Remember Lorena Bobbitt? I asked my partner that question and her response was a devious smile. Why her tinge of pleasure?
The 1993 Bobbitt case brought public attention to the issues of marital rape and domestic violence. Within days after cutting off her batterer-husband’s penis (subsequently reattached), feminist groups rallied around Lorena, citing the continuous abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband.
Remember Francine Hughes? She was the battered wife who, in 1977, after 13-and-a-half years of domestic abuse, told her children to put on their coats and sit in the car while she set her husband aflame in his bed, killing him while he slept. As the house burned, she drove off with her children to the local police station to confess. Here, too, public reaction was supportive of Francine’s violent behavior. In her Michigan trial, Hughes was found not-guilty by reason of insanity.
Bobbitt and Hughes kept floating in my mind as I read responses to a survey that I conducted, soliciting people’s favorite icons. I became curious about this after writing an essay for On The Issues Magazine, Icons, Superheroes and Fantasies a Feminist Can Love? I was especially interested in reactions to Lisbeth Salander, the leading character in Stieg Larrson’s The Millenium Trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest). Most respondents, I found, were either staunch supporters or haters of Salander: they addressed the vengeful violence she used, or questioned whether fantasy figures, rather than real-life people, should be included in the pantheon of feminist icons.
Here are a few sample responses:
“Salander is indeed is a feminist hero for a new generation. All three of my daughters love Lisbeth and so do their friends.” Skip Sheffield
“I don’t find the Salander character empowering mainly because I don’t find revenge to be empowering.” Joslyn Barnes
“I found the theme of violent revenge in the name of pseudo-justice on the part of a fantasy character based on male standards of behavior antithetical to all that radical feminism stood for and supposedly still does. What happened to over-turning male dominated aspects of society? Changing the language? Changing behavior? What is empowering about an out of control woman killer? She remains an unhappy anorexic, autistic, neurotic person who kills with impunity and remains unsatisfied throughout her vicious exploits. She is pure and simply a male fantasy figure providing no insight or enlightenment for contemporary women dealing with real problems of discrimination and subordination. Why is acting more like men empowering?” Joan Hoff
“You can’t read The Millennium Trilogy for the feminism, but you can read it for the fun of identifying with all the ‘Girls Who.’ They may not engage in feminist politics, but in the sense that they all exemplify bravery and defiance in the face of violence and evil, and triumph in a misogynist, patriarchal world, they are all feminist heroes.” Judith Lorber
“I found the gratuitous violence horrifying. No, I do not find Salander a role model. I don’t think we need to mimic men in terms of heroism.” Jan Goodman
“Lisbeth is an uncompromising, take-no-prisoners feminist hero. She’s familiar with violence and unafraid to use it in retaliation. Indifferent to fashion, she may be the least “feminine” hero in contemporary fiction. And one of the most feminist.” Michael Kimmel
“As for justice: I agree with you that our systems are so utterly bankrupt that there’s almost no hope except from scruffy, weird outsider figures like Salander, the post-modern techie and anarchic Robin Hood.” Doris Friedensohn
“I don’t understand your fixation on women who show power by using revenge. Women who are truly powerful should not use the old hateful measures that men have used for thousands of years. If they do, why should I revere them? I see them as copy cats — no better than men. Women should reach out, listen, try to understand why the person behaved the way he/she did, and try to change behavior by listening, by discussing, by compromising, not killing.” Claire Reed
“I have read all of Stieg Larsson’s books on Lisbeth Salander. I love her.” Anita King
“For one to be an icon they can’t live in fiction.” Robert Dinnerstein
“I think there is a profound difference between the violence of a rapist and that used by a woman in fighting back against the rapist. In my thinking, Lisbeth acted basically out of self-defense — and defense of her mother and other women who were attacked, trafficked, brutalized and murdered. She has been forced to endure so much, and she has come to the point of refusing to endure more. This is not ‘taking up male behavior’ but acting out of righteous resistance to her own situation and that of other women. Her example and ultimate victory may help some of her readers to do just that, in their own way and under their own circumstances.” Mary Lou Greenberg
The cathartic pleasure from this kick-ass hero was felt by some respondants to be so rare that she hit a nerve of gratification, undiminished by being pure fiction. To those who say feminist icons and role models should only be taken from real life, I would ask: How can we ignore art? It’s the fantasy that’s so appealing to those who love Salander. For them, fiction and fantasy inspire and their dream of being assertive, strong, capable, brave stops short of an analysis of morality. Music lovers thrill to Wagner in spite of his anti-Semitism. The fantasy figure, as well as the historical one, can be a resource to spark imagination.
My conclusion is that our society is starving for feminist pop culture icons and superheroes. We want them in all shapes, sizes and colors. And we want enough of them so we can choose which ones best fit our individual fantasies, as well as our personal concepts of morality.
Linda Stein is Art Editor of On the Issues Magazine. Her latest work is on tour in a three-year traveling solo exhibition called The Fluidity of Gender: Sculpture by Linda Stein. Her blog, YouTube videos and website also relate to the concept of protection and pop culture icons.