childish or child-like?: Comparing Hit Girl and Lisbeth Salander
NOTE: this post may contain spoilers.
Today’s post is a bit of a detour, but stay with me. Over the weekend I saw the Swedish film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which is based on the novel by Stieg Larsson (which I devoured and enjoyed, in fact I’m currently starting in on the second book). The narrative revolves around the disappearance of a teenage girl, Harriet Vanger, over 40 years ago. Mikael Blomkvist, a recently disgraced journalist, and Lisbeth Salander, an exceptional hacker with a photographic memory, work together to solve the mystery.
The film is graphic and girls’/women’s bodies bear the brunt of that violence. There is a particularly brutal sequence in which Lisbeth is raped by her court appointed guardian. The film briefly delves into the rape-revenge genre, when Lisbeth rapes and brutalizes her guardian as a way to enact vengeance and crawl out from under his thumb. What saves The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo from devolving into an entirely masochistic text (at least for this feminist viewer) is that Lisbeth Salander functions as the hero. Utilizing her technological prowess (a rare quality for female characters!), and at times resorting to revenge and physical violence, Lisbeth not only saves Blomkvist’s life, but aims to correct the wrongs inflicted on women by men in power. Here is a trailer for the film:
I couldn’t help but think of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in relation to the hype surrounding Kick Ass. Both films depict violence and involve noteworthy female characters. Though I’ve yet to see Kick Ass, I’ve been following the controversy surrounding the character Hit Girl since the fuss over the red-band trailer. Several critics have voiced their unease with the hyper stylized depictions of violence in Kick Ass. Dana Stevens, Rogert Ebert, and A. O. Scott mostly sidestepped the “c” word issue and chose to comment on the ways in which Hit Girl unleashes a fury on underworld mobsters, and a sequence in the film in which she is “punched, stomped on, thrown and threatened with a gun to her head” (Scott). Scott uses the simultaneous releases of Kick Ass and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to comment on filmic representations of violence. I would like to take his comparisons one step further and discuss how these two films involve similar characters but with different outlooks, and consequently, why The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo snagged my money over the weekend while Kick Ass might be a Netflix rental at the most.
Though it might seem odd to compare an 11-year-old girl with the twenty-something hacker, the characters have more in common than meets the eye. Lisbeth is infantalized by other characters in the film, and these (mostly male) characters underestimate her capabilities, much in the way that Hit Girl’s school uniform look disarms her would-be assassins in Kick Ass. Lisbeth is small in stature, both in terms of her height and weight. Her slender frame could easily be mistaken for the body of a pre-pubescent boy. Moreover, Lisbeth is described by others as being odd, socially awkward, and/or having a diminished mental capacity (note: the book stresses that Lisbeth learned a long time ago that silence is a form of rebellion). Lisbeth’s guardian reads her as child-like in lieu of these characteristics, and he exploits the fact that she is financially dependent upon him, yet another way in which Lisbeth is not recognized as an adult.
I would argue that Lisbeth is the more vulnerable of the two girlish characters, given that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo eschews the style and narrative underpinnings of super hero tales and graphic novels. There are no witty one liners in this film and no choreographed violence that involves climbing walls and dazzling feats of physical prowess. The violence in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is gritty and wholly believable. Furthermore, we see the lingering traumatic effects of violence, especially when the film suggests that Lisbeth is a survivor of domestic violence and possible child sexual abuse.
In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo solving the mysterious disappearance of Harriet Vanger uncovers a history of violence that includes Anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and incest. Add in Lisbeth’s experiences of exploitation at the hands of Sweden’s courts, and the film exposes a matrices of domination that affect girls and women at home (inside the home) and abroad. This is broader commentary appears to be missing in Kick Ass, based on the trailers I’ve seen and the reviews I’ve read.
While filmgoers seem to be drawn to Hit Girl (and Kick Ass) precisely because white young girls do not typically act like Hit Girl, I’m much more interested in Lisbeth as the androgynous (and very queerable) girl hacker. She isn’t so much a vigilante as she is a survivor, and the fact that she connects her own experiences of subordination to the experiences of other women allows me – as a feminist moviegoer – to read feminist strands within the film. When we talk about enjoying filmic depictions of violence as “entertainment,” these small details make all the difference to me and help me draw a boundary between films I’m willing to pay for and films I’m willing to pass over.