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Sleeping Beauties vs. Gonzo Girls

9 March 2013

From The New Yorker:

When Stieg Larsson’s girl with the dragon tattoo, Lisbeth Salander, encounters a man who regards her as “legal” prey, we quickly realize exactly what sets this skinny hacker apart from heroines of the past. Salander invites Advokat Bjurman into the bedroom and leads him to the bed, “not the other way around.” Her next move is to fire seventy-five thousand volts from a Taser into his armpit and push him down with “all her strength.” In a stark reversal of the nineteenth-century playwright Victorien Sardou’s famous formula for successful theatrics—“Torture the woman!”—Salander ties up Bjurman and tattoos a series of vivid epithets onto his torso. A sadistic sexual predator is transformed in an instant into her victim.

We’ve come a long way from what Simone de Beauvoir once found in Anglo-European entertainments: “In song and story the young man is seen departing adventurously in search of a woman; he slays the dragons and giants; she is locked in a tower, a palace, a garden, a cave, she is chained to a rock, a captive, sound asleep: she waits.” Have we kissed Sleeping Beauty goodbye at last, as feminists advised us to do not so long ago? Her younger and more energetic rival in today’s cultural productions has been working hard to depose her, but archetypes die hard and can find their way back to us in unexpected ways.

Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy and Suzanne Collins’s “The Hunger Games” series have given us female tricksters, women who are quick-witted, fleet-footed, and resolutely brave. Like their male counterparts—Coyote, Anansi, Raven, Rabbit, Hermes, Loki, and all those other mercurial survivors—these women are often famished (bulimic binges are their update on the mythical figure’s ravenous appetite), but also driven by mysterious cravings that make them appealingly enigmatic. Surrounded by predators, they quickly develop survival skills; they cross boundaries, challenge property rights, and outwit all who see them as easy prey. But, unlike their male analogues, they are not just cleverly resourceful and determined to survive. They’re also committed to social causes and political change.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

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6 Comments to “Sleeping Beauties vs. Gonzo Girls”

  1. Interesting article.

    This:

    “If male tricksters have traditionally been fixated on satisfying colossal appetites of all kinds, our new female tricksters—orphans, loners, and outsiders—are beleaguered and needy…..There is clearly something compensatory in the psychological fragility of these women warriors: their gains in intellect and muscle are diminished by moments of complete emotional collapse”

    Yes. This is an interesting female archtype. Women who:

    a. Outwit predators

    b. Are so fragile/wounded underneath, the only thing really keeping them together is the battle to survive.

    I like that there is any archtype that includes a woman of strength, but I will say this type of female archtype is probably less threatening, than say another archtype of strong women – like….the Amazon.

    But it does raise the question – why this archtype? Archtypes tend to become stronger when they reflect something the culture is struggling with. What is it about the archtype of a strong/fragile woman who survives against evil predators that resonates right now?

    • I suspect that the current popularity of smart but psychologically fragile terrorist hunters, inevitable played by very blonde, very willowy and very white actresses, (e.g. the Homeland and Zero Dark Thirty heroines and there’s another TV show along the same lines) is a curious form of propaganda. “Look here, terrorists! You are so pitiful that even our women, women who often appear like lost little girls and are played by the sort of actresses who are better known for playing suburban housewives (Jessica Chastain) and troubled teens (Claire Danes), can beat you!” Considering that villains in those films/TV shows are inevitably islamist terrorists, i.e. people who think very little of women or westerners in general, let alone willowy white western women, it’s certainly a powerful message.

      Though it doesn’t explain Lisbeth Salander, who is the product of a different culture. I view her as an update to Astrid Lindgren’s anarchic children’s book heroines like Pippi Longstocking. In short, Lisbeth is a grown-up Lindgren heroine out to take on everything that’s wrong with Sweden and keeps it from being the sort of peaceful Bullerbü world where Lindgren’s novels are set. And indeed, the Stieg Larsson books are full of allusions of Lindgren’s classic children’s books. He even named his journalist hero after Lindgren’s teen detective Kalle Blomqvist.

      As for whether the psychologically fragile trickster woman is less threatening than the amazon, I always find it interesting that most people, male and female, prefer Buffy to Xena, even though Buffy had an annoying whiny streak and was always complaining about not getting to go to the prom, not getting to have a normal life, etc… I always found her whining alienating – when you’ve got freaking superpowers, who needs to go to the prom? – but apparently that kept her from becoming too threatening for many viewers.

  2. There are many ways to win.

    Only one is physical.

  3. Oh pfft to the New Yorker. Lisbeth Salandar as a powerful woman archetype? Please, the novels are nothing more than revenge fantasies that posit that the only difference between oppressors and their victims is one of opportunity. Lisbeth isn’t a ‘strong woman’–she’s every wannabe dictator’s wet dream. Bleah. Wretched books.

  4. Lisbeth Salander was raped and tortured by Advokat Bjurman before she realized he was not “just” looking for some illicit hanky panky on the side. Lisbeth outwitted her predator (and devised her revenge on him) only after she became his victim.

  5. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: almost all the women warriors and sorceresses of 1970’s feminist fantasy started their hero’s journey by being raped. Things haven’t changed; they just include child abuse, etc. as well as rape.

    Now, that said, there’s always been a lot of male heroes who start their journeys because they’re getting abused by mean parents, stepparents, etc., or are otherwise in fear of their lives. Just not everybody.

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