Fetish Critique #2

The Girl in the Spider’s Web (director: Fede Álvarez)

Well, this is a going to be a complicated one: Lisbeth Salander, one of feminism’s great literary icons and best female heroines of the last years (Wonder Woman? Captain Marvel? Come on!) viewed as a fetish character. Sexuality and it’s excesses have always played a huge part in Stieg Larsson’s novels as well as the movie adaptations, of which the latest shows explicit fetish imagery. But how does the director handle that topic? Is it used in a way that can be described as an artistic choice? Or was it done mainly to have something exciting and thrilling in the trailer? Let’s dive into it and find out, here’s my Fetish Critique about The Girl in the Spider’s Web!

DISCLAIMER: Concerning the plot the review will be spoiler-free. However I will describe images and sequences from later in the movie, but most of them can be seen in the trailer anyway, so… yeah, you’ve been warned.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XKMSP9OKspQ

Part 1: Analysis
The Girl in the Spider’s Web came out in 2018 and was directed by Fede Álvarez, who’s previously worked on two horror movies, both produced by Sam Raimi. The script is based on the novel of the same name by Larsson’s successor David Lagercrantz, which was first published in 2015 under the title Det som inte dödar oss (“What doesn’t kill us”). It stars Claire Foy as Lisbeth Salander, Sverrir Guðnason as Mikael Blomkvist and Sylvia Hoeks as the Lady in Red. It’s the fourth part in the Millennium-series, the first three parts of which have been adapted for Swedish cinema/TV, as well as the first novel also receiving a Hollywood-adaptation directed by David Fincher and starring Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara. It’s about the further adventures of hacker-by-day-vigilante-by-night Lisbeth Salander and investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist as they discover the dark shenanigans of a new underground crime syndicate. To be honest, if you’ve seen or read Larsson’s original works, the story of this one doesn’t really hold up to its predecessors, but that’s not the point of this review, so I’ll just skip that.
Although sexual and fetish imagery has always been an integral part of Larsson’s work (baseball-bat anyone?) this movie seems to contain the most explicit depictions so far – so I’ll just go through them one by one:

  1. Lisbeth’s outfit
    Especially since Lisbeth is a depiction of a modern day heroine it is worth noting how radically different she looks to the other contemporary movie heroines: Consider Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel or even Black Widow, all of those women – though certainly a step in the right direction compared to what has come before (Halle’s Catwoman…) – are still mostly portrayed as eye candy (though that’s partly due to their source material) and as heroines show not much difference to their male counterparts. So yeah, one could see that as a sign of emancipation (female being equal to male), but also they’ve got nothing specific – what distinguishes a heroine from a hero? Besides skin-clad and revealing clothes?
    I think it’s safe to say, that Lisbeth is different: If I’d compare her to any existing superhero it would most certainly be Batman. Not only because they’re both akin to black clothes, but because of their motivations: They’re both vigilantes who avenge those who’ve been done wrong. Batman punishes crimes (as opposed to the more world-saving-orientated Superman), Lisbeth punishes sexual abuse, as can already be seen in the trailer.
    Most of the time we see Lisbeth in her signature leather outfit, hooded jacket, gloves, boots… Where the previous movies gave her the look of a punk-femme-fatale, the current one gives her more of a tomboy’ish look with a shorter pixie-style haircut and much less piercings or makeup. Less and less does Lisbeth resemble the traditional female role, which doesn’t mean, she loses her sex appeal. Of course it’s leather, of course she’s tattooed: Lisbeth is depicted dangerous, a factor which has traditionally been linked to the male ideal. That considered she’s not too far from the style of a dominatrix (if you consider the sex scene in Fincher’s version, you can clearly see who’s on top). Lisbeth contradicts the traditional female role model while at the same time keeps her own, self-determined and strong sexuality.
    In Álvarez’ it goes even further: In her first scene we see Lisbeth with a sprayed-on vigilante-style eye mask which makes the urban ninja look complete.
  2. Lisbeth’s motorcycle gear
    That topic is continued when Lisbeth puts on her motorcycle gear: She wars a black helmet complete with black visor. It seems as if this depiction is also used to make her more mysterious, strong and dangerous: The black visor hides her face which gives her a position of power, something that is also a vital point of the fetish-orientated use of masks (except gimp and restricting masks of course). Lisbeth on her bike clad in full gear is picture of pure female power and sexual energy – which of course matches perfect to the action scene it’s used in.
  3. The gasmasks
    Later in the movie we see the villains use gasmasks, a standard in the fetish equipment: Though used for purely practical reasons (gas attack), the mask of the villains’ leader, portrayed by Swedish model/actress Sylvia Hoeks, is speacial: It has LED-supported glowing red eyes which match her red clothes. When she enters in this outfit, she not only looks like a super-villainess but also as a complementing figure to Lisbeth’s urban ninja (or a Joker to the Batman if you want): Where Lisbeth’s sexual appeal completely comes from her female empowerment, the Lady in Red’s much more depicted like a traditional femme fatale in elegant clothing, long blonde hair, a bit creepy with almost no eyebrows and also a huge cleavage (although not naked but with a thin red fabric over it) – especially that cleavage is surely no coincidence but has been put there by the costume designer (Carlos Rosario) for a reason: She is the counterpart to Lisbeth, a much more traditional, hetero-normative image of a woman although still deadly. It’s also no coincidence that Lisbeth uses force and power in combat, the Lady in Red uses poison (again a traditional female trope).

Using a fetish vocabulary you could say that we’ve got the depiction of two types of female dommes: One a punk dominatrix, the other an elegant mistress.

  1. The vacuum-sack
    That’s it, the most obvious use of fetish imagery in the movie: As seen in the trailer at one point Lisbeth gets trapped and put in fetal position inside a black rubber sack where then the air is sucked out, nearly suffocating her. In an interview with Yahoo Entertainment Foy states “It’s a fetish — a form of torture for sexual gratification” (you don’t say, Sherlock;-). It’s worth noting that this scene is not in the book but put there by the director in order to give the typical hero-is-trapped-scene a twist. Although it could be done with CGI, it’s a practical shot, mostly performed by Foy’s stunt double Cecilia Diesch. It’s interesting how cautious the production team describes the scene, who dramatic the experience would be for the actress(es), how difficult to shoot, how careful to handle. Although it’s rated R, nobody seems to keen to discuss the sexual implications though clearly in the film (a very early scene shows a grown man watching a child suffocating in the VacSack).

Part 2: Background
The trouble with the depiction of sexuality in movies has always been the “male gaze”: That principle describes that most women are filmed in a way to appeal to a male audience, the damsel-in-distress-trope, the killer-victims, the lascivious depiction – all of that is there for the pleasure of the men in the audience, not for the women (though they get their eye candy too – if that makes it any better is up for debate). Now Larsson constructed an interesting twist, the results of wich are beautifully shown in Spider’s Web: He just switches the roles. Mikael Blomkvist would normally your first choice for the protagonist, the journalist who investigates the whole case, Lisbeth his sexually-charged side-kick who he gets to bang in one scene (sadly the Fincher version, though a pretty good movie in every other aspect, does exactly that). In Spider’s Web Blomkvist is the secondary character with much less screen time and active agenda – he supports Lisbeth, not the other way round. The part of the active, sexual subject is normally reserved for men (e.g. James Bond), here it’s a woman who takes charge. We see her as powerful and as such she wears the leather fetish outfits with self-determined eroticism. She can pull it off.
The VacSack could bee seen as an attempt to rid her of that power, of the male-dominated society to strip the powerful and therefore dangerous woman down to an object – though that just isn’t the case in the movie, she’s not put in there by a man, but by her counterpart. Surely no coincidence.

Part 3: Review
So can we speak of something like an “feministic eroticism” here? Lisbeth Salander, feminist icon and vigilante, shown in leather and rubber, dominant in the movie’s only sex scene and being put in what is essentially a modified VacBed – is it wrong to view that as erotic? To answer that, we have to distinguish between erotic and male-gazy-pornographic: The eroticism of Lisbeth comes from her desirability as a strong female person, in that way it’s complimenting to say that she looks good doing it (she’s clearly not reduced to her looks) – to describe her as bang-able porno-actress just wouldn’t do the movie justice at all and would rather completely miss the point. It’s this critic’s opinion that Lisbeth Salander, especially in this latest movie, is a feministic character who is both desirable and fetishistic icon, while not being an object – though I’d love to hear from experts in the feministic studies, if I miss something!

Part 4: Verdict
I understand why the production team is cautious discussing the erotic, sexual and fetish implications of their movie, especially at a time where we redefine the female role in society – in this critic’s opinion it is handled delicately in the movie and the character of Lisbeth Salander is strong enough to withstand the danger of being a sexualized object. It much more reminds me of that famous scene in Goldfinger, where Bond is strapped on a table and threatened to be cut in half by a laser beam – and where does this laser beam point? Exactly. One could argue, that the VacSack, the suffocating of the formerly powerful portrayed heroine is similar to the attempted castration of the male counterpart, Bond. I think it’s no shame to see Lisbeth as a sexually charged character for she’s never an object: She even fights her way out of the attempted objectification (and is not rescued by say Blomkvist). She’s pure and raw, a woman to admire.

Title image (c) Sony Pictures Entertainment