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Friday, March 18, 2011

the brutalized housewife: sexual violence in the american bestseller

I don't really read bestsellers. Not when they're at the top of the charts anyway. I find the majority of bestsellers are the 400th book by a celebrated author I've never read before or simply the book the latest film is based upon. Right now, the top sellers list is populated by such titles as Beastly, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, The Lincoln Lawyer, and Water for Elephants. However, the past couple of weeks saw me with the nation's 9th best selling novel The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. I didn't really know much about it aside from its massive popularity, and that there are Swedish adaptations to all three Stieg Larsson novels on Netflix Instant. So I decided to give it a shot.

And yikes. I guess I was hoping for a mindless piece of badly-written yet engaging fluff, like the Dan Brown novels. Instead, the world I found myself in was a sordid one, filled with sexual imagery that leaves a bad taste in your mouth and a pit in your stomach. Immediately after one of the most unpleasant scenes in the novel, I began thinking about other recent examples of graphic sexual violence in some of the country's best-selling novels. For this essay, I'm going to focus on three titles: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, and Stephenie Meyer's Breaking Dawn. The books all bear some similarities. All three have sold at least 10 million copies. BD sold 1.3 million in its first 24 hours. All three have been the focus of films, whether already released or upcoming. And all three graphically portray an act of sexual violence against its main female character. For organization's sake, I'm going to discuss them in order of my personal offense, starting with the depiction that I find the least offensive. I should make it clear that I have not read the other two books, but that I have got descriptions of the particular scenes from those who have. There will obviously be spoilers.

The Lovely Bones starts with 14-year old Susie Salmon, the narrator, walking home from school, when she meets up with her creepo neighbor. He invites her to check out his underground room, where he strips her, stuffs her hat into her mouth, and rapes her. After he's done, he kills her, cuts up the body, and locks the parts in a safe which he then disposes of. Susie tells the rest of the story from heaven, as she sees her family recover from her death.

Its worth mentioning that Alice Sebold was herself raped when she was attending Syracuse University. Her writing of The Lovely Bones and her previous memoir, Lucky, can be seen as a way to work through that trauma. In this case, the question isn't so much "Why was the rape included?" It was made a part of the story because that was the author's story, and also to create some ham-handed scenario where Susie would not want her only sexual contact to be with her murderer, and so she possesses her friend and hooks up with the guy she always wanted to when she wasn't dead (again, yikes). The question is "Why is this popular?" The novel is about a victim meditating on the value of life, and addressing it to the readers so they not to take it for granted. Why is that a big deal? How is it worth 10 million copies and a movie starring the girl from Atonement, Stanley Tucci, and directed by the genius behind The Frighteners? So many different works do that. Even the Saw movies do that, though they use bear traps instead of icicles. In this example, one feels more embarrassed for the fans than for the author, but at least it doesn't seem to be the rape that is selling the book so much as the Philosophy 101: Loving Your Life.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is another monster entirely. The author, deceased Swede Stieg Larsson, witnessed a gang rape when he was a teenager that led to his "abhorrence of violence against women" as Wikipedia puts it. However, for someone who hates sexual violence, he definitely writes about it A LOT. Before I started Dragon Tattoo, I read the first chapter or so of the second book The Girl Who Played With Fire. It opens with a graphic depiction of a bound child being subjected to rape. Because of hints throughout the first book, I am operating under the assumption that was a flashback to the rape of the main female character, Lisbeth Salander.

Lisbeth Salander is a very interesting character from a physical perspective. She's small, skinny, has barely any immediately noticeable female characteristics, wears all black, and is covered in tattoos and piercings. She is portrayed as someone with an extensive sexual history, who becomes enamored with main male character, Mikael Blomkvist, a thinly veiled Mary Sue of the author. Blomkvist is a sensitive soul, but manages to pick up sexual partners with great ease, most of whom don't seem to care how many people he sleeps with, as long as he still has enough time for them. Salander comes across less as a character than a sexual fantasy: the dark and tortured alternative girl who is cold to the world but still wants to get in bed with the brilliant feminist journalist.

So it becomes more disturbing when Larsson twice subjects Salander to rape in his novel. The first is upsetting enough on its own, as she is forced to perform fellatio on her new guardian, as the courts have used her antisocial behavior to declare her unfit to take care of herself. But the novel ramps it up a level as the next time she sees him, he binds her to a bed, strips her, and violates her anally. This repulsive scene is a setup for the next one, where she uses videotape of the incident to blackmail and get revenge on her rapist. But it never goes anywhere after that. It turns into a murder mystery, a BDSM episode of Scooby-Doo. The purpose of all this horror was for what? To show that Salander has experienced tragedy? To show that she has a very strict sense of justice? To show that she disapproves of being raped? What does this say about the author who would take this fantasy girl and subject her to such debasement? And what does it say about the viewing public who would buy 30 million copies and then demand two sets of film adaptations, so that we can watch a socially-impaired girl be brutalized in Swedish and English?


  1. I have a friend who absolutely LOVES The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, so after her & apparently everybody else read it, I decided to try it out. I tend to read books fairly quickly, but the first two books took me a month each to get through- woof they're rough. Nothing happens in the first 400 pages, except she eats a lot of sandwiches in great detail and in book two you find you her exact Ikea order.

    I kept asking myself: Lisbeth is suppose to be the heroine, so why does Larsson put her through so much shit? Is there no other way to convey she is a strong, resilient-even harsh- character without forcibly using an anal plug? After the second book, I need a break before the 3rd. I still haven’t read it yet and she gets shot in the head at the end of 2. Even a cliff hanger like that hasn’t enticed me to go back just yet. Same for the Swedish movies- they’re on Netflix instant & I have had no desire to actually watch them.

    I could keep on ranting, but at a certain point that’s no fun. So to sum up The LostA Rape With The Dragon Tattoo = >:O

  2. I completely agree. I was not only bored with the girl with the dragon tattoo, but found it slightly repulsive. I admit I watch Law and Order reruns periodically, but this is just getting out of hand. Its so effing glorified.