'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' Not a Role Model for Women, Professor Says

The New Yorker has touted Lisbeth Salander, the main character in the best-selling novel The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo as a new kind of heroine today.

Intelligent, computer savvy, resourceful and able to save her leading men from life and death situations, Salander has garnered a cult following, with many women looking to model after her.

But Karen Swallow Prior, an associate professor of English at Liberty University in Virginia, declared that the girl with the dragon tattoo was everything but a heroine worth emulating.

After viewing the U.S. film adaption of the novel with a couple of girlfriends, Prior shared her thoughts on the latest unhealthy craze over Salander on Her.meneutics, the Christianity Today blog for women.

“To me, the most intriguing part of the story was Salander, who apparently has ignited a new obsession among moviegoers now joining longtime fans of the books,” she penned. “One website has compiled a lengthy list of the contradictory descriptions of Salander – ranging from hero to anti-heroine, from interesting to terrifying – proving her to be a kind of Rorschach test of cultural icons.”

“The trendy clothing chain H&M has even announced a new ‘Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’ line. Clearly, the character The New Yorker touts as a new kind of heroine is catching on.”

But that was a shame, she expressed.

“Salander is an anorexic, pierced and tattooed, 20-something cyberpunk and ward of the state who turns her hacking skills and photographic memory into adventurous private investigation gigs,” Prior described.

“A female Byronic hero haunted by a mysterious past, Salander is targeted by prowlers of the present, including the guardian who brutally rapes her, an experience she marks with one more addition to the sundry badges of physical and emotional wounds her body bears.”

The Lynchburg professor believes that the film’s prolonged rape scene and Salander’s accompanying vengeance against her perpetrator was “unnecessarily pornographic.”

“This confirms my evaluation of Salander as less a role model for women and more the projection of a base model fantasy. Many men would be only too happy for women to emulate Lisbeth Salander.”

Prior found that all of the main character’s projected characteristics, from her independence to her resourcefulness and sexual prowess, although intriguing and believable in a current modern and secularized European society, did not make her one to model after.

“With her independence, intelligence, resourcefulness, financial savvy, and vulnerability beneath it all, Salander might even be described as a pagan Proverbs 31 woman,” she wrote. “But this doesn’t make her a heroine worth emulating.”

Prior clarified, however, that she was not in any way suggesting that the movie or book should be boycotted or “tarred and feathered.”

“As Christians, we too often fall into the twin traps of demonization or idolization,” she revealed.

“In the case of Dragon, neither is correct. I don’t propose replacing Lisbeth Salander with Elsie Dinsmore, the dreadfully saintly heroine of the 19th century children’s book series. Unlike Dinsmore, there are people in the world like Salander – tough on the outside, wounded on the inside – who need neither to be put on a pedestal nor pushed away. People who need the love of Christ.”

Like Salander, the professor shared that she knew one friend who was actually a “great deal like her – and this she doesn’t wannabe.”

“For many years, I’ve watched this friend undergo self-injury, sexual victimization, sexual deviancy, drug addiction, institutionalization, and the occasional come-to-Jesus moment. Her likeness to Salander is so uncanny, I can’t help seeing in the character the friend I have tried to help.”

In seeing this resemblance, Prior was reminded that all around the “real world, real people lurk beneath exterior layers of façade.”

“We ... are all in need of being loved and accepted for who we are, not demonized or worshipped for who we appear to be,” she concluded. “There’s only one pedestal that anyone worthy was ever placed upon, and that pedestal wasn’t comprised of a silver screen or a bestsellers list or a Facebook status, but of a mere plank and a crossbeam.”

While some readers found Prior’s analysis as insightful and well thought out, others shared that she did not understand Lisbeth Salander’s full character developed in the book series nor did she understand author Stieg Larsson’s intent in creating a character like the protagonist.

“I understand your critique is only on the movie, but I wish you’d read the book to round out your commentary,” Stephanie commented. “...If you do a little poking around about Stieg Larsson himself, he’s a former journalist fond of exploring controversial issues, particularly political. He intended this book to give light to human trafficking issues being covered up in Sweden, and to expose injustices within his own government.”

“I respect David Fincher and I’m sure he made some wonderful artistic choices, but I hope you don’t write off the books as being the wrong image of women, because it’s not. Hollywood may exploit Lisbeth Salander, but the books did not.”

Karen h wrote, “I find it tiring, as believers, to constantly have to judge characters/stories/narratives as worthy of redemption. Of course they – and we – all are! But some stories are merely indicators ... of the fallen, broken, cursed, and depraved world we live in.”

“I never thought of seeing the main character as a heroine to be imitated ... instead I hope to glean insight into someone who has been hurt and victimized,” Heidi also shared.

Some criticized Prior for watching the film and subjecting herself to the “disturbing filth that was described in the movie.” They questioned how a person who was hoping to glorify God could willingly watch the movie and write about it as well.

Defending the professor, Adam Shields stated, “I think that complaints about the existence of the article are [misplaced.] The author is not asking everyone to go see the movie. She is clear about reasons why many would not go see it.”

“So I get why [people] don’t watch it. But I am always concerned when one Christian judges the validity of another person’s faith because of their consumption of media or beverage or food. Pretty sure the apostle Paul had something to say about that.”

Prior, justifying her own reasons for writing about and watching the film, later explained, “I intentionally expose myself to many aspects of culture that I wouldn’t do out of my own interest or desire because of my work: I teach college students.”

“If I am to engage intelligently and wisely with young minds grappling with the many messages they are bombarded with and that they choose to subject themselves to, I cannot have my head in the sand, as someone above pointed out,” she added.

“I realize that some will see this as an excuse or mere rationalizing, but I have the testimony of my students who express great benefit from my willingness to stand with them and talk through ideas and temptations and worldviews. Indeed my Jesus did not close his eyes while he was with me in the theater. Rather he was informing me and teaching me how to understand the world and people of the film through the Word.”

Prior is the chair of the English and modern languages department at Liberty University. She and her husband, Roy, serve as deacons in their church. She is a contributing writer for Her-meneutics.

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