It just doesn’t seem necessary to me. True, it serves to develop Lisbeth’s character. We need to see her ability to carry out a coldly calculated act of violence before we reach the book’s ending, or her attack on Martin Vanger will seem to come out of nowhere. And for that to happen, Larsson needed to set up a situation for which Lisbeth is justified in getting revenge. Perhaps he chose rape because it’s so unforgivable that we’re certain to be on Lisbeth’s side, even as she reacts maliciously. And Larsson has established that Lisbeth reacts with particular violence towards those who violate her right to choose how she’s approached for sex, so the set-up is all in place for a scene like this.
But despite that—and despite the horrific crimes against women that Mikael Blomkvist discovers in his investigation, as well as the rape statistics that open every section of the book—this scene feels disconnected from the rest of the book. Larsson’s writing is subtle elsewhere, and his character development takes its time. Even the horrific murder scenes he later describes don’t have the same brutal feel that this one scene does. And it goes on for an awfully long time, in excruciating detail.
So I keep asking myself why Larsson wrote this scene in particular, when he could have written a shorter rape scene, or a different scene altogether. The scene made me painfully uncomfortable. That discomfort grew the longer the scene went on. And it stuck with me, because it made me wonder if maybe the scene didn’t end because Larsson was just a little too satisfied with it. I wonder if he found it a bit more thrilling to write than I’m happy accepting.
Missy Schwartz put it perfectly in her article questioning whether or not Stieg Larsson, professed feminist, had “an issue with women”:
The crimes are unspeakable—which you could argue is the point for an activist like Larsson: Bring it into the open, try to prevent it from happening again. Still, Larsson seems to want it both ways: to condemn such savagery while simultaneously exploiting it in graphic detail for titillating storytelling purposes.That desire to have it both ways is what worries me.
It worries me not because of this one book or this one author, but because it’s a trend I see in a lot of writing, especially when the book is meant to be dark, and rape is used as that go-to tragedy. When I read certain rape scenes I have a hard time feeling that these scenes are about awareness, or that they’re therapeutic. Like the endless menagerie of horrific murders in your average slasher films, I feel like these rape scenes are as much if not more about a dark, voyeuristic pleasure that comes from watching something we can’t completely comprehend or experience with the character. When I read these scenes, there’s a part of me that feels like the writer is enacting a rape on a character. And I feel almost like the reader is enacting a rape on the character with each read, just to see what it feels like—and not from the victim’s point of view.
Perhaps this wouldn’t stick with me if I hadn’t had that feeling over and over again, both in my early writing workshops and as I read for classes or for pleasure. I have such conflicted feelings about this issue, but it’s also one of the closest to my heart.
So I’m asking you guys—what do you think? Is the increased visibility—any increased visibility—a good thing? Will that help teach our society to be sensitive to these issues, and to try to stop the epidemic of violence against women? Or could the epidemic actually be made worse by a culture full of books about rape that sensationalize it, or turn it into a spectacle?