I first saw the book in my 16-year-old grandson's hands. The cover image and colors – blazing yellow and orange with a lime green dragon – caught my attention more than the title, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I didn't ask my grandson about the story, but I assumed that since his mother writes young-adult fiction, it was perfectly okay for him to read.
The next time I heard about the book – the first in a trilogy by Swedish author Stieg Larsson – was when my 42-year-old son-in-law raved about the novels, adding how sad it was that Larsson had died shortly after turning in the third one, never living to see his work's international success. I was puzzled as to why a 42- and 16-year old would be reading the same books.
I began to focus on the first book and comments from my adult friends who'd read it. Most said The Girl was "a page turner" that you couldn't put down. Then I finally woke up and realized that it had been a New York Times bestseller for 43 weeks! Certainly, I'd been asleep at some switch.
When a friend who'd read the book told me that the movie version was playing at a local theater, I immediately made plans to see it with my husband and neighbor. As I bought the tickets, I asked the young man at the box office the movie's rating. (Because my grandson was reading the book, I assumed it was probably PG.)
"It doesn't have a rating, but if it did, it would probably be R," he said.
"Oh, some sex and violence," I replied, and went into the crowded theater.
Sex and violence indeed.
About 30 minutes into the two-plus hour film, the scenes of graphic sex and violence began. Twenty-four-year-old Lisbeth, the central character, is forced by an older man, who has newly become her "guardian" and controls her money, to perform oral sex on him in order to get the funds she needs to buy a new computer. She needs this computer, because she had been violently attacked by some young male thugs in a subway tunnel who smashed her laptop. The computer is the most important object in her life, because she's a brilliant hacker and techie.
After she is coerced into oral sex with her guardian, he writes her a check for a sum far less than what she needs to buy a new laptop. We view her washing the semen out of her mouth.
The young woman – who we later discover is the girl with a dragon tattoo down her entire back – is forced to have more sex in order to get the balance of the money. She goes to her guardian's apartment, where he throws her on the bed, manacles her hands, gags her with duct tape, and proceeds to perform what looked to me like both vaginal and anal sex on her nude body. We see her afterward, barely able to walk to her own apartment and away from the scene of the rape.
What surprised me is the next scene of sexual violence, where Lisbeth gets revenge on her attacker. Returning to his apartment, she uses a Taser gun to stun him, removes his clothes, gags him, manacles his wrists, and inserts an object into his anus. She goes one step further by applying tattoos to his torso that read (correctly), "I am a sadistic pig, a pervert, and a rapist."
Sex and violence are equal-opportunity employers in this film.
We learn that the film's focus is the investigation of a series of unsolved murders of seven women who were sexually and violently tortured before their death. We also discover that Lisbeth grew up watching her father repeatedly abuse her mother.
When I asked my friend why she recommended the movie to me, she said it was because the subtext of The Girl was Larsson's deep concern with violence toward women in Sweden.
I discovered that Larsson put a fact about violence against women in the beginning of each section of the book: "Eighteen percent of women in Sweden at one time have been threatened by a man," "thirteen percent of the women in Sweden have been subjected to aggravated sexual assault outside of a sexual relationship," and "ninety-two percent of women in Sweden who have been subjected to sexual assault have not reported the most recent violent incident to the police."
As we all know, violence against women knows no boundaries. Here in the states, one in four women experience domestic violence.
After seeing the film, I asked my son whether he knew about the many scenes of violence and violent sex in the book his son was reading. He said he didn't know about them while his son was reading the book, adding that his son had told him that he wouldn't like the book, because "he knows how adverse I am to violence, particularly in the movies."
However, later when recovering from a virus, he did read it in order to learn what his son had read.
My son said that he and his wife had talked independently to their son about the violent sex scenes. "I told him that the author was trying to make a strong point about how abhorrent he found sexual violence toward women to be – and that the author chose to be very graphic in making that point," he said.
He added, "I asked [my son] a rhetorical question, ‘Did the author need to be so graphic?'
I told him ‘perhaps not, but he was the artist, the creator, the writer, not me, and he may well have felt that he needed to shock Swedes, who may have been unaware about the high incidence of sexual violence toward women in that country.' Then together we discussed the power of fiction."
I thought about older teens that might see an R-rated movie like The Girl without their parents. What messages about sex and violence would they came away with, if they couldn't process what they had seen with a parent or other trusted adult? If my grandson got his hands on the book, what was stopping other 16-year-olds from doing the same?
How many teens are reading this book and seeing the movie without benefit of clarification or discussion?
I realize that many teens have seen online pornography and may be somewhat inured to scenes that seemed so shocking to me. I don't want to discourage teens from reading books, and I don't believe in forbidding them to read adult books with violent sex scenes.
I don't advocate censorship. But I would urge parents to make sure they talk to their adolescents about the scenes they may be reading and viewing.
Parents and educators should talk to young people about sex and violence, which tragically often intertwine, and not shy away from the subject. They can acknowledge that violent sex exists in novels, films, and the world at large – just as evil does. But they should make clear that sex should include tenderness, love, and affection, and we can work together to lessen sexual assault here and abroad.
As I mulled over the film's graphic content, I remembered that June 6th was the 42nd anniversary of Robert F. Kennedy's death. A favorite quote of his came to mind: "Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world."
His wise words might form the basis of a parent-teen discussion about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
I imagine that Stieg Larsson would have liked that take-home message.