I hate violent movies. I was never drawn to the shoot ‘em up genre that attracts so many viewers to the big screen with buildings and people blowing up, blood spewing everywhere, excruciating tortures writ large – those scenes never did it for me. Usually I had to avert my eyes or walk out of the movie theater.
Why then am I so fascinated with a character for whom violence seems to come with as much ease and lack of emotion as making morning toast? Why does Lisbeth Salander from Stieg Larsson’s The Millennium Trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest) obsess me and make me feel empowered?
I’m not alone in this attraction. Three million of Larsson’s books have been sold in Sweden alone, a country of only 9 million. So many people, women especially, have Lisbeth Salander’s name on the tips of their tongues that one can often overhear conversations in restaurants and elevators, on trains and campuses: “Have you seen the first movie? Have you read the second book? Salander is amazing, smart, cunning, strong, capable.” She has become the go-to person who gets the job (that is, stopping the evildoer in his tracks) done quickly and for-keeps. She’s the protector-par-excellence for those who cannot defend themselves.
Since the concept of protection has been the focus of my life’s work, my art, for the last three decades, I can’t help being drawn to this butt-kicking, catharsis-inducing avenger. She may be a moral quandary, she may pose an ethical dilemma, she may use astounding brute force in a way that borders on sadism, but she demands that her followers admire her outstanding intelligence and daring. She conforms to her own sense of justice/ethics as she exposes the corrupt individuals and prevents them from continuing to hurt the unprotected, especially at a time when the police and authorities will not, or cannot.
I am drawn to other icons of protection. I still turn to the 1940s Wonder Woman (in spite of her un-feminist flaws as sex object) for inspiration as a role model and symbol of security. I still warm to her simplistic, idealistic compassion for the downtrodden and her bloodless destruction of villains who die, not by her own hand, but miraculously by some kind of self-inflicted accident. I love that she never kills.
But Lisbeth Salander — as in a cathartic morality play — appeals to my primitive sense of justice. While engaged in her acts against what she sees as unjust, I don’t get caught up in the nuances of right and wrong, though I might wonder afterwards: How much would I hurt someone who hurt the one I love? How much violence is in my character? At the time I simply cherish the story’s reversal of traditional gender roles and take pride in this super-competent woman who transcends victim status using brainpower and the tools of modern day technology.
Tools of the Superhero Trade
And what are the tools for this superhero? While Wonder Woman has her golden magic lasso, invisible plane and bullet-proof bracelets, Lisbeth Salander has her Taser, computer hacking abilities and photographic memory. While Wonder Woman has a black/white traditional concept of righteousness, predictable in the way she responds compassionately and non-violently to bad guys, Salander, in contrast, is a walking time-bomb, a mess of contradictions and problems, a poster child for Asperger’s syndrome, more like the young anime outsider, Princess Mononoke, also entirely autonomous and not defined by men or a love relationship, and with a dark, damaged past – and violently vengeful.
In contrast to the tall, muscular, brightly garbed, ray-of-sunshine vision of Wonder Woman, with her pretty American Pie expressions and sexually-objectified postures, Lisbeth Salander is a small, queerly androgynous weirdo – sullen, introverted, self-doubting, socially awkward, gloomily clad in black leather and body piercing. She is a Gothic punk outsider, a vigilante genius with a cold penetrating gaze, a mesmerizing pop culture fantasy figure acting out unspoken desires with life-affirming results. With her lock-picking talent and high tech surveillance abilities, she gets herself into whatever places and positions she wants. It’s almost as if she can see and walk through walls.
Lisbeth Salander has qualities that bring to mind another current gender-bending icon – Lady Gaga – also fiercely independent, powerful, electrifying and mesmerizing. Gaga, too, is a pop-culture sensation bridging, combining, flaunting and reversing gender stereotypes and concepts of masculinity and femininity. With her outrageously in-your-face performances, she takes command of her body, her alien accoutrements and surroundings. With grand guignol bravado she tells the world that she is the ultimate person to be reckoned with.
Her status as role model, trailblazer and fashion icon is questioned by some, but for her fans she is a confidence booster, a source of empowerment. A self-described bisexual, Gaga is at one, like Lisbeth Salander, with the outcasts of our society. And like both Salander and Wonder Woman, Gaga gives the impression that she can satisfy her every desire exactly when and how she pleases, albeit with her own personal theatrical twist: sky’s the limit, money’s no object, fantasy costume and bizarre setting unparalleled. This brand of super-autonomy, it must be noted, is not often allowed in a female.
For Lady Gaga, the word choice is taken to a totally new level. She can decide to do anything. In her video Alejandro she combines eye-popping imagery with flashes at breakneck speed and little transition: Virgin/Prostitute, Wrist Cuffs, Religion, Intercourse, Body-Caressing, S/M, Strip-Tease, Fascist Uniforms and Epaulets. Is Alejandro a Nazi storm trooper? Is Gaga’s repeated cry “pump my cigarette” a command for sex? Does the video end with gang-bang rape or is Gaga enjoying and provoking the men grabbing at her near-naked body?
And Paparazzi too, races unabashedly from sex to violence to humor to the bizarre and fantastical. Thrown over the balcony by her lover, Gaga appears in a wheel chair, then on crutches. She takes part in lesbian love scenes and kills her boyfriend using poison with a sly smile on her face, revealing the personal agency she now takes for granted.
Groundbreaking but less-than-super heroes
Not so for foremothers Thelma and Louise. Agency is not afforded them by the culture and climate of the film’s release in 1991 except in small doses, which women in my circle of friends touted as milestones and held dear. I cheered as I watched them on a road trip, having an adventure usually reserved in films only for men. And though I remember the film (directed by Ridley Scott and written by Callie Khouri) as being the first to challenge gender stereotypes and the first female “buddy” picture, these two women were allowed, as I see in retrospect, only a tease of assertiveness. No Wonder Woman, Salander or Gaga were they. They had a very limited choice, especially in the final scene of that movie. Whereas Wonder Woman, Salander and Gaga would have gone heads-on, battling and confronting the sexist system and authorities, Thelma and Louise were given a script 20 years ago with limited traditional choices: either surrender or shoot their way out of the approaching police posse which was cornering the duo at the edge of a cliff. It may have been decided when the movie was made that shooting, in the style of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, would appear too bloody for women in the early ’90s, and surrender would not have left the audience uplifted. So in their last resort to control destiny and express a sense of freedom, the only other option for Thelma and Louise, was to drive their car into the Grand Canyon, giving viewers the false sensation of victory over injustice.
This less-than-happy suicidal ending doesn’t deny the groundbreaking gender-bending highlights of Thelma and Louise, but it disappoints nonetheless.
Disappointing, too, is superhero Storm from Marvel’s X-Men comics. Though she has remained the most successful and recognizable black superhero since her appearance in 1975, I found no feminist thread to grab onto and no reason to look to Storm as a role model. Written by Len Wein and penciled by Dave Cockrum, Storm has been given a storyline that, to my mind, is tedious and boring, and not worth retelling.
What a waste of an opportunity to create a superhero of color for youngsters to admire. Touted as the first black female to play a major role in either of the big two comic book houses, Marvel Comics and DC Comics, it was not worthwhile to Storm’s creators to display her facial features naturally; they were drawn, instead, as unashamedly Caucasian.
Where is the superhero of color that has, for instance, the power and entrepreneurship of Oprah, the commitment and talent of Miriam Makeba (Mama Africa), the tenacity and honesty of Sojourner Truth, the soft power intelligence of Sonia Sotomayor and the thrilling presence and oratory skills of Barbara Jordan? Now that we, as consumers of pop culture, support and demand the creation of more and more female superheroes, those of color should be given their due – preferably with a body that does not conform to the eroticized object of the male gaze.
The bottom line is that we have been starved for feminist pop culture icons, superheroes and fantasies – and we want them in all shapes, sizes and colors.
Linda Stein is Art Editor of On the Issues Magazine. Her latest work is on tour in a seven-year traveling solo exhibition called The Fluidity of Gender: Sculpture by Linda Stein. Her blog, YouTube videos and website also relate to the concept of protection and pop culture icons.
Click here if you would like to participate in the survey in response to the above essay.