The Anti- Lisbeth Salanders: Gillian Flynn's Tough Heroines

Her novels defy fiction's battered-woman trend.

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Popular literature of the past few years has been dominated by the heroine who isn't afraid to throw—or take—a punch. Stieg Larsson's Lisbeth Salander is a sociopathic sex pet to her guardian Nils Bjurman until taking revenge, while Anastasia of Fifty Shades of Grey got slapped with a belt. Both of these characters star in mega-bestseller trilogies. The huge popularity of books featuring battered women suggests the existence of a new genre of popular literature: a kind of re-appropriated sado-masochism, one in which the female protagonists exist as much to advance the plot as to enable voyeurism. In the these novels, readers tolerate and are titillated by horrific sexual punishment, and descriptions of the mutilated female form are heightened perhaps by a sexual fantasy of ultimate domination. It's the Age of the Battered Heroine—think of it as Justine all grown up.

The most recent additions to this newly hallowed tradition are the novels of Gillian Flynn: Sharp Objects, Dark Places, and this summer's massively successful Gone Girl. The first tells the story of the alcoholic cutter Camille, a Chicago-based journalist forced to return to her small town to investigate the seemingly connected murders of three girls. At the same time, she revisits the harrowing details of her own past and her epically destructive relationship with her mother. Dark Places examines Libby—the sole survivor of the farmhouse slaughter of her two sisters and mother (other than her brother, who serves a life sentence for the crime)—as she attempts to find the truth about what happened that night. Most recently, Gone Girl tells the story of a marriage that disintegrates when the wife disappears in the first pages of the book. Flynn explores whether one is ever able to fully know his or her partner, and in this exploration creates Amy: one of the most confusing female protagonists of recent history who is at once wholly lovable and eminently hateful.

These three books are expertly constructed, totally spell-binding depictions of angry women trapped in twisted fantasy worlds of presumed male authority. More important, they subvert the battered heroine's typically exploitative position. Flynn's novels co-opt a culture of submission, with the female body as the medium through which her heroines will seek revenge, tolerating and causing their own abuse to punish others. In Amy's alleged death by stabbing, Libby's witnessing of her mother and sister's stabbing and strangulation and the mysterious deaths of the sweet murdered girls that Camille must investigate, these narratives combine to create the ultimate rape revenge fantasy, with each featured murder occurring by methods of penetration or asphyxiation (as strangling is the pseudo-erotic act of total control).

Flynn seems to be aware of the Lisbeths and Anastasias of the world, as well as the men and women who eagerly devour them—and her books offer an alternative to those damaged, desperate characters. In Sharp Objects, a depressed suburban housewife scolds, "Young ladies must be in control of their bodies because boys are not." This line summarizes the difference between Flynn's protagonists and other battered protagonists in its recognition of an unspoken social law present in these books. In the Millenium trilogy, men are brutish, abusive, seemingly unable to help themselves from their criminal behavior. Thus, it remains Lisbeth's responsibility to put her attackers down. Lisbeth must remain on the defensive, acting out of necessity and self-protection. In contrast, Libby, Camille and Amy all take ultimate control of their bodies as well as those around them by meticulously crafting their public personae, forcing their own impregnation, grotesquely manipulating their bodies, and, of course, by committing brutal murders. Ultimately, Flynn's protagonists create their situations rather than becoming victims of them.

Lisbeth is stridently unfeminine—from her boyish body, black clothes, tattoos, and multiple piercings to her murky, tormented center. Flynn's characters are ugly only beneath their disguises—camouflaged by their physical beauty, their manufactured personalities, or faux and very feminine altruism. Such control on the part of Flynn's heroines offers them social capital and crucial dominance, while Lisbeth remains an unlovely object—a survivor of sorts.

Flynn's writing demonstrates that it's possible to co-opt the exploitive trend of battered women in literature, and find an opportunity for liberation somewhere within it. Her characters are traumatized, but they're ultimately not victims.

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Joanna Rothkopf works at PublicAffairs, a nonfiction publishing house in New York. She has written for Vanity Fair, Foreign Policy, and The Huffington Post.

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