'The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo': What Happened?

Salander's character, and her appeal to readers, isn't about sex. It's about her resilience in the face of adversity -- significant adversity. It's about her persistent and dogged will to see justice done.
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Unless you're someone who avidly avoids advertisements, you've probably seen some ads for the upcoming American film adaptation of Stieg Larsson's "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo." The film's protagonist, Lisbeth Salander (played by Rooney Mara), is a strong female character and is the focus of Larsson's three published novels. In the books, Salander is commanding and competent, resilient and powerful. She's also unusual and quirky in many respects, among them her general lack of concern for other people's feelings, her emotional shell that protects her from others and her utilitarian view of relationships.

This view extends to the sexual arena where Salander is generally not portrayed as sexy, though she isn't sexless either. Her character appears to enjoy consensual sex, but she doesn't exude sexuality. The Swedish film adaptation of Larsson's first novel, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," did a lovely job of illustrating this aspect of her character; the few scenes in which she was nude were not titillating (based on an informal survey I conducted for this post) and faithfully conveyed her utilitarian sense of sexual desire and behavior.

So when I saw a still ad on the internet for the new film -- an ad that showed Mara Rooney nude, looking sexually "inviting," with the arm of her fully clothed co-star Daniel Craig (who has starred as James Bond) draped over her upper chest while standing behind her -- I was unpleasantly surprised, to say the least. I was horrified. On many levels. First, I was generally shocked to see a naked woman in an ad for a non-porn film or website. In fact, I had to do a double take; I thought it was such an ad. When I realized what it was, I wondered why the studio felt a need to promote the film in this way, particularly for the adaption of a novel that was a worldwide bestseller. This film doesn't need any more buzz than it's already been getting, so they don't need to create additional controversies simply for to get people talking about the film.

Second, their ad portrays her character in a vastly different light than the book's author, Larsson, intended. Granted, I haven't yet seen the film (though my desire to do so has gone down considerably), so perhaps all is not lost. But the fact that the studio has chosen to sexualize her for the ad says something about what they think of her character and/or what they think of potential viewers. Yes, I can see how they might justify portraying her this way: They could say that the ad shows how comfortable she is with her body, how it shows that sex doesn't mean much for her, blah blah blah. But her character, and her appeal to readers, isn't about sex. It's about her resilience in the face of adversity -- significant adversity. It's about her persistence and doggedness to see justice done, at least according to her own moral code. These things have nothing to do with sex. My objection is to the "pornification" of her character, to quote Melissa Silverstein from her Indiewire blog post. (And, as Silverstein notes, putting a fully clothed Daniel Craig in the ad only serves to make Salander's character less powerful. Note, though, that the recent trailer for the film did not portray Salander/Mara in this light.)

Which leads me to my third wave of overall displeasure about the ad, and possibly about the film. What does it say about the movie-going American audience that the film producers and studio decided that the best way to get people to see the film was to "sex up" the main character? Did they think that we wouldn't see the film unless she was marketed to us this way? That we wouldn't see the film based on the strength of the character and story--that something had to be added for us Americans? I find this thought particularly distressing and demeaning.

The ad brought into relief the way that Hollywood objectifies women's bodies. To quote Emily Fox-Kales from her recent book Body Shots: Hollywood and the Culture of Eating Disorders, "The women warriors of Hollywood action movies tell us that body mastery is far less about female strength, agility, and athletic skill and far about looking good, being sexually desirable, and displaying a body that is above all 'in shape' " (p. 53). As Larsson wrote her, Salander is an action hero who is strong, agile, and athletic, as well as resourceful, clever, and practically fearless. That's part of why we like her. Yet here the Hollywood studio was, in essence disempowering her before the film even starts by displaying her merely as a sexual object, akin to the porn photographs that Salander would find on the computers of the men in her world who "hate women." What would Larsson think?

Robin Rosenberg is a clinical psychologist and author. Her most recent book is the edited anthology, The Psychology of the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

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