Lisbeth Salander and Ladies Who Lunch

So recently, a small group of attractive, mature, successful women were sharing a meal, and two themes emerged.  One was that they all were deeply touched by Lisbeth Salander, Stieg Larrson’s fierce, warped, self-contained heroine (and if you don’t know who I’m talking about, come back next week for a change of topic).  The other was that they had all, in their early years, knowingly married a man they didn’t love, or even like.  The pattern was roughly the same in all cases:  He asked them.  It would have been impolite to say no.  This was the only shot they were going to get.  It would create an unthinkable scene not to go through with it.

And so they did.  Said unions lasted from 3 to over thirty years.  The thing is, all involved also said their first impression of these guys was a kind of inner recoiling.  It was an inbred requirement to be “polite”, above all things, that just clamped them onto a path toward misery.

Maybe this sort of thing is more indigenous to women in my neck of the woods (geographically located in an area where people use phrases like “my neck of the woods”).  Maybe it’s a generational thing, and deservedly dying out with the new generation of women.  Which, BTW, does not identify itself, on the whole, as feminists.

Then there’s Lisbeth.

Part of the fascination with this unlikely heroine is that she is completely unaculturated.  And as such, she reveals to the rest of us the layers of social expectation and indoctrination that we are laboring under.

Salander’s is a kind of primal purity of logic and emotion.  It is raw, but with a steely center of intellectual clarity, loyalty and a surgically-precise sense of justice that is startling at times, but which instinctively respects whatever limits she has come to understand.  And in reading the books (and the first film, the Swedish version), one is somehow thrilled that anyone can go to such deep places and still maintain her footing;  able to operate in the darkness, without ever going over to the dark side.

No one would want to be shaped by the traumas and tragedies of Lisbeth’s early life.   But the real difference between Lisbeth and those women whose tales I share, is not that Lisbeth had sharply honed instincts, and these women didn’t.

No, the difference is that Lisbeth was never taught anything beyond her own instincts.  These women had the same instincts, the same primal, basic reactions to another human.  But they were already drenched in a culture that devalued instinct, that molded them into a cultural identity as women that stressed conciliation, understanding, and that weird, 2-edged sword, “putting other people first”.

Someone pointed out to me long ago, and I’ve heard it repeated many times; when the flight attendant gives the pre-flight spiel, he or she reminds passengers to put on their own air mask first, before attempting to help others around them.  Take care of yourself first.  You can’t help anyone else unless you do.

And as humans, one of our most important built-in systems of protection is that instinct we have on first meeting another.  And yes, I could write another whole essay about how our initial reactions to others are also often tainted with cultural, racial and other confounding factors.

But for now, I’m talking about the most intimate interactions, the one-on-ones, the first dates, the guy at the bar (and guys, you know darned well this works both ways!).   No matter how cool he looks, no matter how lonely and needy you’re feeling, no matter how late the night or how much you’ve had to drink (again, another whole essay), no matter what your girlfriends say…it’s that little voice inside that you should really stop and listen to.  The list of potential disasters is too long, and do-overs, in the real world, are damned expensive.

Lisbeth Salander may never find peace.  Then again, most of us, I fervently hope, will not be faced with the extreme challenges of her life.  In any tricky encounter, if we can just step back from being either “good girls” or “sex kittens” for a few seconds, if we can apply just a little of Lisbeth’s primal clarity, we might actually begin the process of becoming true post-post-feminists:  straightforward, honest, responsible, strong, loving women.   Really, I think there’s a demand out there….

p.s.  The second film is coming out soon, the Swedish version.  American re-makes are in the works, but I have real reservations as to whether Hollywood can capture the essence of Lisbeth Salander.  Read the books.  Stick with the Swedes.

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