More Than Tattoos: Rhetorical Discourse and Autism in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

By Marinan, John J. | PSYART, January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

More Than Tattoos: Rhetorical Discourse and Autism in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo


Marinan, John J., PSYART


Lisbeth Salander, the principal character of Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, represents a woman of contrasts. Stieg Larsson's narrator describes her as "someone who seems 'out of place' and yet the 'ablest investigator' (28) her business associate had ever met. She is a perfectionist, possessing "unique gifts," (28) "imagination," (28) but a seeming lack of protocol. The reader's initial impression of Salander is one of estrangement, furthered by her numerous tattoos, piercings and died raven black hair, "looking as though she had just emerged from a week-long orgy with a gang of hard rockers" (39). She is unconventional, "conventional work hours were anathema to her and she had a talent for irritating the other employees" (40). Other people constantly misjudge her essential gifts. Armansky, her employer, is shocked when she delivers report after report with zero grammatical errors, perfect judgment, and a unique take on the subjects she is investigating. Her differences are reflected in her employer Armansky's comment that he "had taken her for stupid, maybe even retarded" (41). Salander is certainly portrayed as a conflicted character: she possesses qualities that solve crimes but drive people to distraction in the process.

Recent research comments more on the character Salander's early childhood trauma as a cause of her behaviors. Her rape at a young age, discovered in a later novelistic rendition, is significant; it actually goes hand in hand with her on-screen behaviors. However, trauma may not be the only explanation for Lisbeth's behaviors. Salander is an important character for discussions of difference because of the dialogic interactions, both positive and negative, representing rhetorically discursive notions of difference.

One such example of difference, in this case, neuro-atypicality, is autism. Autism is a potentially severe neurological condition affecting social functioning, communication skills, reasoning, and behavior (Fundukian 166). It is a spectrum disorder; the symptoms and characteristics of autism can present themselves in a variety of combinations, ranging from extremely mild to quite severe. It is a neurological disorder affecting a person's ability to communicate and form relationships. Individuals with autism have deficits in social interaction, communication, and understanding (166). Autism was first described by Leo Kanner in 1943. The children of the study had some unique abilities and did not seem to be emotionally disturbed or mentally retarded. He invented the category "early infantile autism"- (sometimes called Kanner's syndrome) to describe these children (167). Hans Asperger made the same discoveries in the same year, describing children with a unique behavioral profile. He used the term autism to describe them.

Autistic people have deficits in three key areas: social interaction, communication, and reasoning (168). Social interaction is the ability to interact, both verbally and nonverbally, with other humans. Social cues such as facial expressions and tone of voice are problematic. They seem isolated. Autistics use language in unusual ways, by echoing the comments of others (echolalia) or use phrases inappropriately (168). People with autism often use pronouns such as I, me, and you incorrectly. In addition to problems developing speech, individuals with autism have problems understanding the purpose of speech and lack motivation for reciprocal communication (168).

Autism is on the rise. Alice Park writes in Time magazine that:

According to the latest estimate, released on Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 88 children in the U.S. has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) - a nearly 25% increase from 2006, when the rate was 1 in 110, and a stunning 78% increase since 2000-02, when the CDC first began tracking the disorder and estimated the rate at 1 in 150 children. (np)

Diagnosis of autism and other mental illnesses have grown exponentially over this period. …

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