I haven't read the book, but you can't spend the past few years engaged in cultural discourse without being aware of the problematic nature of the author's feminism. Laurie Penny, whose opinion on this I tend to trust, insists that he clearly didn't "intend to glamourise violence against women", he was just trapped by genre conventions. According to Penny, Salander's character is "well drawn" in the books, but I remain doubtful. Following conventions is a choice, and I wonder whether this heroine really escapes the "ninja computer hacker" box Larsson puts her in. But I have no desire to read the book, so I guess I'll never find out.
I wanna talk about David Fincher's adaptation, which is an uncomfortable watch. Back in 2010, Fincher's The Social Network drew out the moralist in me (not always a good thing). This film also gets into trouble on gender politics grounds, which makes me suspect that Fincher is a stylist extraordinaire who doesn't trouble himself with questions of philosophy. Salander doesn't escape sexualisation in this film, even, I dare say, in the rape sequence, which is shot in a dramatic rather than a realistic way. I think the impact would have been harder if the scene ended with Salander desperately trying to escape as the door shuts. The audience can work out the rest from her revenge.
Depiction of rape is complicated. One argument is that it can only be justified when it is done from the P.O.V. of the victim, with his or her lack of consent irrevocably clear to the audience. Thus you try and limit the circulation of potentially dangerous sexual fantasies, which might lead to imitative behaviour in the real world. Another is more liberal, one that the Alan Moore who wrote Lost Girls might support. Fantasies are fantasies, who are you to judge what is criminal or not, if it remains inside people's heads? You can be as disgusting as you like, as long as you respect the rules of consent in the real world and ensure you do not hurt anyone. There are difficulties with such a John Stuart Mill view, but I tend to lean towards it rather than try and legislate on how sex should be portrayed in art. We should live in a world where we can be trusted to control our desires, rather than have them controlled by someone else.
What is crucial for me is that a work is upfront about its intentions. As Sady Doyle tried to show in her demolition of G.R.R. Martin, there is something creepy about a fixation on sexual violence against women (the Tiger Beatdown post about Larsson makes the same point). For me it is enough that someone who fixates on sexual violence should be aware of how creepy it is, so that their work becomes at least in part about that creepiness. I would feel better about Larsson if he treated his stand-in Blomkvist less kindly, and showed the uncomfortable similarities between himself and his straw-men antagonists.
The film tries to do this: the villain suggests that the "urges" he has are shared by the hero. But this is one line going against an entire film in which Blomkvist is hot, smart, suave and impeccably principled. It's not enough. I wanted to see Blomkvist's mind becoming polluted by the heap of mutilated women he is investigating. I wanted him to get srsly worried about the state of his mental health, feel the risk of contagion from being stuck on an island with a bunch of depraved fascists. Moreover, I could have accepted the film's slick and stylish coating, its motorcycles and its lesbians, if the veneer was more evident. Reviewers have suggested that the opening music video credit sequence was misjudged. It is definitely incongruent with the mood of the scenes that bracket it, but I would have changed those scenes, not the music video. Fincher could have thrown his audience into a fever dream of hip fashion, fast cars and delinquent sexuality, rubbed all the problematic genre conventions in people's faces, so that, as in The Matrix, they are convinced of the unreality of everything around them. And in the middle of this whirlwind, he could have had one bespectacled persecuted journalist becoming ever more uncertain of the ground he is standing on, starting to question himself, just as Larsson should have done.