Monday, June 21, 2010
Who gets to define a feisy fictional female;her author or her audience?
In the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly,the cover story is all about The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series(aka The Millennium Trilogy)and in one of the sidebar articles is an essay by Missy Schwartz entitled "Did Stieg Larsson have trouble with women?"-Larsson being the writer of these books who passed away before the first one was published.
Missy's main concern is about the central female lead of the books,Lisbeth Salander,a troubled computer hacker who gets mixed up in an investigation lead by Mikhael Blomkvist,a journalist charged with looking into the disappearance of a young woman from a well-to-do family. In addition to the violence enacted upon many of the women in this narrative,Missy is also displeased with Lisbeth's attempt to improve her body image by having a breast enhancement done.
This deeply offends her and she accuses the author of "betraying" the character,quite a serious literary charge there. While not having read any of the books just yet(the first two are on my Must Read Before Labor Day pile),I can't truly take a side yet this whole "betrayal" bit sounded awfully familiar to me. Where have I heard that charge before?
Ah,yes,that argument was being made when Thomas Harris' sequel to Silence of the Lambs came out. The main objection to Hannibal was that Clarice Starling by the end of the book had been psychologically broken by Lecter and was going over to the dark side as his beloved culinary companion.
That outraged a lot of the feminist crowd,who preferred the Jodie Foster version of the character from the Oscar winning adaptation,and Ms. Foster herself eventually dropped out of the Hannibal cast allegedly due to the backlash. Julianne Moore took over the role,which offered up a more P.C. friendly ending.
Now,I read that book and frankly found the original outcome of the events between Lecter and Clarice to be incredibly suspenseful and intriguing,since you weren't quite sure if she had totally lost herself in his calculating clutches or was she stringing the not-so-good doctor along,planning to outdo the master? Either way,it was a bold move to make and I respect Harris for doing it. Too bad Hollywood couldn't follow suit:
Don't get me wrong,I fully understand the desire to want the best ending possible for any compelling character,especially one that goes down the path of righteous retribution.
For example,my sister and I finally watched Inglourious Basterds and were rooting for Shosanna,the plucky young French woman who saw her chance to bring down the Nazi regime in one fell swoop by destroying her movie theater packed with the prime players for a premiere of their newest propaganda piece,to survive.
Suffice it to say,her fate was not as I or my sister would have ideally wanted it to be. However,it was in keeping with the logic arrangements of the plot and ultimately,Shosanna had the last laugh against her enemies,so we decided to be content with that:
Part of me wonders if some of this anger towards the way Lisbeth and Clarice have been portrayed in print is due to their authors being men. Stieg Larsson was a strong proponent of women's rights in his native country of Sweden yet many are questioning his stance on that based on their dislike of some of the content of his novels(especially since the original title of TGWTDT was Men Who Hate Women).
This critique of violence against women,particularly in the mystery genre,seems to only be raised when it's a man at the literary helm. Plenty of female writers have gruesome actions done to their characters as well,such as Chelsea Cain's books about her seductive serial killer Gretchen Lowell and the Japanese noir novels of Natsuo Kirino are definitely not for the teacup cozy mystery crowd. Yet I don't hear word one about how they should be showcasing the women or the men in their books in a role model worthy manner.
Nor should they be. While you may not like everything that an author dishes up for your mental viewing pleasure,that person does have the right to display their characters as he or she sees fit,according to the guideposts that are arranged for them by the plot.
Bad writing will always reveal itself for what it is,sooner or later,but if all of the pieces are in place to make a complete picture towards the end,the author has done their job.
You may not want to read that book again or steer your looking for a good read recommendation friends away from it,that's fine. What you really shouldn't do is assume that the gender of the author is the sole reason that they didn't "get" the character who you wanted to have a happy ending and wrote their story,either on or accidentally on purpose, to degrade the opposite sex.
It's an age old accusal levied at writers that they share the same viewpoints as their fictional creations and one that has been shot down by better advocates for artistic freedom than me. Obviously,not every mystery writer longs to be a detective or a psycho killer in real life just as not all folks who write about vampires want to become children of the night(not seriously,anyway). Isn't it time that we give the author the benefit of the doubt in this area?
That doesn't mean that the audience doesn't have a say-so. Their input is shown on the bestseller lists and more importantly,in the word of mouth that really keeps a book alive and kicking with readers. Popular doesn't mean better quality,of course,but there must be something to this Lisbeth and her hard road to hell here. She's hitting on many nerves and resonating with both guys and gals at the bookstore,not an easy thing to do in any major media format.
The best way to settle this argument is to read the books and thanks to Missy,I'm more eager than before to turn the pages and discover Lisbeth for myself. Something tells me that Lisbeth would find all of this fuss to be trivial and not give a damn about what we think of her. Sounds like someone I'd want to have my back when trouble's around,that's for sure:
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