Lisbeth, the Sexualized Autist: What The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo says about American Culture

Let’s just be clear: I know that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is Swedish. My comment is on its popularity in American culture: its best-seller status in the NYT for 18 months, triggering a Hollywood remake of the original Swedish film. The heroine, Lisbeth, is whom I’m most interested in.

Rooney Mara in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth in the 2009 Swedish film and Rooney Mara in the 2011 American version

Lisbeth is the poster child of counter-culture: mowhawk, dyed hair, androgenous, facial piercings – what attracts people to her is that she manages to pull all of these things off (the reason being she is astoundingly beautiful) and references to her terrible experiences conveniently switch her label from “irresponsible” to “misunderstood”. Lisbeth, I think, represents two key memes in contemporary culture, the subtle prevalance of which interest me: the sexualized autist and the competent social outcast.

The Autist

Rooney Mara in Girl with the Dragon TattooLet me be clear: I’m not talking about a classified DSM-IV disorder when I talk about Lisbeth’s autistic traits – I’m just talking about the word autist as it derives from the root autos (self), which refers to a lack of empathetic sensitivity. Classic autists in fiction include: Spock, Data, Sherlock Holmes, C3PO, Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, Monk, and (often) children. Autists serve the purpose of deconstructing society: they often involve humorous responses to or dissections of modes of relating that come natural to most humans. Here is Sheldon’s deconstruction of the social idea of dating:

I present to you the Relationship Agreement. A binding covenant that in its 31 pages enumerates, illuminates and codifies the responsibilities of Sheldon Lee Cooper (hereinafter referred to as the “Boyfriend”) and Amy Farrah Fowler (hereinafter referred to as the “Girlfriend”)

In TGWTDT, Lisbeth interacts autistically: one of the first things said about her report is that though it is thorough, it lacks her personal opinion. She, stonefacedly, refuses to acknowledge that she understands any reason why her opinion would be useful. Throughout the movie, Lisbeth is expertly and unthinkingly wholly dedicated to performing her obsessive tasks with excellence: autists almost always are (Monk, River Tam).

The Competent Social Outcast

Rooney Mara in Girl with the Dragon TattooLisbeth’s upbringing and fringe placement in society should, according to social evolution, render her unable to support herself. On the contrary, she achieves competency without the support of society, and spends much of her time defending herself from the flaws of the establishment (every scene with the social worker, his eventual blackmail). She joins Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, the woman from The 5th Element, and Jane Eyre as the neglected gamines who nonetheless flourish and become experts at fending for themselves.


The essence of Lisbeth’s character is a common one that seems to be increasingly attractive to American audiences: the sexualized, independent autist. This is River Tam from Firefly, the woman from The 5th Element, and is echoed in Edward Cullen from Twilight, Dexter, and Dr. House. These characters reveal society’s increasing fetish of self-efficacy – they exude strength, independence, and provide an expression of rage at the more subtle social injustices and inhibitions of social norms. They do not respond to social patterns and expectations, like Sheldon Cooper or or C3PO, but unlike those humorous characters, the sexualized competent autist provides a violent and hypersexual (almost gnostically sexual – oftentimes, like with Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman and Lisbeth, the characters detach themselves from their sexuality and use it as a tool) successful escape. They offer a character who does not succumb to illogical non-verbal communication and oppressive social codes: they interact logically, not heatedly (Lisbeth asking Mikael for permission to kill a serial killer), and ultimately succeed, and achieve a sexualized, center-character status at that, as opposed to the comic relief status of the typical autist.

What does this say about American culture? I’d say that it indicates a reaction against the stress of social niceties. These movies could be called counter-culture, but a very thinly veiled counter-culture – no, sexualized autistic characters are not appearing in chick flicks with Owen Wilson, but The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was by no means an obscure movie. The characters precede what I think is going to become a more prevalent theme in American culture: a fetish of successful social rejection.

Rooney Mara in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

4 responses to “Lisbeth, the Sexualized Autist: What The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo says about American Culture


    U.R.P4R4N01D ❤ W45P

  2. Pingback: Cast Of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo Swedish Version | Taboo Tattoo

  3. I would love to see an update on this text now!

  4. Mysterious Echo

    I think you hit some important themes here, even though I do not agree with all your insights. But like previatto, I would also like to see your current take on Lisbeth’s portrayal. Now that the world is on hold, maybe you have time to revisit the movie.
    As a practical matter in Lisbeth’s life, she was not self-sufficient as you describe, but as a ward of the state received financial assistance. This is what underlies the storyline with her guardian Bjurman.
    About her sexualization: I think that the Swedish language adaptation shows a sexually much more mainstream Lisbeth than Roony Mara’s Lisbeth, who has a sexuality that came from within, not from audience expectation. Even in her blonde wig, she is self-contained and takes no interest in pleasing anybody.

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