No, ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’ Clothing Line Isn’t Insensitive to Rape Survivors

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was never quite my jam: it’s over my personal comfort threshhold for depictions of sexual assault, and the early financial stuff is some seriously heavy furniture, so I never read the subsequent books. That said, I’ve always been half-amused, half-depressed by the idea that this novel, originally titled Men Who Hate Women, and directly connecting capitalism and the abuse of women, is a huge American hit. Who knows what it is about this particular package that got these ideas, which would be radioactive in another context or presentation, into circulation?

All of which is a long way of saying that, no matter what you think about the novels and how they depict violence against women and the way those women recover, I don’t think creating a clothing line inspired by Lisbeth Salander glamorizes either the terrible things that are done to her or the things she does in response to them. That’s what Natalie Karneef is arguing in a post that’s produced a moderate buzz, rising up to ABC News. She writes:

And now, H&M, you have created a line of clothing based on her character: a woman who has suffered a lifetime of abuse, who is violently raped, and who is hunting down a man who violently rapes and kills other women. Lisbeth has been through hell, and her clothing is her armor. That’s her choice, and it’s an understandable choice. But you glamorize it, putting a glossy, trendy finish on the face of sexual violence and the rage and fear it leaves behind.

I wonder if you’ve considered how a survivor of sexual violence chooses her or his fashion choices…When I dress in the spirit Lisbeth Salander, it’s because I want to send a message to men: to stay the fuck away.

Anna Norling, the Division Designer at H&M, says that she is “so proud” of this collection, because Lisbeth is the “very essence of an independent woman.” Lisbeth Salander is independent woman whose mother was abused by her father, who was violently raped by a man in charge of her well being, who is harassed and bullied by men in public, and who is severely emotionally scarred.

Stieg Larsson was inspired to write The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo because he witnessed a girl getting gang raped when he was 15 years old. I’ve heard it said that being raped is like getting a tattoo – it never goes away. I hope your shoppers bear this in mind before they emulate Lisbeth Salander.

There’s a lot going on here, so I’m going to unpack it step by step. It’s pretty hard to tell from either Karneef’s post or her statements to ABC, in which she says she objects to the collection because it “glamorizing surviving rape” whether she thinks Lisbeth Salander is a role model or not. Again, having read only the first book, it’s not particularly clear to me that Lisbeth is an aspirational figure. She’s painfully thin, has difficulty emotionally connecting to people, works in a field that allows her to isolate herself from human contact, and the violence she herself commits is both offputting and logistically out of reach for most women. Neither her experience nor means by and extent to which she’s recovered seem particularly glamorous.

And are we really supposed to find “glamorizing surviving rape” so offensive? Sure, a narrative where someone is brutally attacked and rises from their hospital bed dewy and saintly would be offensive, but it also would be so emotionally implausible that it wouldn’t resonate with people. Stories on the other hand that emphasize that rape and sexual abuse are horrific and difficult to recover from but that still celebrate the strength of survivors seem appropriate. But whom am I or anyone else to tell survivors where to find their role models or how to interpret the stories they find meaningful?

Second, there’s no engagement with the actual clothes that are in the collection. They’re less alluring than they are the kind of deliberately distancing outfits Karneef says she herself favors when she thinks of Lisbeth while getting dressed: ripped shirts, motorcycle jackets with ribbed padding unlike the “motorcycle jackets” for women that offer no protection at all, a hood that’s the kind of thing you can shrink into. They don’t seem like an insensitive or exploitative riff on the experience of a fictional woman who responds to a lifetime of horrific abuse by shunning conventionally pretty female attire. Karneef seems to be perturbed by the designer’s interpretation of Lisbeth as a strong woman, but I’m not sure why designers shouldn’t design clothes with a mind towards the experiences of women who have been raped or sexually abused and who might want to tell people who see them “to stay the fuck away”? Fashion may be commercial, but it’s a commercial art, and I’m loath to police the influences and inspirations of artists, or their readings of other art that informs their designs.

I think there might be an argument to be made (though Karneef doesn’t make it) that the collection encourages consumers to claim the experience of rape victims even if they themselves are lucky enough to never have been attacked. But then wouldn’t that be to reduce Lisbeth and all of her choices, aesthetic and otherwise, to her sexual trauma? Can we admire the wasp tattoo for its connection to Lisbeth’s stealth and nerve as a hacker? Her skills as a legal and journalistic investigator?

I also want to push back a little on this from Julie Gerstein, the style editor for The Frisky, who says that “basing a collection off of a dystopian nightmare of a story hardly makes for a strong and well developed fashion line.” That seems…kind of silly. The Dragon Tattoo line is a little silly because it’s a mass-market mainstream fashion line that is aimed at keeping costs quite low, not because it’s inspired by a traumatic experience. But dystopia, science fiction, and fantasy can all be rich fashion inspirations, shaking up the assumptions about what people wear and why. The artist’s statement for Alexander McQueen’s dizzying, gorgeous Plato’s Atlantic collection says:

When Charles Darwin wrote The Origin Of The Species, no one could have known that the ice cap would melt, that the waters would rise and that life on earth would have to evolve in order to live beneath the sea once more or perish. We came from water and now, with the help of stem cell technology and cloning, we must go back to it to survive. When the waters rise, humanity will go back to the place from whence it came…Make no mistake, this is not sci-fi, this is evolution.

Good, meaningful fashion can come from all sorts of places. And clothing’s a more intimate kind of art because we don’t just see it — it changes how we see ourselves and each other. But that’s all the more reason for it to be interestingly, meaningfully engaged with big ideas.