Saturday (Not a Book) Review: Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

This post is by Scott Bryant.

A few weeks ago, I picked up Scot McKnight’s new e-book entitled Junia is Not Alone. Interestingly enough, the very week that I purchased his book, the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly arrived in my mailbox, complete with a cover caption that read: “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: How an Intense New Thriller Brought the World’s Coolest Heroine to Life.” This, of course, got me to thinking.

Why would a magazine choose to describe Lisbeth Salander as the “coolest heroine?” What is it about Salander that has fascinated us as a society? What is it about her story that seems to ring so true? While the theories abound, I think the film’s director, David Fincher, gives us a great insight when he describes how they developed Salander’s look.

“Trish Summerville, the costume designer, and I talked a lot [about Salander’s appearance]. Trish has some of the most beautiful piercings and little studs in her nose, but that’s jewelry. By contrast, Lisbeth’s piercings … actually look painful and self-violating. We went back to that first idea of Sid Vicious[1] with a safety pin through his cheek and what it meant. That was not a way of saying, ‘Look at me, I’m special, I’m different, I’m committed.’ It was a way of saying, ‘Get away or you’re going to get blood on you.’”

You see, in many ways, Lisbeth Salander, as first conceived by Steig Larrsen, represents the next step in the cultural evolution of the female archetype. She is the post-feminist, warrior – the literary and celluloid sister of Lara Croft,[2] Buffy Summers,[3] Angelina Jolie,[4] and even the pre-pubescent Hit Girl. But is that all that there is to her character? Is she nothing more than an avenging angel? Again, Fincher and his team are right there to help us understand. [By the way, if you like the posts here click one or more of the share buttons below. They are very slow in showing accurate numbers, but it does help spread the word.]

“She’s not an avenging angel. We were never interested in that. We never felt this was Dirty Harry or Death Wish. She’s a person who has to deal with a lot of things … Psychologically, she has to work on two currents. One of them is saying, I don’t trust anyone, I don’t want to have anyone in my life, and I’m willing put on this garb that says, “Stay … away from me.’ And at the same time, it’s almost as if she’s in agreement with what everyone has always said about her, which is that she’s trash. She’s perfectly willing to look like refuse in order to be left alone.”

So who is Lisbeth Salander? She’s the new 21st century female role model. She’s a deeply scarred and troubled young woman, sexually aware, outwardly self-confident, inwardly bruised, and profoundly violent. In many ways, she’s a male fantasy – a millennial Cinderella who, while awaiting her knight in shining armor, has the courage and the moxie to take on all comers. Sure, she’s in need of rescue, but she’s not about to sit around twiddling her thumbs.

So with this cultural story as a background, I picked up McKnight’s new e-book, in which he lays out an argument regarding the neutering of the Apostle Junia.  I found it astonishing that we, as a church, have not heard more about the lone female apostle in the New Testament, a woman described by the Apostle Paul himself as being “prominent among the apostles.”[5] Now I’m not going to bother you with the details of McKnight’s argument. Quite honestly, if you’re really that interested in this subject, you should just pick up the book for $2.99. It’s only 35 pages long; and it’ll excite your imagination in ways my reductionist summary never could.

But my point is simply this. We know that the cultural story is a damaging story that offers little in terms of real hope for young women in the world today. We know that sexualizing the body for the sake of marketing one’s self isn’t the answer. And we know that vengeance for all of the abuses suffered – both large and small – will never lead to closure or reconciliation.

But as McKnight so clearly illustrates, we also fail to tell a different story! We make sloppy hermeneutical decisions to violate the text and propagate the false idea that Junia was a man. We rarely speak on Huldah. We barely touch on Deborah. In fact, about the only thing we tend to offer is a vision of the “godly wife” from Proverbs 31 – a vision that is often carefully edited to omit the fact that she works outside of the home,[6] earning her own income[7] even as she built a public reputation that is so sound, that it’s praised by the leaders of the community.[8]

It has been said that nature abhors a vacuum. And I fear that if the church does not begin to seriously take up the task of offering a truly counter-cultural image of what a female disciple might actually look like, if the church continues to let silence be its guiding principle on this subject, than we are likely looking at a future where the vacuum will be filled – not by the likes of Junia, Hulldah, and Deborah, but by the likes of Lisbeth, Buffy, and even the young Chloe Grace Moretz – women left with no choice but to “kick ass.”[9]

Click here for a discussion on misogyny, Lisbeth and the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

[1] Sid Vicious was the iconic base player for the seminal punk band, Sex Pistols.

[2] Lara Croft is the fictional main character of the Tomb Raider video game series. First released in 1996, the character has become so iconic that it has spawned 11 video game sequels, two film adaptations, a series of young adult books and even a few academic monographs seeking to understand her influence.

[3] Buffy Summers is a fictional character first developed by Josh Whedon in a 1992 film entitled Buffy the Vampire Slayer. While Whedon’s film was essentially dead-on-arrival, he resurrected the character in a breakout series starring Sarah Michelle Gellar. The series ran for several years, and gave birth to a spin-off program entitled, Angel, as well as numerous non-canon material such as comic books, novels and video games.

[4] Angelina Jolie is an Oscar-winning actress who first came to international fame playing Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider series. Although she has flashed serious talent in numerous smaller projects, she is most well known for playing the type of woman described in this article. Films in which she is depicted in this fashion include: Gone in Sixty Seconds, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Wanted and Salt.

[5] Romans 16:7.

[6] Proverbs 31:24.

[7] Proverbs 31:16.

[8] Proverbs 31:31.

[9] One of the most shocking, and provocative examples of this new female archetype is represented by Chloe Grace Moretz in Matthew Vaughn’s film, Kick Ass. Here, the young Ms. Moretz plays a 10-year old girl who is trained to be a killer by her ex-cop father, played by Nicholas Cage. While the film was ostensibly about the titular hero played by Aaron Johnson, the phenomenon was built around Moretz’s breakout performance as a young girl, deeply scared, but able to take on all comers.

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  • Holly
  • I haven’t read or watched the movies. So my only comment is that you might be interested in Christianity Today’s women’s blog Her-menutics that had a post by Karen Swallow Prior on the same basic thought.

  • Susan N.

    Interesting, I was just watching ‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith’ last night and thinking what a commentary on violence begetting violence…one-upmanship at its ugliest.

    I’m no fan of tattoos and/or body piercings; no need to “wear” the wound(s) of life, either as a martyr or a rebel.

    But I would reiterate a point I made earlier this week, regarding my need to distance from evangelicalism with all its associated “forceful” impositions (not only on women, but other underdogs as well). The cognitive dissonance and defensiveness against hostile elements bring out the worst in me — a meanness and hardness that is not my best self, which is, the “real” tough *and* tender me that God wants to come into being and be used fruitfully.

    I haven’t watched the ‘Dragon Tattoo’ movie. Life itself is painful enough a commentary on the situation, forget about art’s imitation of it. I’m more keen to see the likes of ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.’ That’s more my cup o’ tea. 🙂

  • John W Frye

    I just read Dr. Karen Swallow Prior’s review (linked above in comment #2. Go there, read the review AND all the comments to get a sense of the evangelical community’s reactions to this film.

    I’ve read all three of Larrsen’s novels and have seen both the Swedish and American movie versions of the first book. ‘Lizbeth Salander’ is a captivating character for whom Jesus would weep without condoning her ways of dealing with her woundedness or using her giftedness. The novels have a much larger context than the American movie presents: the social injustice(s) of sex-trafficking and physical/sexual abuse of women. The novels are gritty by nature of the subject matter. That Salander, though fictional, will become a cultural icon and role model, is sad. But the last thing we need is a host of sour puss Christians hiding from and harping on the subject of the novels and movie.

  • Prodigal Daughter

    I also have read all 3 of “Girl With/Who” books and have seen all of the Swedish film adaptations and the first of the American films. I have enjoyed the books tremendously, as well as the films. The caveat is that the extreme sexual violence was indeed deeply soul disturbing to watch. Having been a victim of some sexual abuse as a child, and being a woman myself, matters of sexual abuse (no matter how they are portrayed) are not lost on me. Regardless of one’s past, these film scenes should disturb us all as they are patently violent.

    I would call Lisbeth Salander an “anti-heroine” because her moral compass is so skewed. How she got to be who she is makes so much sense when you read the books. What draws me to her are the best parts of herself: her independence, her drive, and her will to succeed in a world which has horribly abused her and cast her aside without a second glance, and these qualities are are juxtaposed with her innate vulnerability and deep desire for human connection (though most times she is really unaware of that desire or more likely, is in denial over it). What also draws me to her is how real a woman she is: there are many Lisbeth Salanders in our world: broken, wounded women who are strong and smart. What’s so disturbing about her is the loss of feminine softness that can accompany female strength. She has power, but it’s out of control. And she is violent. The opposite of natural femininity. But this too, is what makes her interesting. She’s not typical. And nor should she be. That may be what frightens us most about her becoming a cultural icon. While she’s interesting, and her qualities are recognizable in some women we know, she is in no way typical and God help us if she becomes so!

    I appreciated Scott Bryant’s observation about the church’s need to step up and speak to what a female disciple looks like so that both women and men have an idea of what is better than our culture’s portrayal of women, but I wish we would start with wholeness (and this goes for men too). The best parts of ourselves can be cultivated only when the wounds have been tended to by the Great Physician. If left to our own devices, healing never comes as Lisbeth’s character teaches us. And we all know that “hurt people hurt people”.

  • Prodigal Daughter

    And one more observation related to this post. I have noticed an increasing amount of films/tv that portray “antiheroes”. Lisbeth Salander is the most popular example for females, but I have also noticed this trend with male figures. For example Showtime’s “Dexter” and BBC’s “Luther”. These characters are immoral and misguided, however well-intentioned (if that can even be said of Dexter!)

  • #5: Prodigal Daughter … Thank you so much for taking the time to read the article. I genuinely appreciate it. I thought your statements near the end of your comment were really interesting, and I’d be curious to know more about what you mean when you say that you “wish we would start with wholeness.” I have a feeling that you are tying that into your thoughts on abuse, but I’d love to hear more from you. Hope you have the time to respond.


  • Prodigal Daughter

    #7 Scott,
    I’ll try to give well thought out response because yours is a good question, but I think out loud, so please bear with me…I think feminism (and by that I mean a standard of femininity–whatever it maybe at a given time) is largely a response to the world, to present day culture. And it’s often a reflection of who is in control of that culture. It’s an ideal born out of real or perceived thoughts as to how women are to be received, treated or portrayed in society. And feminist ideals are there to show women how to survive in the present world. As the world changes, feminist ideals change, and so we see a shift in what kind of woman is ideal. If you want an idea of how they have changed in the past 50 years, just look at the Disney princesses and how they’ve evolved. Or more to adult examples, we’ve gone from Marilyn Monroe to Princess Leia to Lisabeth Salander.

    When I say I wish we start from wholeness, I mean that I wish that rather than trying to figure out what a “biblical standard of femininity” is and try to work towards that, that I think it would be better to start with finding peace (shalom) with God and with ourselves first. I wish we wouldn’t start gender per se because my gender, while it is a huge part of who I am, it’s not my entirety. I guess I’d say I’m human first, female second in terms of how I relate to the world. I wish we’d start with being a whole person (insofar as that is possible this side of Christ’s return). I think it better to know and understand what I think about myself and whether or not it’s 1) true and 2) based in reality. If there are things in my life that have pained me and caused me to habitually sin (addictions, failures, etc.), I think knowing myself is a better place to start before deciding on who I want to be or become in this world as a woman (or working towards the standard du jour, “biblical” or not). If I have shalom with God and with myself, it makes it much easier for me to navigate the world and not fall prey to shoehorning myself into a feminist ideal that may or may not suit who God made me to be, or may or may not help the world I am called to bring into reconciliation with Christ. I’m broken in my humanity, not just my femininity. So, working towards a goal of wholeness as a human seems more logical to me because it encompasses my gender.

  • #8 Prodigal Daughter … Thanks for taking the time to write back. Reading through your comments, I couldn’t help but think of a great book I recently finished, called, “The End of Sexual Identity.” The author is making an argument that sounds very similar to your notion of identifying first as a human being, and secondly as a woman. Personally, I think this is a fascinating trend in sociology, particularly as we, as a culture, continue to struggle with how great a role we want to assign to sexuality. I’ve actually written two pieces on it over the past few weeks. The first was called “Sexless Babies and the Rise of Gender Creativity,” while the second was called “Breaking Rank: Gay By Choice.” If this is something that interests you, you might want to check it out over at And if not, no worries. I just find this sort of thing fascinating from a cultural perspective.

    Thanks again for taking the time to read and the time to openly reply. I love these sorts of exchanges and I always appreciate it when people can bring their story into the discussion. Blessings, Scott

  • Prodigal Daughter

    #9 Scott, I have heard of that book, though I have not read it. I will definitely read your posts. It does, indeed, interest me. Thank you for engaging me with your question. You most definitely made me think about what I said and how I arrived there. I’ll look forward to more of your posts and I’ll add your blog to my list of favorites. You have some interesting things to say that are thought provoking.

  • Though, a la the CT article, I live under a rock, the linked article was intriguing!

    “She has the smarts and independence men increasingly expect[ed] in a post-feminist world, makes a great work partner, stitches up a bullet hole with vodka and dental floss, rides a motorcycle, initiates sex (and does girls, too), makes breakfast the morning after, brings herself to orgasm while her partner lies back and thinks about work—all the while staying (largely) emotionally unattached. She’s essentially a breasted boy.”

    Certainly fits the list of Christian virtues that we are to focus on.

  • DRT

    Excellent article.

    I had a realization reading this about myself (it is, all about me after all). My wife and I are clearly folks that would not have a problem piercing the heck out of ourselves and getting tats, but neither of us ever have. I suddenly realized why. I have broken about 15 bones, stitches all over the place, and my wife has similar though not as many injuries. We don’t need to get piercing and tats intentionally, I have enough just through life!

  • Susan N.

    DRT (#12), that’s what I was talking about (#3).

    I suppose for those who have lived a perfectly sanitized existence, seeing a movie like ‘Dragon Tattoo’ is necessary in order to even begin to imagine what a real, ugly mess life is/has been for some. OTOH, there are many who have seen enough “IRL” and graphically-disturbing images are akin to being a glutton for punishment.

    I am also saying something more: there are many more people in our midst whose battle scars are untold and invisible. Furthermore, in many ways those wounds, through a process of healing — as Prodigal Daughter expressed in #8, via finding peace with God and *ourselves* FIRST…before looking outward for society’s expectation and approval/disapproval — can be redeemed and uniquely used for good in God’s design. The wounds can heal; the scars are permanent.

    So many of the conservative evangelicals that I have encountered directly, and certainly the celebs who write and speak (i.e., Driscoll, Piper, et al), have been so focused on conformity to a well-defined “ideal” (i.e., gender roles) that one has two choices, no three: Either fit yourself to the mold, be yourself (and suffer quietly in the margins), or exit the system.

    After leaving our former evangelical church, it was a year and a half before we (as a family) darkened the door of another church. I grieved the loss of our church community, but at the same time, it was a time of tearing down false idols and rebuilding my relationship with God (minus the “input” from church influences). I came to a place finally when I was able to make a sane choice to embrace church (though not conservative evangelical forms of it). In the “waiting” period, an acquaintance from our former church took the opportunity to express her disapproval of my “unchurched” status, remonstrating me for spiritual immaturity, and warning me of the danger of “my flame” growing cold.

    Nothing like one’s “flame” being continually doused with a fire hose to wear a person’s faith in community down. It’s such a shame that those on the inside don’t seem to see the situation as it really is.

  • Susan N.

    OK, so I’ve been browsing other reviews of the ‘Dragon Tattoo’ book/movie. Though I don’t align myself with “femin-ism”, the review / critique posted at ‘The f Word’ blog, titled, “Feminist or Misogynist?” pretty well sums up my sentiments about the themes and ultimate meaning of this book/movie. I am not posting the direct link, however, because some of the content which describes the ‘Dragon Tattoo’ (plus other writers of similar ilk, i.e., Patterson and Koontz) is downright grisly; the blogger’s language is, at times, very strong (and, hence, may be offensive to some). But, if you’re truly not the squeamish type, check out Melanie Newman’s blog post at ‘The f Word.’

    Off to church now…

  • Diane

    I’ve read the first Dragon Tattoo book and seen the Swedish movies. What drives the book(s) is Larssen’s deep outrage at how vulnerable women are abused by the system that is supposed to protect them. There is a strong element of male fantasy in Elisabeth (after all, the deceased Larssen was a man) but Elisabeth is his attempt to draw a sympathetic character in order to point attention–this is the key– at how lower-class women as a class are abused. This underlying moral sensibility pushes these novels past potboilers. Much of this element of how the powerful exploit the needy (surely a Biblical theme) is, I fear, lost in the films. The Swedish films are quite good but my sense is that Elisabeth as a representative of a class of women is obscured.

  • #15 Diane … I completely agree with your assessment in terms of the books having a much deeper theme. I’ve actually written two posts on “TGWTDT.” The one that you just read is actually the second post. The first dealt with the issue of misogyny, which was only partially addressed in Fincher’s film. The fact that Blomkvist is not seen as a serial womanizer actually undercuts the “small” misogyny that permeates much of society – a belief that men can use and disgard at will without guilt or remorse. And what’s really sad is that this complex is being passed on to women. Now, a fully-actualized woman is free to act is the same demeaning way towards men. Beyond all that, I just wanted to say thanks for taking the time to read this review and comment. Yours, Scott.

  • #13 Dear Susan … Is it possible that there is a fourth choice that could be added to your list of three? I’d like to suggest that perhaps, a willful decision to live a different story, one that challenges the conventions of the certain church cultures, but doesn’t hide, is an option that could genuinely benefit everyone. Is there a cost to that option? No doubt. But I truly believe that our culture, both within the church and outside of it, is in desperate need of alternative stories.

    Blessings to you in your new church home. Yours, Scott.

  • Prodigal Daughter

    #13 Susan and #17 Scott: I had the same thought as Scott. I tend to just be me and speak my mind (as kindly as I can, most times). I’ve alienated a few people because of it (or maybe they’ve alienated me, who knows?!) But then I have the tenacity of a chihuahua, or so I am told. Susan, keep on keeping on.

  • Susan N.

    Scott (#17) – it isn’t that the fourth option hadn’t occurred to me. But I found myself asking, “Why force yourself where you seem not to be wanted? (Or at least not wanted in your unique way of being/thinking?)

    My decision to leave *was*, in fact, a willful decision to live a different story! As our wise pastor counseled prior to our membership, “You get to choose (what you believe and where/with whom you want to belong)!”

    Do you think there are very many churches — particularly conservative evangelical — where a ‘Lisbeth Salander’ would be welcomed and embraced? How would a church go about ministering compassionately to a woman with the baggage of a Lisbeth Salander-type? As Scot talked about in a post last week, the soterian gospel narrows the focus to “curing”; but, if we are going to “care” first, and then show/tell females that there is an alternate (better) story (i.e., Junia), then how would that look in practice?

    I am thinking today of those nuns from Cleveland who are “gunning” for any sex traffickers in Indy during this Super Bowl Sunday (see Weekly Meanderings). May God guide them and bless them in their mission to rescue victims of those who would profit from the exploitation of females as objects of entertainment. Those sisters *rock*, in my book! They’re telling a different story that I can “get into.”

  • Richard

    @ 11 “Certainly fits the list of Christian virtues that we are to focus on.”

    I had a friend make an observation to me that I think lines up with what you’re saying here: those wanting to emphasize a masculine church are really asking the bride of Christ to be more manly.