The Radically Negative “Girl”: Queer Utopian Performativity in Stieg Larson’s Millennium Trilogy

by Brittany Farr

Since the initial publication of the first novel in the series in 2005, Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy has become an international phenomenon. The novels have sold millions of copies worldwide, have been translated into over thirty languages and adapted into both Swedish and English language films. The Swedish Millennium Trilogy films and novels queer the conventions of the fictionalized rape narratives, and in so doing, participate in a kind of utopic performance. José Muñoz’s theorization of queerness and refusal offer a way of understanding the utopian gestures in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. Through its depiction of the radically negative, the Millennium Trilogy simultaneously critiques patriarchy and envisions a way out, however ephemeral. As a radically negative, queer character, the “girl with the dragon tattoo” Lisbeth Salander disrupts the link between being abused and being a victim, and in the process is able to gesture toward the “then and there” of a queer future.

In his book Cruising Utopia, Jose Munoz discusses Shoshana Felman’s theory of radical negativity. According to Felman, radical negativity is a “scandal of unclassifiable radicality, of a force whose negativity is such that it splinters the very structure of the negative/positive alternative, that history cannot assimilate” (105). Radical negativity is not just a refusal to commit to a negative or positive alternative, but a disavowal of both alternatives entirely – a refusal to see these alternatives as being in opposition to one another. It cannot be assimilated into history because it defies the linear temporality of history. Its scandal is the disidentification with the categories, the norms, and the tools of understanding which are provided by history. Muñoz uses radical negativity to explain the utopian qualities of Fred Herko’s suicide. Herko was a dancer who famously leapt to his death in 1964. For Muñoz “the negative becomes the resource for a certain mode of queer utopianism” (13). It is not that suicide is inherently utopic. Rather, it is the way in which Herko commits suicide, a perfect jeté out the window for an audience of one, that offers a glimpse into queer utopia. Herko’s jeté forces a rethinking of suicide and death. It is an act of radical negativity, a scandal which refuses to adhere to the categories associated with a normative understanding of suicide as tragic, disempowering, and solitary. Because Herko’s suicide does not “make sense,” it points towards a world where it could make sense. His suicide is what Muñoz describes as utopian performativity, it is “imbued with a sense of potentiality,” “is and is not presence,” “a ‘not here’ or ‘not now’ … that suggests a futurity” (99).

It is precisely this kind of radical negativity and consequently utopian performativity that Lisbeth Salander enacts throughout The Millennium Trilogy.  Lisbeth is queer not only because of her sexuality – she sleeps with both men and women, though adamantly refusing to label her sexuality. She is also queer because she is out of step with Swedish society. Her comportment and affect are a rejection of normative clothing, behavior, and ways of existing in the world.  Larsson has written (and the filmmakers made visible) a character who attempts to refuse to participate in the oppressive structuring of Swedish society. To use Muñoz’s definition of queerness, Lisbeth has refused the interpellating call of (hetero)normativity.

Lisbeth refuses to consider herself a victim, thus destabilizing the category of victimhood. This refusual is most clear after Lisbeth is raped by her guardian. Lisbeth does not consider visiting a women’s crisis center after being raped, because “crisis centres existed, in her eyes, for victims, and she had never regarded herself as a victim” (Larsson, 237). In the film this refusal is visually coded rather than communicated via internal monologue. Instead of invoking common representational tropes of the post-rape experience, such as crying in the shower, Lisbeth is instead shown smoking a cigarette and watching the hidden camera footage of the attack. While there are examples of Lisbeth’s enactment of radical negativity throughout the trilogy, in the interest of space I would like to highlight just one other moment- the trial scene that occurs in the final installment. What is important to note is that in each of these moments of radical negativity, Lisbeth refuses to participate in the binary division between powerful and powerless. She rejects the categorization instilled by heteropatriarchal capitalism – even if some of these categories purportedly exist for her protection.

As described by Munõz, utopic critique is uncompromising, and it is Lisbeth’s unwillingness to compromise throughout her life, but especially during her trial that is utopic. Her (and her lawyer’s) uncompromising stance forces the Swedish legal system to be better; she makes it rise to her standards. In the last novel/film Lisbeth is put on trial for the murder of her father. Members of the Swedish government attempt to have Lisbeth committed to a mental institution because she has become aware of  their corruption. During the pre-trial interviews with the prosecution, Lisbeth is completely silent.  Her trial outfit is one of the most visually arresting in the trilogy. She wears her difference like battle armor. The way that Lisbeth, her lawyer, and citizen advocate Mikael Blomkvist, handle the trial are where utopia is staged. In their vision of Sweden, rape does not go unpunished and the powerful are unable to get away with their crimes. The trial scenes function as a corrective, an answer to the statistics about violence against women that punctuate the chapters of Larsson’s first novel in the trilogy.The utopian performativity that takes place during the trial ends with the verdict, however; the potentiality was ephemeral. Although Lisbeth wins the trial against her oppressors, winning necessarily entails being legitimated by and incorporated into the government. The system itself remains largely unchanged.  Ultimately Lisbeth is unable to truly create a utopia. As Muñoz notes, the history of utopias is a history of failures. The Millennium Trilogy is a (fictional) history of the failed utopia of Sweden, and of a failed attempt at creating a queer utopia. In giving such a history, the books and films themselves become part of a larger utopian performative.