Lisbeth Salandar takes an eye for an eye. The man appointed by the state to care for her, her guardian, turns out to be a monster. So she out-monsters him. The system is corrupt. It humiliates her boyfriend. Robin-Hood like, she steals it all back. Her response to the assault of a morally bankrupt and aggressive patriarchy is to go androgynous and underground. She fights back on the same violent terms. She waves her damage like a flag: tattoos, gauges, ripped t-shirts, black everything. This is not a solution. It’s a clothing line. Today, I love her anyway.
I wander through the toy store and think about Lisbeth Salander. I look at the “Spa & Perfume Science Kit!” for girls, the “Doctor Barbie” with her pink-heart stethoscope. Most days, I love pink. Some days, I imagine Lisbeth Salander roaring down the aisle on her bike with one hand out, knocking everything down, then tossing a cigarette butt into the pink plastic carnage. Burn it. Burn it all.
The Fincher movie drops into a culture drowning in procedural cop shows. Every week, hundreds of well-intentioned, serious, square-jawed cops bring killers-of-women to justice. Every week, evil is enacted on the bodies of women and avenged as a means of absolving the system. Lisbeth Salander is an Old Testament angel of alternative mayhem. The raper of women will be raped in return. I will turn your technology against you. How much does this help us? Probably not much. And yet I woke up the night after I saw the movie and bought Lisbeth Salander earrings before breakfast. In the book, she didn’t have this effect on me. But I don’t read procedurals. I watch them.
Martin, the main bad guy, acted out his fantasies. He raped and killed. We don’t see Martin’s victims, however, we don’t go through the usual forensic porn. We hear descriptions of the victims, we see still photos in the frame. But we already know what they look like; we saw them last week on Special Victims Unit. We see Lisbeth’s body, we see Lisbeth raped, and then we see her guardian/attacker’s body: this time he’s the one naked, handcuffed, screaming in pain, and tattooed with his crime. Lisbeth roars out of our collectively pissed-off subconscious, a goth Tinkerbell on two wheels, and drives Martin’s SUV off the road. His car flips over. Blood trickles down his forehead. He stares at her through the windshield. She clicks the safety on her gun. But she doesn’t have to shoot him, because she motherfucking blows him up with her mind. The visual feels like this: You’ve been taking your fantasies out on me for far too long. I now fantasize you out of existence. Boom.
His death is in some ways less gratifying than the journey of Rooney Mara going femme and square, and then back to her Lisbeth self. She kills the Chanel version of herself, and visually, that death is more satisfying. In order to enact her final vengeance, she dons a blonde wig, takes out her piercings and wears expensive clothes. Porcelain skin uninterrupted, she sits quietly at a series of desks, in front of fat, smug, white men. The well-appointed off-shore banks remind us of the wood-paneled office of her sadistic pig guardian. But this time, Lisbeth has all the power. She has the numbers, the code. She takes what she wants. Then she smokes and throws the blonde wig out the window of a train. She reclaims the banners of her pain. Look, here is the girlie-girl of your dreams, the cream puff you trust, the girl you think you can control, she tells the camera. I drive my motorcycle all over her. And you.
When I read the book, I resisted Lisbeth’s flattened moral universe, where systemic power imbalances are expressed, conveniently, as gothic sexual crimes. The rich and powerful don’t always do us the favor of sinning so flamboyantly. I resisted Lisbeth’s flat chest and boyish looks—she seemed like she could wield a golf club as a weapon but not like she had ever had her period. I resisted the idea that horrific sexual abuse mints heroes. I resisted Stieg Larsson’s sentences, translated from the Swedish.
But the movie got under my skin. I read some psychological research on tattoos. “A tattoo should serve as a clinical reminder to think about the possibility of a psychiatric problem being present.” Tattoos are “comorbid” with risk-taking behavior, linked to trauma and abuse, but also sometimes a form of “self-expression and personal identity.” They correlate with increased sexual behavior, with more drinking but not—interestingly—with more binge-drinking. The social mores around them are changing; they’re getting more common. They are, according to experts, sometimes a sign of rebellion against the mainstream. No shit? Even my Facebook feed polices female skin: that tattoo makes her “needy,” “stupid hipster,” “tramp stamp.” My inner Lisbeth says: Back off. Sometimes, body art is art, not symptom. Sometimes art can’t be explained by science, or reduced to a political program, even mass art that seems to have emerged directly from the reptilian base of our brains… Lisbeth Salander has been in my dreams.
We tattoo our skin to make exterior some interior mark, pain and change worn as aesthetic statement. We take the stigma and claim it. We colonize the margin and have a party there. Some days, we do the slow, hard work of changing the terms of the fight. And some days, we indulge our vengeful fantasies. Girls draw pink unicorns, they keep journals, they hack computers, rip their jeans and get tattoos. Ink it on my back forever.