It’s OK if ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ sequel is fanfiction

Don't count Lisbeth Salander out just yet.


Chris Osterndorf

Internet Culture

Published Feb 2, 2015   Updated May 29, 2021, 3:36 pm CDT

Women-haters beware: Lisbeth Salander is back.

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Last week, it was announced that author David Lagercrantz has written a new book in the late Stieg Larsson’s immensely popular Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series, which will be published in November. Titled That Which Does Not Kill You, the sequel to the Dragon Tattoo story, also known as the Millennium trilogy, is expected to become a worldwide bestseller, just like its predecessors. Predictably, people on the Internet have expressed some concern about this latest development. As The Daily Dot’s Gavia Baker-Whitelaw notes, “Essentially, [Lagercrantz] was hired to write an official work of Millennium trilogy fanfiction.”

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And yet, this begs the question, would it really be so bad if That Which Does Not Kill You was written like a piece of fanfiction? On the new entry in the series, Lagercrantz has said, “What I wanted to make use of in the book was the vast mythology that Stieg Larsson left behind, the world he created.” But as beloved as the Millennium trilogy is, its mythology was also not without as flaws. Fortunately, the great thing about fan-fiction is its ability to play with a story’s mythology in unique ways.  

Lisbeth Salander may be one of the most compelling characters to emerge in any medium over the last several decades, as the ridiculous success of the Millennium series proves. She is, as the books describe, “the woman who hates men who hate women,” and given her presence in the seemingly male-dominated world of Internet hacking, the character’s place in pop culture is even more significant. Salander is an answer to rampant online sexism, be it getting doxed, trolled in comment boards, or having your nude photo leaked. Salander is a defender of all women who have been abused, beaten, and broken down by a world that treats them as second-class citizens, a powerful feminist icon for a new generation of women.

Lisbeth Salander is an answer to rampant online sexism, be it getting doxed, trolled in comment boards, or having your nude photo leaked.

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However, to reduce Salander to a symbolic representation of power alone also devalues her character, as well the complex backstory and traits that make her who she is. If Lisbeth is a champion for feminism, she is an inadvertent one, since the way she feels about men and women stem first and foremost from personal experiences, rather than a desire to enact any kind of structural change.

Nevertheless, Larsson wears his feminist leanings on his sleeve, injecting them into every part of Lisbeth Salander’s character. The Swedish title for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is literally, Men Who Hate Women, basically the definition of misogyny. If Salander herself doesn’t have an agenda, Larsson does, and besides being twisty thrillers with a keen awareness of modern technology, his books are an overt critique of the ingrained cruelty to women that continues to permeate on a global scale.

However, Larsson also isn’t the ideal advocate for this issue. As a man, he’s automatically at a disadvantage when it comes to delving into the inner lives of women. And while the Millennium trilogy is a critique of misogyny, there are also moments when Larsson’s work veers into misogyny itself. As the F-Word’s Melanie Newman writes, “I have difficulty squaring Larsson’s proclaimed distress at misogyny with his explicit descriptions of sexual violence, his breast-obsessed heroine and babe-magnet hero.” Lisbeth Salander is also frequently sexualized, even in a scene where she is, as Newman describes it, “handcuffed, spread-eagled and anally raped by her legal guardian.” Both the film adaptations and the graphic novel have trended in the same direction, with a NSFW-poster for the American version proudly featuring Salander’s pierced nipples. According to Women and Hollywood’s Melissa Silverstein, the character was being further pornified.

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According to Newman, the Millennium trilogy is hardly alone in straddling the line between critiquing and reproducing misogyny. “Male novelists have for decades been selling graphic capture-rape-torture-kill novels by chucking in ‘strong’ female characters for balance, and have even gained plaudits for highlighting violence against women in the process,” Newman writes. “Sections of the book are prefaced by statistics on assaults on women in Sweden. The female characters in the book are successful in their jobs and the novel subverts the usual order of the trapped-in-a-room-with-madman scene by having the heroine rescue the hero. But these nods to feminism are not enough to compensate for the book’s graphic and gratuitous violence against women.”

Stieg Larsson was far from a bastion of male enlightenment.

In fact, the novel’s hero is a major part of the problem. As Larsson’s stand-in and practically the only non-despicable male character in the whole trilogy, Larsson uses Mikael Blomkvist as the ideal example of what a man should be and how he should interact with women. Early on, Larsson flips the script to make Blomkvist the damsel in distress and Lisbeth his knight in shining armor, but Blomkvist’s role as the enlightened “good man” feels a bit like a cop-out, a “cover-all” for the atrocities committed by men throughout the series. It’s also potentially a boost to the author’s own ego. Thinking along similar lines, the Telegraph’s Andrew M. Brown asks, “Is it possible a kind of authorial self-aggrandizement is at work, in which Blomkvist, the author’s alter ego, becomes the only hero, the last decent man on earth?” 

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But Stieg Larsson was far from a bastion of male enlightenment. “He wrote with real anger about the oppression of women with white skins,” the Guardian’s Nick Cohen writes. “When others tried to do the same about the oppression of women with brown skins, he denounced them as racists.”

Cohen continues:

Larsson did indeed break off from writing the Millennium trilogy to intervene in the debate about the “honor killings” of two Kurdish women in Sweden. Far from worrying about the suffering of women, Larsson and his co-author said those who campaigned for the rights of women in immigrant communities wanted “to portray all male immigrants as representatives of a single homogeneous attitude towards women”. They had sexist as well as racist motives. They only talked about honour crime because they wanted to divert attention from how white men raised in the “patriarchal structures of Swedish society” abused and murdered women as a matter of course.

If David Lagercrantz really wants to do Lisbeth and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo saga justice, there is another template he can follow other than the one that Larsson has already laid out. While following in the spirit of what Larsson created, he’s also been given an opportunity to improve the Millennium series, and that means looking elsewhere. Specifically, it means looking to the Internet.

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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has found a second home online through Internet fandom. In various stories that expound upon what Larsson already put down on the page, the story of Lisbeth Salander lives on, taking shape in new and unique ways. The amount of Girl With The Dragon Tattoo fan art out there alone proves that people are very passionate about the series, and that its resonance has not diminished years after Larsson’s death. None of this has the pedigree and prestige that came with the initial books, and later, the multiple movies, but its existence suggests untapped potential for a series that has managed to blossom into something much more than your average cyber-crime thriller.  

Fandom has provided opportunities to make her story richer, deeper, and more mature, which is not uncommon in the age of the Internet. Online fan communities have dramatically changed our relationships to pop culture, forever blurring the lines between a creator and their creation. Readers and viewers no longer need to think of themselves as passive consumers by active participants in creating content. Some fanfiction speculates on what could have been, as in the Twilight-inspired sexual fantasies of Fifty Shades of Grey, while others mash-up beloved texts, which, in the case of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, appears to include the BBC’s Sherlock.

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Lisbeth Salander started out as Stieg Larsson’s creation, but now she belongs to all of us. 

As the Daily Dot’s Aja Romano notes, fandom also has the ability to help authors “tell better stories.” Romano writes, “For example, the new young adult fantasy webseries The Path has been painstakingly developing its narrative with fan input throughout its short life, developing its fanbase as well as its storyline before a single episode has ever been produced.  And the TV show The Cult has raised interesting questions about the nature of fan obsession, while drawing on feedback from fans in the process.” For the Millennium trilogy, that means potentially fixing some of the more problematic tendencies in Larsson’s writing. If the Web has helped feminism have a moment in American pop culture, perhaps it’s time for the Web to provide a similar service to feminism’s favorite cyberhacker. 

While Lagercrantz likely has already finished all the heavy lifting for That Which Does Not Kill, it would be wise consult the Internet if he needs further inspiration for more Dragon Tattoo sequels. Lisbeth Salander started out as Stieg Larsson’s creation, but now she belongs to all of us. 

Photo via Sony/YouTube

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*First Published: Feb 2, 2015, 1:30 pm CST