Friday, December 9, 2011

Salander as Superhero

This blog post is an excerpt from a chapter in the anthology titled The Psychology of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, published by BenBella Books.

Lisbeth Salander is a captivating protagonist. Her appearance and demeanor lead us-and the characters in her world-to make assumptions about her, to pigeonhole her as a goth, a slacker, a rebel. Over the course of the first novel and the trilogy, Stieg Larsson upends our analysis of her character as he reveals her inner life, her outward behavior, and the choices she's made. We can't help but admire her grit and persistence, her inner strength and commitment, her strong moral code, and her adherence to it.

There's a sense in which Salander is an action hero, even though the action isn't generally hitting, punching, or kicking (though she engages in some of those actions, too). Rather, she engages in hacking, researching, and other uses of her substantial intellect and emotional strengths. Her heroism is demonstrated mentally as well as physically. I'll go one step further: I think that Salander is a superhero. She has the three most important characteristics typical of a superhero: a mission, (super)powers, and a superheroidentity. The fact that she's not explicitly labeled as a superhero-and that we only subliminally come to understand her as one-adds to her appeal. Let's explore her mission in more detail.

The Mission

Every superhero has a mission. Batman seeks to avenge his parents' deaths by "spending the rest of my life warring on all criminals.". Spider-Man's mission is to use his spider-like powers to help others. Superman fights for truth, justice, and-until recently-the American way. Most superheroes don't begin with those missions, though. Their missions arise as a response to events in their lives-most frequently traumatic events. These events steer the protagonist to dedicate him or herself to a (superheroic) cause. The murders of Bruce Wayne's parents steer him to train and study for years and then don the Batsuit in order to reduce crime in Gotham City. The murder of Peter Parker's Uncle Ben leads the newly spider-powered adolescent to dedicate his life and powers to protecting others rather than pursuing fame and glory as an enhanced being. Clark Kent's questions about his place in the world steer him toward his mission as Superman.

Salander, too, has life events that steer her toward a mission. At the beginning of Larsson's trilogy, Salander's work as a private investigator is a job: she does the work she's hired to do and doesn't get involved in her investigations beyond what is required. She doesn't yet have a mission in the heroic sense, but when investigating Mikael Blomkvist for Dirch Frode (Henrik Vanger's attorney), the pieces don't all add up and she's intrigued. Mikael Blomkvist plans to go willingly go to jail without disclosing the sources for his inaccurate reporting on Wennerström. Salander welcomes the opportunity to be paid to find out more about Blomkvist.

During this same general time period that Blomkvist begins looking to Harriet's disappearance, Salander undergoes a new traumatic experience of her own that involves secrets, surviving injustice, and being disempowered: She is coerced into performing oral sex on her new guardian, Nils Bjurman-a man in a position to destroy her life and autonomy. Salander is not willing to remain subjected to Bjurman's torture, so she sets out to entrap him by filming him when he next demands oral sex. He demands more than that, though, and he brutally rapes her.

After being taunted by others and witnessing abuse in her home as a child, as an adult Lisbeth places a high value on being in control of her life-and Bjurman's brutal assault made her feel out of control. Although she gains a hold over him by filming the rape and thereby securing evidence of his crime, this hold came at a great personal cost. Salander is not someone who likes feeling powerless. (As we learn in the second novel, when she was strapped down in the seclusion room as a child, she'd calm herself by imagining being in control-by being able to act on her own behalf.)

It is in the aftermath of her experience with Bjurman that she discovers Blomkvist's new project: to find out what happened to a young woman, Harriet Vanger, who went missing decades ago. When Blomkvist asks Salander to research the case and track down old murders that might correspond to selected biblical passages, Salander is intrigued.

It is while hunting for the details of that first murder case-in which the woman was bound and tortured-that Salander seems to develop the stirring of purpose that Blomkvist already possesses. For her, the investigation shifts from an interesting puzzle that slakes her intellectual curiosity to one of a mission-to uncover the truth and see justice done. Blomkvist's mission becomes her mission, though they have different ideas of what justice might ultimately mean. Salander turns up additional murders that were not on Harriet's list. And when the job for which she was hired is over (but the killer not yet discovered), she wants to continue. Blomkvist says he'll pay her but she would have done so for free.

As she and Blomkvist find and put together the pieces, she also sees Blomkvist's burning passion to discover the person who sadistically murdered young women. Based on her own experience with Bjurman (and as we find out in the subsequent stories, her experiences with child psychiatrist, Teleborian), she can identify with these dead women-these victims-and no doubt views Blomkvist's goal and efforts to solve their murders as heroic. She is transformed by watching him and by taking part in the cause for truth and justice, just as sidekicks are transformed by their mentors (as Robin was by Batman, for instance). We see her channel her sense of agency and self-efficacy (her belief that she can do what she sets out to do), into a desire to fight for justice as she interprets it.

Transformation can also arise in response to trauma. In my formulation, Salander's experience of being raped was the turning point that steered her to her mission. Like other survivors of trauma, Salander found a way to make personal meaning of her traumatic experience. Salander's transformation as a result of her traumatic experience is consistent with the findings of an area of psychological research referred to as posttraumatic growth, in which the stress of trauma challenges people's beliefs-about themselves, the world, and their place in it-and induces them to grow in positive, meaningful ways. (A minority-about 20 percent--of people who experience a trauma go on to develop posttraumatic stress disorder [PTSD]; they may not experience posttraumatic growth while their PTSD symptoms are prominent and chronic.) Trauma can leave the survivor wondering "why did this happen?" and when the trauma has a personal element, such as with rape and assault, the survivor may wonder "why did this happen to me?"

As survivors struggle to answer that question, over time most report feeling stronger for having come through their traumatic experience. They make sense of their (senseless) traumatic experience and newly discovered strength by committing themselves to helping others. Sometimes survivors work to prevent what happened to them from happening to others. Candy Lightner and Sue LeBrun-Green, who lit the fire of awareness about drunk driving when they started Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), are perfect examples of this. The seeds of MADD were planted in 1980 after Lightner's thirteen-year-old daughter, Cari, who was walking to a church carnival, was hit and killed by a drunk driver. Another person who made meaning of family trauma is William Minniefield, an African-American man whose brother died waiting for a kidney transplant and whose other brother is waiting for one still. Organ donation by minorities is less common among and leads to even longer wait times for organs that are the best match for African-Americans. Minniefield founded the Minority Organ Donation Education Program to educate minority populations about organ donation, and to try to prevent what happened in his family from happening to others.

Other survivors may develop missions to help people like themselves-survivors after the fact. After David Schury's recovery from the burns that covered over 30 percent of his body, he and his wife Michele started the From Tragedy to Triumph Foundation, which provides support to burn victims and their families.

In a sense, Salander develops a mission after her experience with Bjurman: to use her talents and abilities to figure out who abused, tortured, and murdered young women. Her answer: Gottfried and then Martin Vanger. Like other trauma survivors, Salander acts to prevent further victims. She prevents Blomkvist from being another of Martin's victims, then injures Martin and chases him on her motorcycle at which point Vanger decides to kill himself, steering his car directly into an oncoming truck. Martin Vanger isn't able to harm any more women because of her intervention.

It is during the period of Blomkvist's helplessness-when Martin Vanger holds Blomkvist hostage in the basement room and is about to kill him-that Salander transforms from Blomkvist's sidekick to a (super)hero in her own right. Like any superhero, she saves him at risk to her own life. She's dedicated. Her sense of purpose is so great, in fact, that she becomes a moral leader with a clear vision of the correct path ahead. When she later explains to Henrik Vanger's attorney, Dirch Frode, what was really going on with Martin Vanger, Frode-temporarily unable to decide among untenable moral choices about what to do about Martin's basement torture chamber, how much to tell the police, and what to reveal about Martin's misdeeds-realizes that "here he was taking orders from a child [Lisbeth]."

Salander even espouses to Blomkvist the superhero's credo-that people have a choice in how to behave, even if they had a bad childhood. She challenges him by stating, "So you're assuming that Martin had no will of his own and that people become whatever they've been brought up to be" and "Gottfried isn't the only kid who was ever mistreated. That doesn't give him the right to murder women. He made that choice himself. And the same is true of Martin" (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).

As with other superheroes, part of Salander's mission is to see that justice is served for others-in this case, the dead women-at least as much as it can be. She wants Frode and Henrik Vanger to do their best to identify the victims and provide their families with "suitable compensation." She also wants them to donate two million kroner each year, in perpetuity, to the National Organization for Women's Crisis Centres and Girls' Crisis Centres in Sweden. Her transformation to hero/moral arbiter is complete. She has made meaning of her own traumatic history and seeks to prevent what happened to her from happening to others.

The first novel is Lisbeth's "origin story," a story that explains who she was "before" (before the events that began her transformation) and who she becomes; superhero origin stories document transformations of personal growth, typically in response to some type of trauma or crisis. This transformation, reflected in her attire and behavior, is clear at the beginning of the second book, The Girl Who Played with Fire. She no longer dresses to give off an angry attitude, and during the beginning of the Caribbean hurricane she put her own life at significant risk to find her young lover George Bland and bring him to safety. On their way back to the hotel, Salander again puts herself at risk to prevent Richard Forbes from killing his wife. Deviating from her normal snarky or defensive attitude, she is polite to the local police investigating Richard Forbes' disappearance, answering their questions without malice. She even allows strangers to touch her without giving them a look or biting their heads off! This is a different Salander than we are introduced to at the start of the first book. She is no longer someone who wants to be left alone and who interferes in other people's lives only through her computer, and only when paid or for her own personal ends. She has become a protector and avenger.

Copyright 2011 by Robin S. Rosenberg

Her most recent book is the edited anthology, The Psychology of the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

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