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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Stieg Larsson Women are raised to routinely fear rape.

“If you go at night, take a friend.” “Check under the car and in your backseat before you get in.” “I’m just saying it’s a good idea to know where the exits are.” “I got you this whistle for your keychain, you know, just so you have it.” “You were an hour later than I thought you’d be! We called the police!” “Oh, that’s pepper spray; I keep it with me just in case.” “I just make sure I get my keys out and check for other weapons if I’m getting off work late.” “Is this weird? I live alone and I’m going running, so if I don’t call you by 11:15, call the police, okay?”

A woman who fights back – no, a woman who argues at all – does so knowing it will probably make her a social pariah.

“She’s just one of those women who makes life hell . . . like a Hillary Clinton type.” “You’re different; you’re not a ball buster like some girls.” “You know that rape accusations can destroy a man’s life, right? And when she said it, did you see how she looked? I mean . . .” “All girls do is complain and nag. Not you, of course – most girls.” “But it is really women who are the privileged ones to be covered and cared for by the man; all of the responsibility for decisions are on him.” “He didn’t mean it the way it sounded, so you'll just regret it if you tell him he's wrong.” “She never understood me, and now she’s making all of these claims and trying to take practically half of my paycheck. I think she was just in it for the money in the first place.” “All I said was she has a nice rack; what a bitch.” “That’s just life; make the best of it.”

And there is good reason we are raised to fear rape, and raised not to fight back: survival. Women know that if we walk alone in the dark, statistically there is a good chance we will get raped. If we go to the wrong party, we’ll be raped. If we misread that boy next door and his swellness is a con, rape. And when a person is in a position of being systematically controlled, it often does cause more physical or emotional damage to fight back. It’s not right, but it is realistic.

It seems to me like it is the equivalent of every man being raised that if he leaves the house at the wrong time, he might encounter a woman who will strip him naked, hold him down, and knee him in the balls while she masturbates. And then in this alternate universe, these boys find out, as they grow up, that most of the men they know have had that happen to them. And I’m not trying to minimize sexual assault experiences that involve little or no physical injury, nor am I trying to minimize sexual assaults against men: no one has the right to touch another person’s body without permission. I’m talking about the way women are raised to think of daily life. Women are not raised to be afraid we’re going to get a super hot BJ that we didn’t realize we wanted, which is sometimes how I feel people talk about rape accusations. We are raised to encounter our daily lives knowing that, even if violence wasn't in our past, violence probably is in our future. And every time someone says, “Don’t go alone,” it is a little reminder that a lot of men hate us.

I have to say, though, that while I think it is realistic to say that women are raised to fear rape and to incorporate that fear of rape into our daily routine, and that sometimes fighting back makes things more dangerous, I do not believe it is effective to live in fear or to encourage women to live in fear or not defend ourselves. I think that perpetuates an idea that women are powerless, which then encourages women to freeze up when encountered with violence or even conflict. I think trusting our instincts and learning martial arts is probably more productive.

And teaching men not to rape.

That seems like the approach this book takes, though it more directly simply reflects, with appropriate outrage, on the levels of male contempt for women. And I think in that way, in the way it is directed to men, it is about how gross contempt for women is, whether it takes the form of self-absorption or sadism.

This book is smart. It is symmetrical in its execution in many ways: in starting and ending with Blomkvist’s corporate corruption story, and in the way it shows men and women accused of race whoring, men and women subjected to violence. The juxtaposition of Salander’s rape with Blomkvist’s consensual sexual encounter with Cicilia is really well played. It is viscerally grotesque in the contrast, and it highlights the theme of consent. It was physically difficult for me to read, especially in the contrast, and I thought that made it very effective.

Salander’s character, too, is smart. She is both the outcast that women are when we fight back, and she is something of the misunderstood-bad-boy hero turned girl. I liked that. When she saves Blomkvist, it is all really vivid and heroic, but still corporeal and disgusting. I liked that Blomkvist couldn’t take charge because he was in too much shock, and that she truly saved his life. It bothers me when a storyteller starts to let a girl save a guy, but really she only tosses him the gun to save himself. Salander gets some real action and some real credit, and it is satisfying.

Ultimately, it is pretty clear, but not laughing in your face, just resigned, Larsson knows Blomkvist is a self-serving ass, too. It was so smart at the end when Blomkvist runs into his nemesis with a girl Salander’s age on his arm, and Blomkvist so despises him for it. I like how in the end our hero really isn’t our hero. He really has only used Salander, and how far is that from hating women? It is certainly not respectful. The hatred we condemn in this book, though, manifests as violence, and I can get behind featuring that and then fading out to Cicilia’s father condemning her as a whore and Blomkvist’s blissful self-absorption. It is a meaningful gradation. But, it is important that Blomkvist isn’t the ideal model of men being friends with women because he would be too specific – because there probably isn’t an ideal model. Larsson doesn’t justify Blomkvist’s assholery, but he is not so in love with his hero that he can’t acknowledge it. And, aren’t we all assholes to each other a lot of the time? But not all of us get off on kneeing each other in the balls.

This struck me as a very masculine translation of male hatred of women and the way women navigate a world that tells us every time we turn a corner that it hates us. It seems like men either have considered what life would be like if they had been trained to fear leaving the house after dark, or they haven’t. And in my experience, it is difficult for men to understand a woman’s words if she tries to describe it, so I think it is important to have a man tell a story this way. I do see how the graphic descriptions of sadistic violence against women might allow a sadistic audience to read only for that, but the fact that Larsson balances this with graphic violence against men neutralizes the gender-hatred aspect of that to me. And if you are reading these books for the violence, see a psychiatrist, but I don’t think it is productive to censor descriptions of violence just because someone fucked up might get off on them. And if you think these descriptions are fantastical exaggerations, go spend some time at your local women’s shelter. Unfortunately, I think you will find you are wrong. And I don't think it does anybody any good to be afraid to tell these stories.

protesters holding a sign that says 'don't tell your daughter not to go out, tell your son to behave properly'

I hated the writing in this book a lot. Like, I hated it a lot. It both hit a lot of pet peeves of mine and it was just objectively bad in a lot of places. I don’t have a problem with books being badly written if the writing doesn’t get in the way of a good story, but here the writing was waiving its hands in my face the whole time trying to get me to lose the story. The sandwiches! OH TEH SANDWICHES! I wonder how much tourism for Sweden Larsson drummed up by the sandwich descriptions. I hope none because gag. I can see how he created the effect of an investigatory report through the writing, so, I think it is intentionally the way it is, but it was a choice I did not enjoy at all. So, overall this was a very unpleasant book to read, but it was smart, and its smartness outweighed its unpleasantness in my evaluation.

It is always kind of a funny experience to read your own words as someone else would write them. In every Willa Cather novel I have read, there has been a moment where I’ve read something and thought, “I just said that last week!!!” It was funny in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: I wanted to high five Salander all the time because I would think her dialogue right before I read it. I imagine everyone in the world has told me to read this book because of the times I say, “Oh, another man who hates women.” Or that it is bullshit to say someone had a violent childhood, so of course he had to be violent against women as an adult. So, it was funny to read somebody else say those words. At the same time, Salander felt like a man recording the facts of what he saw a woman do and say once, not like a living, breathing human character. That doesn’t take away from the smartness of the book, but it is another reason my actual enjoyment factor was low.

Also, I had to go buy pickles yesterday because reading about so many of them gave me a craving. I hope Larsson’s estate got some sponsorship money from the sandwich and pickle lobbies.