Lisbeth Salander and Social Perceptions

Content note: This post contains mild spoilers for the plots of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is coming out in the United States on Tuesday, and I am pretty excited. I was turned on to the Stieg Larsson books very recently by Jane at Gallery Bookshop, who recommended The Girl Who Played With Fire, which led me to read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo1. I devoured both books and found them very engaging, although I like The Girl Who Played With Fire just a tad more. It felt a little more tight and polished to me.

These books fall into a literary tradition I really like that seems to be particularly Swedish, at least in my reading experiences. There are a number of Swedish authors who write thrillers and mystery novels that include embedded social commentary. You can read them and take them at face value, or you can delve more deeply and explore the social issues they are challenging. I’m thinking of Henning Mankall, Maj Sjowall, and Per Wahloo as examples here, although there are many other authors in this tradition. This is not to say that Swedish authors are the only ones who do this, of course.

Some people happen to hate this particular subset of the mystery genre. They find these books boring or contrived. I respect that, although I happen to love it. I like authors who document social changes in their work by showing, rather than telling, their readers. I like writers who ruffle things a little bit and challenge myths about society and how it works. Reading these authors definitely challenged a lot of my thinking about Sweden and deconstructed some of the mythology about Sweden that gets repeated in a lot of liberal communities in the United States.

The Millennium books, as they are also known, are often pointed to as being specifically feminist; they feature plots that deal with feminist issues, like human trafficking and rape. That might be another reason I have a soft spot for them. They certainly feature a lot of excellent women, with complex, interesting, dynamic, and self-sufficient characters who challenge the men around them on a regular basis. I do admit to liking a little feminism mixed with my forms of entertainment.

But it’s one character in particular, Lisbeth Salander, who interests me. I believe, reading the books, that we are supposed to think that she has autism. Charles McGrath at the New York Times, running a feature about the books in the lead-up to the Tuesday release, had this to say about her:

‘Salander engages in dysfunctional, even autistic, behavior…’

Ah, yes. Even autistic! Salander is, of course, depicted as the Good Autistic. She is hyperfocused, resourceful, intelligent, driven. She turns her neuroatypicality to her advantage and doesn’t do scary autistic things. This is a pretty common trend in the depiction of autism in fiction in general; autistic people are either scary and soulless, unable to connect with anyone, engaging in random frightening behaviour, or they are extremely intelligent, focused, and talented. Quirky. And, for some reason, a lot of people who write about autism feel compelled to present it in terms like those used by McGrath; ‘autistic’ is like some entirely new level of ‘bad behaviour.’

Setting aside for a moment whether or not her character is intended to be read as autistic, there’s something about Salander that is particularly chilling; she is institutionalised at a young age for absolutely no reason. A mental health history is fabricated for her to justify not only institutionalising her, but forcing her to remain under guardianship when she is released, in order to keep her under control for reasons I don’t want to delve into in case you haven’t read the books. As an adult who is clearly not in need of a guardian to look after her interests, Salander is sexually assaulted by one of her guardians. Her guardians also have total control over her finances; if it wasn’t for the fact that she’s enterprising and good at finding ways to hide her funds, she would be at the mercy of her abusive guardian. This sort of thing is not confined to the pages of fiction, and I’m sorry if that’s news to you.

And it’s interesting, to me, that in many reviews of the book, this particular aspect of her characterisation is not really discussed, and very few people explore the feminist implications. All of the reviews focus on her ‘even’ autistic behaviours. No one talks about the fact that institutionalisation, sexual assault, and social control are experienced by people with autism. It’s all about how her maybeautism influences her ability to do things like being a brilliant computer programmer, not how, whether or not she is autistic, the books are a pretty condemning indictment of the guardianship system and of the belief that institutionalisation is always in the best interests of the patient.

Salanders exist all over the world. People all over the world are sexually abused by their ‘guardians.’ They are completely under the control of ‘carers’ who decide when and how much they can withdraw from their financial accounts, when they should go to the doctor, where they can work or go to school. Seeing this dynamic depicted honestly and challenged in fiction is very exciting to me; I don’t think that Salander’s depiction is perfect, and I think there’s a lot to discuss about how she falls into some Autism In Fiction Stereotypes, but I do think that the embedded social commentary here about people with disabilities and ‘guardians’ is well worth exploring in more depth.

I’m looking forward to seeing her story arc finish out in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, but I’ll leave you with this to ponder: According to the Times article I linked above, the title of the first book was Man Som Hatar Kvinnor (Men Who Hate Women). Why was it, do you think, that the title was changed to the much sexier The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo for the English edition? How might Larsson, who was reportedly very attached to the original title, feel about how it was changed for the English translation?

  1. Yes, I read them out of order, but I didn’t suffer too much, I promise.