If you look at the most successful pop franchises over the past 50 years — from James Bond to Star Wars to Harry Potter — one thing is obvious: They're dominated by men. Which makes it all the more remarkable that right now there are two cultural juggernauts centering on women — the Twilight series, created by Stephenie Meyer, and Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, featuring The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Together the novels have sold tens of millions of copies, while the screen adaptations are raking in dollars by the hundreds of millions.
To be honest, neither Meyer nor Larsson is a great writer. But their legions of fans don't care. That's because Twilight and Millennium offer something readers often like better than literary merit — primal fantasies. And what's interesting is that these two fantasies are almost diametrically opposed, not least in their image of women.
As a young-adult series embraced by millions of grownups, Twilight offers a fantasy of perfect love that's pure adolescent romanticism. Its heroine, Bella, is a high-school girl who falls for a handsome vampire, Edward Cullen, and wants to sleep with him. But the old-school Edward won't do it — or turn her into a vampire — unless Bella marries him first. At the same time, Bella is being pursued by Jacob Black, a hunk who just happens to be a werewolf. Sadly, he doesn't have a prayer; you see, Jacob is from a family without much money, while the Cullens live in a fancy house and have an aristocratic air.
While all this may sound rather wild, the whole thing is in fact strikingly square. Things stay at a level of innocence startling for a present-day vampire story. In one scene from the Eclipse installment, for example, Bella and her father have to stop Edward from fighting with Jacob:
"If you ever touch her against her will again," Edward snarls at Jacob, who replies that Bella doesn't know what she wants.
"Well, let me give you a clue," Edward replies. "Wait for her to say the words."
"Fine," Jacob growls. "And she will."
Bella's father, Charlie, walks over, separating Jacob and Edward with his hands.
"Hey, hey, hey," Charlie says. "Easy guys. Easy. Let's take it down a notch. What's going on?"
"I kissed Bella," Jacob says.
True Blood this isn't. Turning on kisses — not nudity — the Twilight series offers a vision of love that could hardly be more conservative. From beginning to end, the supposed "outsider" Bella is defined by her romantic yearnings — love for a man that's so strong she'll turn into a vampire to be with him. By series' end — spoiler alert! — such a love has entailed remaining a virgin, getting married right out of high school and then instantly having babies. A friend whose 10-year-old daughter adores Twilight says he's horrified that the child might think Bella is somehow a role model.
On the face of it, he'd be happier with the values of the Millennium Trilogy. It offers not a conservative fantasy of romance, but a liberal fantasy of perfect justice. Where Twilight creates a reality in which the social world barely appears, stories like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo take place in a contemporary world overrun with rapists, serial killers and corporate bigwigs who are essentially gangsters.
Basically, two people stand up against all of this. One is middle-aged Mikael Blomkvist, a rumpled, womanizing left-wing journalist who's pretty clearly Larsson's romanticized projection of himself. But the series' real selling point is its title heroine, Lisbeth Salander, an extraordinarily vivid pop creation. Abused as a child, Salander has grown up to be tattooed, pierced, bisexual and aggressively anti-social. Both a ferocious fighter and a genius computer hacker, Salander is defined by no man. Instead she pointedly takes down men who are violent against women. But to be an unstoppable vessel of justice, she has to cut herself off from all normal emotion and from everyone else — even those who care about her.
So far, so good. Yet Millennium's sense of social justice reveals a queasily dark side of liberal righteousness. These are vigilante tales, structured to fill us with such rage that we can't wait for Salander to exact her vengeance. When I recently saw the current film episode, The Girl Who Played with Fire, the guy in front of me applauded when Salander took an axe to a baddie. And this was at a screening for a public radio station!
All this makes Millennium so different from Twilight that it may seem incredible they're both popular at the same time. Yet the strength of both series lies in something their heroines do have in common — an absolute willingness to go the distance. Say what you will against them, Bella and Salander are not the silly, shop-till-they-drop mediocrities celebrated in chick-lit comedies. They are mythically passionate souls who will do what it takes — even give up their humanity — in order to achieve perfection. 007 and Luke Skywalker couldn't do any better than that.