Feminism / Films

Rooney Mara’s Captivating Portrayal In ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’ Proves Lisbeth Salander Still a Feminist Icon

Lisbeth Salander consumes my thoughts. I’ve spent the last year and a half reading, writing, analyzing, debating and discussing the punk hacker. As a huge fan of the books and the original Swedish films, I was NOT excited to see The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo Hollywood remake.

Plagued by sexist marketing that seemed to focus solely on Mikael and depict Lisbeth as a sexpot damsel in distress, I feared Hollywood would wreck one of the most unique female protagonists in pop culture. With trepidation, I watched David Fincher’s take on Stieg Larsson’s epic. While some gender problems arose, I’ve got to admit I was pleasantly surprised. And it all hinges on Rooney Mara’s performance.

For those who don’t know, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the first part in the global phenomenon of The Millennium Trilogy, features disgraced crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) and brilliant researcher Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) who unite to solve the mystery of a woman who disappeared 40 years ago. The gritty, tense plot fuses with social commentary on violence against women, sexuality and gender roles.

Do we really need an American remake? Fincher, a notoriously obsessive and detailed filmmaker, creates a gorgeous film evoking a macabre ambiance. Trent Reznor’s eerie and haunting score punctuates each slickly stylized scene perfectly. Phenomenal actors fill the screen: Craig, Robin Wright (who I will watch in absolutely anything), Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgaard, Vanessa Redgrave. While everyone does their best, the remake isn’t quite as compelling as the original. I never really felt invested in any of the characters. Except for Lisbeth. The sole reason to see the film is Mara’s stellar portrayal.

Lisbeth Salander is a role of a lifetime. Both Noomi Rapace (in the original films) and Mara underwent grueling auditions and year-long transformations including haircuts, body piercings (ears, eyebrow, lip, nose, nipple), nudity, kickboxing workouts, and learning skateboarding and motorcycle riding. A sullen introvert, Lisbeth is strong, fiercely independent and self-sufficient. She possesses a razor-sharp intellect and relentless survivor instincts. She’s endured horrific trauma and betrayal yet refuses to be a victim.

Fincher obstinately fought for Mara as Sony Studios didn’t want her for the part. After watching the film, I can see why Fincher refused to concede. It’s hard to dissect Mara’s performance and pinpoint precisely what she does that makes her so compelling. And that’s because as Melissa Silverstein writes, she “disappears into the role.” When Lisbeth greets the people she cares about, her guardian Holger Palmgren and Mikael, she frenetically says, “Hey, hey,” a small detail adding depth and nuance to the character. It’s in the clipped cadence of her voice, her slumped shoulders, her wounded eyes. Mara doesn’t merely play Lisbeth. She becomes her.

People have asked my thoughts on Hollywood’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, wondering if I loved or hated it. More importantly, they want to know if I prefer Noomi Rapace’s subtle yet fiercely badass warrior (which is how I envisioned Lisbeth) or Rooney Mara’s vulnerable yet quietly powerful portrayal. I was prepared to hate Mara. How could anyone surpass or even equal Rapace’s critically acclaimed performance?

But I loved them both. For me, neither one is better. Both bring something unique conveying different facets of Lisbeth’s personality. They belong to two sides of the same coin. Mara, who had ginormous shoes to fill with Rapace’s ferocious portrayal in the original, gave a captivating performance. I’m glad the shitty marketing didn’t keep me away or I would have missed one of the best performances of the year.

People have simultaneously praised and condemned The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo for its graphic depiction of rape. The American version doesn’t shy away from the brutal scene. We live in a rape culture often glorifying or dismissing rape and violence against women. Author Larsson tried to show the epidemic of misogyny. The book (originally entitled Män Som Hatar Kvinnor, which translates to “Men Who Hate Women”), original Swedish film and Hollywood remake confront the stigma of sexual assault. Yet it never feels exploitative. Lisbeth refuses to be victimized. She follows her own moral compass exacting vigilante justice. She doesn’t possess traditional power. So she works within the confines of patriarchy to assert herself and take control of her life.

A huge part of the book (and the entire trilogy) is Lisbeth and Mikael’s friendship. Despite his social nature and her private behavior, they both stubbornly follow their own moral code. He’s continually surprised and amused by her unconventional comments and reactions. Mikael’s openness, humor and honesty allow Lisbeth to trust him, something she does so rarely. The movie doesn’t shirk their sexual relationship yet never captures their emotional bond. Lisbeth and Mikael also exhibit overt sexualities. Lisbeth possesses a sexual fluidity, sleeping with both women and men. Yet society views Mikael’s philandering as socially acceptable and perceives Lisbeth as an outcast. It’s a crucial gender commentary absent from the film.

But my biggest problem with Hollywood’s The Girl With Dragon Tattoo lies in one sentence. One teeny tiny sentence that threatens to unravel all of the painstaking work Mara put into her performance. SPOILER!! -> In the scene where Mikael has been cut from the noose, Lisbeth intends to run after his murderous perpetrator. She asks him, “May I kill him?” <- END SPOILER  Um, what?? Everyone in the theatre laughed…except me. I was furiously bullshit. Lisbeth would never, ever utter those words. She would never have asked for permission. In the book’s scene, Mikael is about to tell Lisbeth to stop. But she has already run out the door, pursuing the murderer. Lisbeth never asks permission. She’s always in control. Lisbeth and Mikael are equals, she isn’t subservient to him. Asking permission attempts to diminish her inner strength.

In an interview with Charlie Rose, Fincher shared what he found so compelling about Lisbeth. Oh, but it’s not her feminist persona as he insists this is NOT a feminist story:

“I think that she is many things to many different people…I was fascinated by the fact that 60-year-old men, you know 58-year-old women, 17-year-old girls were all finding something about her that was you know freeing or empowering in some kind of way. And it had been kind of sold to me as this you know misogynist avenger. But what I felt about it was ultimately that there wasn’t any kind of real feminist tract to it all.

“To me, it was very human. It’s a story of being oppressed, a story of being marginalized, a story of being made to feel less than, it’s a character that’s been made to feel less than who she thinks she is…”

I don’t think Fincher has any clue what a feminist actually is. Newsflash, a feminist story is a “human” story. Neither Fincher nor Mara perceives Lisbeth as a badass feminist (even though she is) because she doesn’t do “anything in the name of any group or cause or belief.” But they’re fucking wrong.

Lisbeth combats misogyny and sexism. She abhors violence against women and avenges injustice. She refuses to be taken advantage of, always asserting her control. She surrenders to no one. She strives for empowerment, living life on her own terms. I agree Lisbeth wouldn’t call herself a feminist, just as she doesn’t identify as bisexual, since she doesn’t want labels confining her identity. Neither her gender, her appearance, nor her sexuality define her. Lisbeth defines herself. Every single one of these components reinforce a feminist message.

Despite Fincher and Mara’s insistent refusal, both The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its heroine are feminist. Saying otherwise completely misses the point of what makes Lisbeth Salander such an exhilarating icon.

10 thoughts on “Rooney Mara’s Captivating Portrayal In ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’ Proves Lisbeth Salander Still a Feminist Icon

  1. As someone who has read the book and seen the Swedish film, I can understand the reaction to the line “May I kill him.” A Zaillian addition. Lisbeth does ask someone’s permission in the film: Armansky, her boss. In book, Larson painstakingly details her professionalism but also her emotional detachment and awkwardness situations. Lisbeth does defer to Blomkvist’s lead during the investigation, “What am I looking for?” And in this heated climax, she defers to man who had earlier shown her the same respect as he abruptly burst into her life,”May I call you Lisbeth?”

    One of Zaillian’s major changes is aligning the stories of Blomkvist parade picture reveal with Salander’s revenge scene. Is it heresy to say that this improvement over the book and Swedish film but it gives the characters a dramatic sweep. At times his script is more loyal to the book beyond just the original language. The characters are given space to breath and inhabit a real world. (The “Hey, hey” is a beautiful touch.) When she enters the archives, Lisbeth’s wardrobe reveals a realistic way of life: cheap cotton clothes under what looks like a found Belstaff jacket. Mara’s Lisbeth is less rage and reaction and more like the ‘anorexic’ unsociable person Larsson says is people call ‘retarded.’ She detaches, bottles up but is capable of exploding and plotting.

    Some people have been defending the Swedish version to the death like some indie band. But the fact of the matter is some popular bands like Radiohead are f’n good. Fincher and Zaillian have treated the material with respect and care. I am more shocked at how this film is being written off as a cheap dumber down version of this story. Fincher has never been better. In Bjurman’s office, one of the cutaways is a closeup behind Salender’s ear with Bjurman’s blurry, threatening hand the background. The frame focused on the her own self-inflicted piercing of her own flesh. If given time, the images like these are as haunting as any put Fincher has ever put on screen and rewarding for any lover of this story.

  2. Maybe there is some fear of having made a feminist film at play here with Fincher. In our western culture, Heaven forbid one should make a feminist film, or view feminism as something else than an object of derision.
    Lisbeth does not spout feminist doctrine. But that is precisely the point. She lives by her own rules and does not obey any doctrine. Stieg could not have come up with a more powerful feminist icon. But I could not phrase it any better than you just did in this review.

  3. I saw this movie on Tuesday evening. I have never read the book and really barely heard of the title until this movie came out. Seemed to me that the title gave a kind of mystery to the girl. My wife was familiar with the story and was excited when it came out. I went into the movie not really knowing what the storyline was except it was some kind of detective story. I only read one review on it and the only thing I remembered was the first hour was tedious. Yeah, I agreed with that.

    After seeing the movie I really liked the girls character even though she did some things I don’t approve of. I did love that she seemed to be a very quick learner, as if her mind is just soaking up information faster than a person can give it to her. She is an avid researcher and when she is passionate about a subject she doesn’t have to be told to find information. She is on it before a person can sneeze.

    I found the deal with the government worker and what she had to endure for money was terrible yet stuff like this goes on throughout the world in silence. She appeared to be in foster care in the movie? Therefore was therefore she was taken advantage of by the government worker.

    The end of the movie reminded me of the movie ‘The bridges of Madison County’ the end of that movie is what I refer to. I wouldn’t mind seeing the movie again but the first hour is a bit tedious. I would rather see how Lesbeth works and her whole world because she is underground for one, but also because she is smart and I would like to know how she operates based on her upbringing. These are some of my thoughts on the story. I also wrote a small article on my blog dealing with this as well.


  4. Pingback: Rape & Revenge in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo « Feed Me Films

  5. I can respect your take on each film and I see your points…but I hated the remake. Rooney Mara is a thin, naive, blue-eyed girl who, in my eyes, was trying too hard to portray the badass character that Noomi Rapace embodied. Noomi had a six pack, her tattoo was way better, her dark eyes gave her a more intense stare while Mara’s blue eyes showed innocence and vulnerability in my opinion.
    Lisbeth having a relationship with the journalist and getting him that jacket….I just don’t think she would do that. In the Swedish version I felt that their ‘mutual escapade’ was purely physical. Nothing more. The lesbian club part also disappointed me, along with how rushed the remake felt. I felt no emotional connection with Mara’s Lisbeth, while I wanted to be as badass as Noomi’s Lisbeth. I watched the rest of the films to see more of her. I loved her hair, her attitude, her clothes…Noomi just did it for me. I would be scared of her, not Rooney Mara.

    I saw it because I wasn’t going to bash it without having seen it. I am never happy with American remakes of films, I feel like they dumb it down and censor it.

  6. In response to Keri: Whatever problems you have with Rooney Mara/Fincher’s Lisbeth I’d take up with Larsson’s novel. In my edition, page 41 describes her as “a pale, anorexic woman who had hair short as a fuse…she was twenty four but sometimes looked fourteen.” Whatever problems you had with their portrayal with her. As great as Noomi was, that wasn’t the Lisbeth I read in the novels. Her ‘way better’ tattoo was a diversion from the novel. Even on the tattoo’s first reveal, there’s also a deeper psychology to Fincher’s frame, revealing the tattoo in a rotating camera move that mimic only one other shot in the film in a deep visual melody.

  7. Keri: Have you actually read the book(s)? Lisbeth and Mikael do have a relationship, and she falls in love with him (despite herself), especially during the month they spend together at Mikael’s summer cabin while he’s writing his Wennerstrom article/book. She also buys him a present at the end (though not a leather jacket), only to see him with Erika and realize that their relationship might not have meant as much to him as it did to her. So basically I agree with Sarah Pitchford; your issues with Mara/Fincher’s movie are based on your perceptions of Lisbeth as portrayed in the original movies, not as written by Larsson.

  8. Micromanaging other people’s relationships? If someone is only going to see a man and a woman on screen after 2 plus hours and not the friendship that has occurred, then there must be no hope whatsoever between the sexes in ever finding any peace. I have asked many friends, may i do something which was really code for, I want to do “x”, is that ok with you or do we need to have a talk first before I do something that will affect you.

  9. I absolutely love this film. Mara’s Lisbeth should go down in history a one of the greatest roles ever portrayed. How Mara did not win an award for this – I simply don’t know. This is a difficult character to play and Mara was excellent. I’ve never considered seeing this movie and saw it just the other night. I can’t get Mara’s Lisbeth out of my head. I am overly drawn to her character. What I love most about her is the fact that she is so human-so real. I can’t stand all the fake-ass female super heroes like Lara croft (although I am a big fan of Angelina Jolie) and the crew from charlie’s angels (to name a few) that seem to posses this godly ability to evade 2 hours worth of poorly aimed bullets and the ability to simply fly and leap into thin air when we all know it is humanly impossible to do so.

    Mara’s Lisbeth is a one of a kind hero and she represent what it means to be real, strong, and self-sufficient. I feel like she’s a girl I can meet on a city bus or on the street and that’s What I love most about this character.

  10. Just recently saw this movie a few weeks ago.
    It was actually pretty good! Started to see it without expectations, left quite intrigued/shocked and wanting to know more. Lisbeth was quite an interesting character.

    However I don’t see how she is such an idol to follow. She is obviously a troubled human being that has suffered through her entire life, since she was a child. Types of suffering that you wouldn’t desire to any other human being.

    Besides being a strong woman, that abhors violence agains other humans, kicking some serious ass, saving Mikael from certain death, extremely good at deciphering puzzles, etc, etc… she comes by as a hostile person that doesn’t know how to take no for an answer. She seems to be always on the defensive side from the get-go when meeting somebody.

    One commenter said: “(…) I feel like she’s a girl I can meet on a city bus (…)”. What makes you think that she won’t be all hostile and distant towards you like she is with everybody else?

    Mikael says he doesn’t want to have sex, that they are work partners (or something along the lines), yet she basically ignores all these no’s and undresses in front of him to start having sex.

    The sadistic/perverted guy? She should not have played his games. Get away, hack-him away with the investigator skills, send him to the police, etc… and for sure don’t go back to the devil’s den. If she can take out single-handedly complete mafia backed money/bank/laundering scheme plan, I don’t know, this guy seems a lot easier. But I guess it’s to advance the plot, and that she will try to single-handedly try to solve her situation. Sometimes it pans out in her favor, in this case it happened to be a horrible outcome.

    That’s maybe why she approaches at the end with a romantic angle, maybe she needs somebody, after getting herself extremely isolated from everybody, opening and getting to know Mikael is a big deal. I felt very sad for her when she was let down with her expectations towards Mikael.

    But what broke my heart the most was the deaths of all the other women, that didn’t stand a chance, that had to go through unimaginable amounts of pain and suffering. And the part when Martin points to a cage and says that there was a girl in that cage when they were having dinner upstairs… my god… what a horrible being.

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