greatest asset.  When she’s in a bind, she doesn’t feel, she computes.  It’s what makes her a kind of superhero.

For a time, I felt this was an indirect criticism of women’s supposed emotional sensitivity—as if to say, if you want to kick ass, ladies, think like a man.  But I was wrong. Larsson actually goes out of his way to show that even regular, non-Asperger’s women can beat up men.  Take Mimi for instance, fighting alongside Paolo Roberto.  Or the Säpo agent Figuerola, or the Milton Security body-guard Susanne Linder.  And they don’t do it by means of feminine cunning. They’re fit and well-trained and professionally driven.  They use their fists.

Nevertheless, in the end, the ‘girl’ to whom readers are most drawn is the one who transcends gender—not so much by transcending fear, but by simply failing to experience that most basic human emotion.[1]  As a superhero, she is a little inhuman, or superhuman–and thus hard to describe truly as a ‘woman’.  Ironically then, despite the strong feminist ideology in Larsson’s novels, it’s hard for me to grant the feminist title to the eponymous ‘girl’ herself.

…Or is she a Cyborg?

            But is this perhaps what Larsson intended?  We may never know where he was going with this character, and yet I find myself wondering if Larsson, in the spirit of Donna Haraway, was actually trying to push beyond our outmoded notions of feminism (and of ‘women’)–into something more expansive and useful for the cyber age.  Haraway’s work (I’m thinking mainly of ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ [2]) sparkles with imagination and intellectual brilliance far more than the usual academic fare and I highly recommend it (though readers be warned: it is tough reading).  She is also by now quite well-known; it’s possible Larsson knew of her work too.

In a nutshell, Haraway uses astounding scientific and technological breakthroughs as well as purely speculative images from science fiction to forcibly pry apart and shatter stubborn dualist conceptions of reality (man/woman, organism/machine, nature/culture) in favor of hybrid realities.  She describes a ‘cyborg’ as “a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction,” and points out how the organism/machine distinction is in fact eroding before our eyes (I note Craig Venter’s very recent development of ‘synthetic life’).  She further says, “The cyborg is a matter of fiction and lived experience that changes what counts as women’s experience in the late twentieth century.”  In short: “The cyborg is a creature in a post-gender world”  (emphasis mine).

Lisbeth Salander’s boob job and computer-brain seem a lot more important in this light.

Haraway certainly uses the cyborg image to think up “a world without gender”, but actually the stakes are far greater than just feminist (or post-feminist) politics.  The ability to think of reality in an entirely new way–unimpeded by oversimplified dichotomies like man/woman or even left/right–may be the key to one day developing a better, more just, as-yet-unimagined society.  And this may be the reason why Larsson paints the Swedish government in a less than positive light, despite its best intentions.  There is always room for improvement, always the threat of corruption, and always a need for greater imagination.

While we will likely never know where Larsson was taking Salander as a character, I believe there is enough evidence that he too was committed to exploding stereotypes and seemingly fixed categories of thought.   And even if he didn’t consciously think of Haraway, even if he never read her work, sometimes big ideas seep through a culture anyway, finding an unlikely home, perhaps, in a [cyborg] with a dragon tattoo.



[1] I do not mean to suggest that people with Asperger’s are ‘inhuman’; they clearly have plenty of feelings, including fear.  It’s just that Lisbeth Salander’s Asperger’s symptoms, her lack of fear etc., tend toward the superhuman.

[2] Donna Haraway’s fascinating 1991 essay “A Cyborg Manifesto” can be found in her book Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature.  For an online version of the essay, see: .



  1. One thing about the Asperger’s issue, is that Asperger is never a given to Lisabeth as a definitive diagnosis. It’s more a working theory that people who are familiar with it have when confronted by Lisabeth. Certainly when she pulls off her scam at the end of the first book, we are see she’s able to pass for normal and even manipulate men in a way that’s not usual for an Aspy. (It also seems that that’s where she first realizes the power of breasts.) As we learn more about who Lisabeth is, the diagnostic possibilities increase. Yes, her brain works differently — she’s super intelligent and has a photographic memory, but many of her quirks such as her lack of closeess to other people, her seeming “lack of emotion” could be ascribed to post-traumatic stress disorder which would be a natural reactions to the abuse she suffered as a child.

  2. I’m a huge fan of the Millennium series, I have Aspergers and so does my daughter, and Lisbeth Salander is my favorite action hero ever. I stumbled upon this blog and I think you are completely missing the point. One of the reasons I identify so much with Salander is that I have Aspergers too and understand what it is like to be misunderstood as cold and uncalculating sometimes when in fact I feel very deeply, but don’t always know how to express it or feel comfortable letting others into my emotional or physical space. I don’t know how anyone can read the Millennium series and claim that Lisbeth has no feelings or is like a robot or cyborg, etc. She doesn’t “learn” to feel, she learns to LET herself be comfortable expressing her feelings and trusting others. That’s not primarily because of Aspergers, that is because she was abused all her life from people she should be able to trust. She most certainly has extremely powerful, intense feelings and this is so obvious in the novels, and why I love her so much. Yes, I do think the novels transform gender and sexuality notions. Interestingly, a lot of people with Aspergers have gender identity issues or are androgynous, asexual, polyamorous or bisexual because they don’t understand the whole dance of gender roles and what is expected of a “normal” relationship, or feel uncomfortable with too much intimacy. I am the same way myself, gender is not an issue at all in my personality, and one of the reasons I love Salander is that she defies gender. She has no political or feminist agenda, she is not a victim even though she is “victimized.” The way she responds inappropriately to people, or fails to disclose important details that could help keep her from being misjudged, and doesn’t worry about how she is perceived… all very Aspergers-like traits. Anyway, I really think you have Lisbeth all wrong. Sorry.

    • Excellent point, Sarah: “She doesn’t “learn” to feel, she learns to LET herself be comfortable expressing her feelings and trusting others. That’s not primarily because of Aspergers, that is because she was abused all her life from people she should be able to trust.”

      Also, nordicnoir: Lisbeth isn’t the only one who acts “robotically” at the brickworks. Larsson uses these very words ” robot from hell” to describe Niedermann.

  3. btw, I don’t see Salander as a cyborg… but a survivor.

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