Friday, February 18, 2011

The Stacks - The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo/The Girl Who Played With Fire

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
by Steig Larsson
Vintage Books, 2003


I'm not usually one for paperback thrillers. The last one I read was The Da Vinci Code about five years ago and I didn't like it that much. But hardly a day goes by when I don't see somebody reading The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or one of its sequels on the subway so I decided I had to either check them out or risk becoming irrelevant. I certainly never thought I would end up writing about them on this blog, but I feel compelled. We live in a very sex-negative culture, so when somebody goes out of their way to do something sex-positive, it can be surprising, and I think it's good to acknowledge the effort.

That goes doubly in this case. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is essentially a book about misogyny and violence against women, and it features a lot of twisted sexual dynamics, including rape, incest and child molestation. The bad guys are frequently sick fucks who are in to twisted sex -- pornographers, sex traffickers, serial killers and rapists, corrupt officials who sexually take advantage of isolated young women that they have power over.

The protagonist of the novels, Lisabeth Salander, is such a woman. She is the titular girl with the dragon tattoo, who plays with fire and kicks the hornet's nest. She's an abuse survivor who turned the tables on her abuser and is on a mission to punish all transgressing men. Early in the series she is brutally raped, and she revenges herself with equal brutality. The first two novels (I haven't read the third) center around incest, molestation, and trafficking of prostitutes by organized crime.

It would have been easy for the author, Steig Larsson, to just leave it at that. I'm sure most of his readers would have been happy to read the literary equivalent of an episode of Law & Order: SVU, where sex is bad and people who are interested in sex, especially unusual sex, are evil criminals. For that matter, I'm sure his editors and publishers might have preferred that he remain unambiguous on the subject and avoid straying into controversial territory. Indeed, I think if this book were written in the United States, Larsson probably wouldn't have been able to do so at all.

So, thank God it was written in Sweden, because Larsson had to opportunity to make something very clear -- sex, even sex that most people would consider deviant, is not wrong if it is between consenting people. Despite the content of the story, Larsson has given all of his characters full sex lives. Salander is bisexual and experiments with BDSM with one of her girlfriends, who co-owns a fetish clothing store. Despite the fact that she is a rape survivor, she has healthy sexual relationships with several men and women over the course of the books. The other protagonist, journalist Mikael Blomkvist, is ethically nonmonogamous, with many female partners. One of these, his editor, Berger, is in a polyamorous relationship with her husband and Blomkvist, a relationship that very clearly includes both sex and love for both men.

In fact, there is hardly a main character in the book with a monogamous, heterosexual, vanilla -- aka "normal" -- sex life. It's a pretty huge stand to take in novels that will mostly be read by house wives and which will sell hundreds of thousands of copies in supermarkets and airports. In fact, it's one of the first times I can think of that polyamory or BDSM have been used in a non-sensational way in a mainstream book. All three of the books in this series hit #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List, which means that Steig Larsson has probably educated more people about polyamory and kink than Dossie Easton, Janet Hardy, Jay Wiseman, Tristan Taormino, Christopher Ryan or Dan Savage.

The most amazing thing is I have yet to hear any backlash against the sexual tastes of the characters in these stories, which is pretty incredible considering these books were probably read by a lot of conservative housewives supposedly fighting a culture war against this very thing. Maybe they don't care, as long as the books are set in Sweden. Or, who knows? Maybe bisexuality, polyamory and BDSM have entered the general consciousness and are considered valid lifestyle choices (though maybe a little weird). I certainly hope that we'll see more examples in the near future of alternative sexuality being shown in a positive light in mainstream literature. It's the first step to greater things for all of us.

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