The amount of male-on-female violence in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is hardly surprising in a book with the original Swedish title Men who Hate Women. The book is presented as a sort of anti-domestic-violence treatise, with each section introduced by a statistic about violence against women. A laudable goal, and yet, I find, not an entirely successful one. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo still presents violence against women in problematic ways that serve to undermine and distract from its purported message.
Amazingly, neither spoilers nor graphic descriptions of violence follow. You may read without worry. Also, note that I’m familiar with the book and the American adaptation, but not the sequels or the Swedish film trilogy; this post, therefore, does not reflect on the latter.
The violence in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is, without exception, exaggerated and over-the-top. There are no random or isolated incidents: Everyone is either a serial abuser or a good guy. There are no borderline cases that might or might not be considered abusive. Less severe violence–that is, things that would still be appalling in real life, but wouldn’t necessarily dominate the headlines for weeks on end–is always followed by the perpetrator committing more severe violence. Thus, little that happens in the book actually evokes real life.
Indeed, the effect can actually be counterproductive. By focusing on extreme abuse, it makes mild abuse seem less problematic. The unambiguously non-consensual nature of the acts in the book (the victims are often handcuffed or tied up) reinforces the already heinously widespread idea that, if it was physically possible for the victim to escape or stop the perpetrator, then whatever happened must have been consensual. Additionally, if violence is only perpetrated by total pervs, then anyone who is not a total perv couldn’t possibly have perpetrated violence. This is the connotation that makes it so difficult to call out problematic behavior when it occurs; you face both a defensive reaction against being called a pervert (as opposed to an ordinary guy who did something wrong) and the justification that he can’t be a bad person because he would never lock a girl in a cage and then murder her.
The extreme nature of the violent acts also gives The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo an inescapable air of voyeurism. The overall feel is not “violence is wrong” so much as “violence is ooky,” like a horror film. And, let’s face it, in a horror film, you’d be disappointed if no one was brutally killed by the ax murderer. There’s a fine distinction here, and not one I can really formulate, between violence that’s expected and violence that you really hope won’t happen, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo falls on the wrong side of it.
I am not casting any aspersions on Stieg Larsson’s motives, but if he wanted to create awareness about violence against women, a subtler piece would have served his purposes better.