Within the purview of cinema, there’s a tendency to offer every angle of a certain ideology in one lens, while violating the virtue of the other, especially in the area of sexuality. There’s an expectation to be fulfilled by David Fincher’s film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: one of a feminist tale in full brazenness. This, however, is not what happens. Instead, Fincher cleaves the story in equal bits of both gender perspectives in a mesh that creates an intrusive war, but puts up no walls to ignore any viewpoint: a split perspective.
Daniel Craig (as Mikael Blomkvist) and Rooney Mara (as Lisbeth Salander) present us with two definitively strong sides of this sexual war: both the strong male and strong female figure. In this movie, we see a woman redeemed and saved by a man, and a man redeemed and saved by a woman, but to a degree that does neither of them any injustice. I will attempt to dissect and analyze this equality among the sexes in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo using the masculine values of dominant cinema and the empowering values of feminist theory.
Mikael, an investigative journalist, is charged with libel by Millennium, an enterprise run by Hans-Erik Wennerström. He’s invited by previous enterprise owner Henrik Vanger to solve a forty year old unresolved murder case of his daughter Harriet, her killer being among the abrasive Vanger family members. In order to get Mikael involved for his professional interest as well as personal, he is assisted by Lisbeth Salander, an investigative hacker for hire. For Lisbeth, life isn’t going so well either: she‘s taken under by social welfare agent Nils Bjurman, who coerces her into sex by offering her help financially as well as socially. Yet, Lisbeth and Mikael find sensitivity between each other while they work the case. By comparing evidence, Lis and Mikael conclude that Henrik’s nephew, Martin Vanger, is Harriet’s killer. Before Lisbeth can return to Mikael from investigating, Mikael is confronted by Martin and attempts to outsmart and expose him. But Martin manages to get the upper hand, and takes Mikael down in a torture room, where he kept Harriet and many other girls. Before Martin can start killing Mikael, Lisbeth arrives and fights Martin, eventually shooting him. But the now Mikael and Lis have another mystery: Martin said he didn’t kill Harriet. So what happened to her? Mikael deduces that Harriet’s living cousin Anita is actually Harriet in hiding: from her father, Gottfried, and Martin, her brother, who raped and tortured her until she escaped. With their investigation ended, Lis and Mikael turn back to their lives, still with the sensitivity for each other and their individual perspectives them kept strong.
Looking through Lisbeth’s perspective, she’s looking to affirm her strong woman-ness, doing so through Mikael. She doesn’t hate him as she fears & hates other men. She remarks, “He‘s clean.” Meaning he is who he means to be. Which is why she gives into, and even demands, sex willingly from him as a connection of open honesty. And once again, this points to dominant cinema’s point to make the “white male as the site of truth and the natural assumption”(Hayward, 351). This is shown to contrast her forced coercion and sexual compliance by the disgusting Nils Bjurman. She’s apparently drawn to men who need her around, not who she needs help from or is shown mercy by. However, she very quickly sees that her and Mikael are on even respects, even though he does need her help to catch Harriet’s killer. And eventually, she starts forming an emotional dependence on her friendship with him. However, as the end of the film would indicate, she feels once again confounded by the nature of the other gender, perhaps disavowed (meaning deceived in plain sight) by her own form of fetishism (Lauretis, 35). But even from this blow she doesn’t bow, but walks away as an even stronger woman than she was.
Mikael’s also struggling to affirm his masculinity at the beginning of the film: with his running away from a conflict with Hans-Erik Wennerström, and not being able to stabilize his role as a provider for his separated family. And with Lisbeth’s help, he’s able to save himself. The central story is driven by Mikael’s mission, his perspective. Not Lisbeth’s. She’s not “centrally figured” as the female character (Mellencamp, 12). The story revolves around his quest as a male, as hegemonic values constitute. Once again in Mikael‘s character, we return to the classic male strength, straightforward combativeness, and honesty. He sees the value in dealing with the Harriet Vanger case to rebuild his credibility, professionally and as a man, as well as working with Lisbeth. Which leads up to probably the most definitive demonstration of his masculinity: his attempt to confront Martin head on, acting in dominance and cunning to rescue those qualities within himself.
When reviewed, these two characters seem like they trade staples of the other person’s gender as they become more and more involved together, and yet reaffirmed in their gender types asserted by both dominant and feminism cinema. This generates a sensitivity between them. In the beginning, their inability to see the eyes of the opposite gender completely (originally from scars from their failed emotional bonds with family) is why they their sexual encounters make them trust each other more and more and open them up to things they never considered or experienced from the other gender before. But when they first meet, Mikael has some regular, intellectual conversation with Lisbeth without the need for her to give up anything personal to herself, and not making her an object of desire as would be the case in dominant cinema (Hayward, 351). He gave her bed sheets, which she didn’t ask for. And what’s most important, he didn’t bother make any advances of any sort towards her during their first night together in the cottage. It’s evident that this is likely the first time Lisbeth’s ever stayed with a man whom she needed, who needed her, and who didn’t threaten to invade her personally. And even when she knows him better than his best friends do, without his permission (from a background check she was hired to do on him). She repays his sensitivity to her by taking care of his grazing gunshot wound. And she affirms her trust in him by making love to him, and to make both of them more relaxed in spite of Mikael‘s recent close call scaring them both. Lisbeth also makes them both breakfast the morning after, where they both admit they like working with one another. These cumulative moments of sensitivity provide equal reinforcement of their theoretical gender identities. Near the end, Lisbeth even submissively asks Mikael’s permission (after rescuing him) to kill Martin, in light of just saving Mikael who is seemingly the distressed damsel in this case.
This is one of many instances of gender stereotype role reversal in Mikael and Lisbeth, which open up the sexual dialogue in the film for evenly cleaved views. Even if we simply analyze their personalities at a superficial level we can see these reversals, for example: Lisbeth rides a motorcycle, wears male clothing, speaks and doesn’t listen, attempts to resolve problems with as little emotion and as much action as possible, etc. These can be seen as blatant characteristics of the phallic male figure. And Mikael: attempts to douse his worries in emotional bonds with others (his sexual relationship with Erika Berger and Lisbeth, and familial comfort with his daughter Pernilla), he’s more sociable, and has sharper, more pronounced emotions. Part of the female paradigm (Mellencamp, 21).
As reviewed earlier, both Lisbeth and Mikael both adhere strongly to their genders’ theoretical roles and qualities. However, they develop exceptions as their relationship becomes more involved. Lisbeth trades places with her rapist Mr. Bjurman in that she ends up tying him down and scarring him after he did the same to her. Only difference is that Lis used a metal dildo and tattooing drill to do it. There’s even a gender-like reversal in their reaction to pain: after Lis is raped by Bjurman, she’s shown only for a mere second to be absolutely scarred by the event, the camera‘s view not offering better vantage of her reaction (the way a strong male character would be presented). And when Mikael is grazed by a bullet he complains about the pain and his fear (like an emotional female character would), though constantly but not overtly to make him seem weak. The film has been apparently stylized to expose and shroud things the exact opposite way they would in classic cinema (Hayward, 146). In this way, their toughness of character evens out similarly, both able to pull themselves out of hardship.
We can also see distinct parallels in both characters’ journey’s that further emphasizes the equality, personally and sexually, between them and their established values to the story. The most intense of these parallels is how both Mikael and Lisbeth are both bound and helpless in one scene each: Lisbeth by Nils Bjurman in his apartment where she is raped, and Mikael by Martin when he‘s been taken down into the torture cellar. What’s most significant about this is that they’re lain prostrate for faults that are usually attributed to where their genders draw instinctive pride: Mikael as a man is taken advantage of for the satisfaction of his male dominance over Harriet’s killer. This stands out as the demonstration, or “troping of the drive which… is the essential characteristic of sexuality and violence” (Lauretis, 37). And for Lisbeth, it’s the obvious reverence and treatment as a sexual object to acquire the help of a male. This exemplifies the society’s view of the female to conform to her classic role in order to gain something. (Mellencamp, 22) To put this instance in another context, Lisbeth has to submit unwillingly to sexual acts in order to earn advances on her financial allowance with the agent of society Nils Bjurman. But in another situation where Lisbeth needs money, Mikael gives nearly all of his, relying only on his faith in her (for which she eventually pays him back for). This is what drives Lisbeth to consider him a friend, an equal.
The purest example of equality occurs when Mikael comes running into his and Lisbeth’s cabin from the cold night air with a bloody head from a grazing bullet wound. Lisbeth is soon caring for Mikael’s wound after he’s begun to calm down. When Mikael first comes in panting, a flare of worry and concern sparks in Lisbeth’s eyes. Soon Mikael is in the shower, blood running in falls down the side of his head, while he‘s complaining like a child with a scraped knee. Lisbeth walks over, calmly but hurried with a needle and a strand of tooth floss. She begins to sew up Mikael’s wound, first splashing it and the floss with sterilizing alcohol (after Mikael requests it). Afterward, Lisbeth tells Mikael to take off his wet clothes so he won’t be so cold. He does this, sitting on his bed mumbling reassurances to himself that things will be alright. Throughout this sequence, Lisbeth exhibits an “I‘m going to take care of you, whether you like it or not” attitude, blending both her strong womanly side with that of a feminine lady who wants to help her brave man recover from his wounds. And considering this being his first time being shot at, Mikael does act pretty bravely, but still being nervously chatty about the ordeal, complaining about how much his injury hurts. Not the most virile of responses. But he maintains an steadfast quality of level-headedness, trying to rationalize through the fear instead of emotionalize, through which he’s able to rescue his own masculinity by himself. To help them both relax, Lisbeth walks over to him, naked. After catching her drift, Mikael questions whether getting involved like this would be a good idea. She pushes him back onto his bed and gets on top of him, starting to kiss him demandingly, even though he groans from his aching wound. We are given here a view of dominant cinema that, in this sequence’s case, relies on equality via role reversal: the subject (usually female, but in this case Mikael) is diagetically looked down upon by the more dominant, naturally male position (Lisbeth), and Mikael’s submissive view, which is powerless to be acted on as he just sits crouched under the faucet water and advanced on by Lisbeth in bed. And the spectator (audience) is repeatedly granted these two positions. (Hayward, 177) After they’ve set in, Mikael begins occupying a more dominant physical position and takes Lisbeth, once again reasserting his manliness, while Lisbeth aggressively made the demand for that equal, honest, and most intimate of connections.
Even with this equality between the sexes and the boundaries that are broken down to expose and reveal more about the other, the story makes us realize that there must always be something that we don’t see and a barrier between understanding. Even if equality is reached. This message is no more prevalent than at the end of the film, when Lisbeth allows herself to become more classically feminine by buying a jacket for Mikael and writing him a card. But when she goes to meet him covertly to deliver his presents, it turns out he’s back with his co-editor Erika Berger. Lisbeth turns from this in rejection, puts the card with the jacket in a dumpster, and rides off. She’s still unable to comprehend Mikael’s masculine perspective, and Mikael was not aware of Lisbeth’s feminine one. Though, all the aforementioned parallels, similar experiences, times of mismatched gender identity, and psychological insight with these two characters make it evident that they are indeed equal, but still different in their own way.
Hayward, Susan. Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts. New York: Routledge, 2006.
Lauretis, Teresa de. Freud‘s Drive. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008.
Mellencamp, Patricia. Indiscretion . Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990.