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Saturday 5 November 2011

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, H&M, and the difficulties of marketing a female action/thriller hero.

Whenever I see an article about H&M's new "Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" line I waste valuable seconds of my life being irritated, so where better to vent than my fashion blog?

I'm aware that it's probably stupid to get annoyed by high street fashion marketing. It's always going to be dumb. H&M is just making use of a popular book and movie franchise to sell bland goth-lite clothes. However, the designer hired by H&M to create the Lisbeth Salander line is the costume designer from the actual movie, and the clothes look exactly like normal H&M clothes, except monochromatic. And... "Lisbeth Salander studded wedge heels"? Right.

Omigod I can't wait to get my emotionally-damaged hacker outfit! Yay, generic-looking $200 jackets!
I'm not wild about they way Lisbeth Salander is being marketed in preparation for this film. It's going to be hard enough for Rooney Mara to measure up to Noomi Rapace's fantastic performance in the original Swedish-language adaptations, and I doubt that "sexy" marketing is going to help in that regard. A gajillion people bought this book: isn't that evidence enough that Lisbeth Salander is already an interesting character? Is it necessary for Mara's first -- and aside from a recent spread in Le Monde, which is unlikely to reach most of this movie's prospective viewers, only -- photoshoot for the Dragon Tattoo movie to look like this?
Photos from W Magazine.
Seriously? I mean, obviously this photoshoot wasn't made using the actual Lisbeth Salander costumes, but most people taking a casual glance at it are not going to know that. Aside from the fact that they essentially amount to a collection of sexualised images of a character whose defining backstory centres around child abuse, these pictures do the movie a disservice by making it indistinguishable from a multitude of other fashion spreads. Girl straddling a motorcycle and looking pouty? Meh. Every actress in Hollywood has done a photoshoot that either includes a sexy motorbike pose or involves a goth/punk theme (especially former child stars trying to appear "adult").

Fun fact: if you google "Rooney Mara Lisbeth Salander", the second image that comes up is one from this photoshoot, posing topless in the snow while looking fragile and wistful. Does this bare any resemblance to her performance as Salander? Probably not. But it's still the first set of images people are going to find before the movie comes out, because aside from the trailer no screenshots have been revealed. Of all the photos from this shoot, I'd say this one looks most like the Lisbeth Salander we can expect to see in the movie:
Perhaps a bit too glam, but I'm going to give the film the benefit of the doubt and assume that they're going to make Salander more messy-looking onscreen and less like an Adam Lambert backing dancer. Which brings me to my main worry about Lisbeth Salander's appearance in the American remake: grunginess.

Salander's style (if you can call it that) is entirely wrapped up in her prickly, angry, socially-maladjusted personality. She dresses with explicit aim of coming across as scary and unappealing. She isn't part of any goth subculture, and she has no difficulty attracting a partner when she wants to get laid and therefore does not dress with the aim of being sexually appealing. In the typical (male) hacker stereotype she spends long stretches of time on her computer, eating shitty food, not washing, and not changing her clothes. As a physically small woman who is justifiably wary of abuse and attack, she goes out of her way give off as many negative signals as possible. The way Rooney Mara has been styled, however, doesn't quite match this. Firstly, her hairstyle looks expensive and trendy instead of home-cut and messy, and secondly, if ever there was a role for which an actress should "ugly up", Lisbeth Salander is it.
Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander. Photo from Le Monde.
Rooney Mara is beautiful. She looks like a model. She looks like a model with a cool haircut that probably needs trimming and restyling every other week. I'm not saying this is a casting issue -- I'm saying that "beautiful" is probably not a word that should be associated with this character. In the original movie, Noomi Rapace, both through body-language and through styling, looked like someone you might see (and probably avoid) in real life. Rooney Mara looks like someone who would turn heads. This illustrates the gap between a book and a Hollywood movie, because while on the page Salander can be described as unsettling in appearance, as skinny and weird-looking, as creepy and bony, what this translates to on the big screen is: thin.

It's been mentioned in interviews that Rooney Mara went on a strict diet to maintain Salander's appearance, but you can't really compare this with something like Christian Bale's transformation for The Machinist because on the big screen, skinny women are the norm.
That's a pretty shocking photo, right? Particularly if you've seen Christian Bale in Batman, where his arms are about the circumference of his waist in that picture. However, while Rooney Mara's weight-loss for Dragon Tattoo was probably just as difficult to maintain, the end result is... a woman with the same physique Keira Knightley had in Pirates of the Caribbean, a child-friendly action comedy in which she played the romantic lead. They need to go further. In designing a look for Lisbeth Salander, the description you should be concentrating on isn't "skinny goth", it's "scary-looking". And if the end result is that Rooney Mara's Salander looks like a model doing a punk-themed photoshoot, they're doing it wrong.

Postscript: I rewatched the trailer while I was writing this, and although I still think that it's a brilliant trailer that does its job by making me want to see the movie, I notice that it contains a surprisingly tiny amount of Lisbeth Salander. Is this because Daniel Craig is the big-name star and therefore the lynchpin of their marketing for the film, or -- my paranoid feminist brain worries -- is the studio wary of including too much of a a tough, weird female character in case it scares people away? See for yourself.

In order, the recognisable Salander moments (ie, where her face isn't obscured by a helmet) are: Salander looking at something; looking at photos; kissing a girl; looking at a man; on a bed, looking at photos; looking at Daniel Craig; appearing threatened; a man touching Salander's head; running; a moment of the rape scene; Salander on top of (attacking) a man on a bed; looking at Daniel Craig; getting out of a car wearing a blonde wig; in the shower, shivering; walking, peering through a doorway.

That has got to be the most passive depiction of an action/thriller hero I have ever seen. I trust David Fincher to make a good film that reflects the violence and stress of the books, but the way it's being marketed is as if the Bourne Identity trailer had been made up entirely of clips of Matt Damon looking at stuff while other characters got all the dialogue and action sequences.


  1. this is an accurate, articulate, smart and thoughtful critique of a bunch of different things at once. i will have to mull all of this over for a while, i think. to me, knowing that in the second book the first thing Lisbeth does is get a boob enhancement in order to feel better about herself undermines my entire view of her sexuality as empowered. So while i haven't seen the first film (you really make me want to), i think i read Lisbeth as less fully in control of her sexuality and how it's perceived by others than you do, so while there's a deep irony present in the portrayal of her sexuality in that photoshoot, it doesn't feel as much like a betrayal of the character to me, because imo Larsson already did that when he inadvertently made her into a wet dream hacker fantasy video game heroine despite his best attempts not to.

    That aside, I just want to add that you are awesome and i really, really enjoy reading this blog. <3

  2. thank you! :))

    although i have problems with this photoshoot, i wouldn't really call it a BETRAYAL since it's not an official shoot, rather it is a fashion magazine's interpretation of salander.

    as for the boob job, i don't think they included that in the original movie and i doubt they'll include it in the remake, mainly because salander gets it because she is completely flat-chested to the extent that she looks as if she hasn't hit puberty, and... there is no such thing as a flat-chested famous actress. i always interpreted it as her trying to distance herself from appearing childlike, since the men who preyed on her enjoyed the fact that she was either helpless/childlike or appeared to be so. when she gets that surgery it's less to do with wanting to look sexier, because rather than it being an "enhancement" she's described as "having breasts for the first time" (or words to that effect). i'm not saying this completely upholds her earlier portrayal as sexually confident/aggressive (and i'm aware that there are a lot of problems with the idea of breasts = female), but i think it does explain things better than her merely taking a step closer to being a wet dream hacker fantasy.

  3. Interesting post. While I agree that the Salander inspired fashion line is problematic, I'm going to reserve judgement on Mara as Salander and how she has been costumed until I see the movie. I read an interview with the costume designer that gave me hope they'd captured her grunginess.

  4. yeah... i tried not to sound like i was dissing rooney mara herself in this post, because so little from the actual movie has been released that it's impossible to judge. she's in the trailer for about 10 seconds, and aside from that the only images that i've seen from the movie are shakeycam pirated pics of her on set. i'm reserving judgement of the movie (and costumes) until i've actually seen it -- this post was mainly about how they're marketing the film in advance (and her hair, i guess, which i still maintain looks super trendy and expensive to maintain).

  5. Feminist issues aside (because that will become a huge rant), my biggest problem with the fashion line is that the fashion is exactly the same stuff H&M had in stock 2 years ago. The entire U.S. went punk/chic (which I adored, since that meant every store had clothes I would wear) so this whole "inspired" thing is really just recycling. I can't tell a single difference from the H&M clothes on the models then the ones in my closet.

    Even the styling is similar, hair, jewelry, etc.

  6. If my former comment doesn't erase, I apologize for the sharpness in my tone. I'm hungry and tired and I think I misread your tone. They should invent locks to prevent blogging like they do for drunk dialing. :D You should still check out those sites though, they're good.

  7. Just a small note: I like the second trailer much better than the first, and it shows a bit more of Lisbeth.

  8. Rooney Mara is on the cover of American Vogue this month promoting Dragon Tattoo. The photo shoot is gorgeous.

  9. that's ok! it didn't delete BUT (possibly this is in your favour, possibly it's in mine, i'm not sure) i'm pretty hungover just now and therefore sort of... scrolled past it like "tl;dr". ;)

    basically this post is from the perspective of someone who HASN'T been researching the movie, which is kind of the point... i've read the books but i'm not enough of a fan to be aware of anything aside from what has been directly presented to me by the media/casual googling -- which, so far, has been this trailer, the H&M fashion line (which i've noticed more because i read more fashion blogs) and this photoshoot, which shows up A LOT more than any other, aside from rooney mara's photoshoot for vogue, which i didn't include because it wasn't presented as being "in character" as salander. TBH i didn't expect this post to receive as much traffic as it did, or to elicit such an extreme response from people, especially since i basically wrote it to vent my frustration with the mediocrity of the H&M fashion line.

  10. I KNOW RIGHT, SO DULL. that was basically the original point of this post, but then it sort of... snowballed...

    the H&M line is super generic and like half the outfits i see on the street any day of the week. IT'S SUCH A CHEAP TIE-IN. why can't they do tie-in H&M lines for, like, X-MEN? i want a yellow and blue x-men jacket! i can dress like lisbeth salander really easily already because LISBETH SALANDER CLOTHES ARE JUST CRAPPY BLACK PUNK CLOTHES AND THOSE ARE ALREADY AVAILABLE EVERYWHERE.

  11. i saw it! such a beautiful photoshoot! i didn't include it here because it was more of a rooney mara photoshoot than a lisbeth salander photoshoot -- she was very clearly not meant to be in character, what with the alexander mcqueen ballgowns and all.

  12. that trailer looks WAY better! wow! that's awesome! one thing, though... is it just me, or is rooney mara putting on an accent? but everyone else sounds english? why??

  13. I totally noticed that, too! I find it quite baffling. I think they are all trying to affect a Swedish accent, and some of them just fail less horribly than others.

  14. Yeah Rooney has the accent (you can def hear it when she says "report") but she seems spot on from what I've found ( Also Daniel explains why the British accents were kept here (

  15. Thanx for accepting my apology :D I am passionate about film but all these extreme responses across the web will only continue to come to a head through the premiere and prob the rest of Oscar season. Like politics, it basically comes down to 2 groups:
    TEAM NOOMI: Those who refuse to support an "Americanized" (read: hatchet job) remake of their beloved film (which it isn't- it's based on the original book not the 1st films directors' vision=re-adaptation NOT remake) and will bash any force they feel are messing with "perfection"

    FINCHER-ITES: those who are not, at this point, hardcore advocate of one series over another, but are very ecstatic to see what the master of dark atmosphere David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club, Social Network) will create from this solid gold story.

  16. Saw the movie last night. It was awesome and her performance was dead on. Wardrobe, make up and acting was 100%. And I loved how they did her up in the blonde wig when she did the bank transfers... so Gaga like. It is a must see movie.

  17. I'd be very interested to see a follow-up to this post, once you've seen the film (if you plan on seeing it). I watched it recently, and my worries were mostly assuaged. I did find her look to be a bit too high-fashion at times, but mostly it hewed close to the book.

  18. well, you're in luck! i am in fact writing one as we speak. :) i, too, very much enjoyed the film, although i do still feel that i prefer the swedish version. the post should be up later today!

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