The Gender of Millennium

“I considered Pippi Longstocking. What would she be like today? What would she be like as an adult? What would you call a person like that, a sociopath? Hyperactive? Wrong. She simply sees society in a different light. I’ll make her 25 years old and an outcast. She has no friends and is deficient in social skills. That was my original thought.”

Stieg Larsson[1]

“Millennium” trilogy by Stieg Larsson became the phenomenon that made Scandinavian crime literature go straight on top of bestselling novels all over the world. Yes, we all know about Henning Mankell, Jo Nesbo and others. But these thick books, teeming with unnecessary details and politic discourse for some reason found an echo in the hearts of most people around the world. In addition, all of the adaptations of the novels received great critical acclaim and love from the audience. And it seems that even no one was sitting (as is often in that case) with an open book at the cinema, resentfully pointing at the screen and repeating: “The book was different!” Has Stieg Larsson, whose sudden death cut short his promising international success of a writer, invented some ideal model of a detective novel, a perfect narrative in which every reader will find “that thing” that is close to him? What is the secret?

The explanation is simple. As Russian critic Lev Danilkin explained, Larsson ”got very lucky with the characters: Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander became Holmes and Watson of the XXI century”. It turned out that those Holmes and Watson in Swedish interpretation were Pippi Longstocking and Kalle Blomkvist (characters from famous Swedish writer Astrid Lindgren’s novels) who grew up and became good examples of modern Swedish society.

Knowing that “Millenium” trilogy is a versatile portrait of the nation and its culture, we are going to concentrate here only on the main characters and how novels (and later films) represented very interesting aspects of gender roles in Scandinavia, Sweden in particular. Stieg Larsson has been claimed as a militant feminist, but what exactly has he pointed out in his books in terms of gender equality?

Eva Gabrielsson, who has been Larsson’s life partner, wrote in her biography “There Are Things I Want You to Know. About Stieg Larsson and Me” that the famous feminism of a writer may be a result of his personal experience in his youth, which left its mark for the rest of Larsson’s life. Over the weekend in a camp his friends raped a girl in front of Stieg’s eyes. He broke off any relations with them, but has always been blaming himself for what have happened and for not getting involved to prevent the accident. After a while he met this girl again in the town and tried to apologise, but she turned away from him, saying that he is just like everyone else. It seems Gabrielsson was right and this is where we can see the roots of the problem of violence and discrimination against women in society in Larsson’s books.

Also, it is known that some of the actual cases of murders became the base for first book of the trilogy, The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo. In his collaboration with journalist Cecilia Englund Larsson edited a book named “Debatten om hedersmord feminism eller racism” (The Debate on Honor Killings: Feminism or Racism?). In his own essay for this book he described brutal murders of two ladies and how he thinks that these murders represent the modern man’s desire to control the women nature:

“The murder of Melissa according to the media… was a cruel and planned torture killing, but also an obvious “act of insanity” based in jealousy. Her boyfriend simply couldn’t tolerate that Melissa wanted to choose her own path and shape her future regardless of his wishes.  While the murder of Fadime was a “culturally conditioned honour killing”. Her father simply couldn’t tolerate that Fadime wanted to choose her own path and shape her future regardless of his wishes”.[2]

In his article Larsson showed no mercy to immigrants who committed crimes just because it was a part of their culture. For writer there were no difference between native swedes and immigrants, if in the result the woman was hurt.

Lisbeth Salander, as is described by the author himself in the head quote, is an “outcast”. She looks younger than her actual age, more like a sexless teenager than a grown up woman. That fragile look the author emphasizes repeatedly.  Lisbeth has an androgynous figure (in the second book, however, she makes herself a breast enlargement operation, in some way she gives a “tribute” to the “feminine” part of herself), she looks unprotected, this insecurity is building  the whole story about Salander’s life. Due to this fragility, some people have a desire to subordinate her (legal guardian, father, earlier – malicious therapists who were keeping her in clinic for nothing), or care for her (Mikael, Lisbeth girlfriend Miriam “Mimmi” Wu) In essence Lisbeth defends her right to be a strong woman character, who is craving to get the desired independence. There is no surprise that for the film adaptations, both Swedish and American, directors have put so much effort to make actresses barely recognizable. In American version they made Lisbeth completely androgynous, with loads of piercing, make up, black clothes that you can’t see the figure through and face with no eyebrows which makes it completely emotionless. In Swedish version Noomi Rapace has a similar look, but due to the way of acting, she creates more fragile and elegant impression, which makes her even more attractive.

It is interesting to see that Mikael and Lisbeth keep changing gender roles between each other. As Larsson said himself sometimes Blomkvist acts as “a beautiful little fool,” whilst Lisbeth Salander behaves like a man and has the characteristics usually attributed to men. Lisbeth saves Blomkvist life in the first book, and then he saves her life in the second novel. Lisbeth is resisting her sympathy towards Mikael, but when she decides for herself that this is what she really wants, she goes and gets it. Literally, as we could see in the scene where Lisbeth and Mikael spent a night together during their work for Henrik Vagner.

Speaking of sexuality, it has a strong connection to gender roles in Larsson’s novels. That is quite interesting to see that positive characters in ‘Millenium’ are quite relaxed in their sexual life. Moreover, they are being bisexual (Lisbeth), lesbians (Mimmi), they keep changing partners (Mikael and Erika Berger). On the opposite side, so-called “husbands” hide the army of skeletons in their closet (Lisbeth’s father, the whole generation in Henrik Vagner’s family including the horrid character of Martin Vagner who almost killed Mikael in the first book). Eva Gabrielsson in her memoirs says that she and Stieg never got married as quite a lot of couples from their generation. Maybe somehow it represents the views of the author on the ‘necessity’ of marriage in modern Swedish society. Although, international marriages are successful in ‘Millenium’: Henrik Vagner is married to a Jewish woman, his granddaughter got married in Australia and escaped from the nightmare life she used to have. On the positive side there is a marriage that is purely ‘swedish’ – Erika Berger and her mysterious husband who doesn’t have anything against open relationships. But obviously, this mostly not even about this husband, but about Erika’s powerful character, which represents the successful business woman, which Larsson was really fond of (according to his partner’s memoirs).

There is no surprise in the fact that such a diverse pantheon of characters inspired directors of feature films. Sweden came up with adaptation of all three books of the Millennium, plus a TV series. David Fincher decides to make an American remake – and again a success. Coupled with a fascinating story, developing on several levels, films visually recreated the atmosphere of Larsson’s books and attempted to convey all of the features of the complicated gender “games” that Larsson has used in his books. Look at the rating of all of these films, and you might agree that they gained what they’ve wanted.







[1]Stieg Larsson: the man who created the girl. Lasse Winkler. The Telegraph. 04 Jun 2010

[2] Dan Burstein Arne de Keijzer John-Henri Holmberg. The Tattooed Girl: The Enigma of Stieg Larsson and the Secrets Behind the Most Compelling Thrillers of Our Time. Macmillan 2011


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