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We finally got round to watching season one of the miserabilist Scandinavian crime thriller The Bridge over the Christmas break. We had already enjoyed The Killing and it turns out that we, like a lot of others, have a penchant for the nasty-things-happening-in-cold-places genre. I first noticed this trait years ago with books such as The Snowman, Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow and the classic We Need to Talk About Henning.

There are many striking features about these Scandinavian crime series: the relentlessly grim backdrops, the crushing personal misery, the Bergmanesque silences and the general lack of anyone from Abba. But in recent times the most notable feature has been the strong female lead. In Lisbeth Salander, Sarah Lund and Saga Noren we have three driven, clever, admirable (and, of course, attractive) women. Yet, emotionally speaking, they are also one sandwich short of a picnic. We are not meant to dislike them but they are intended to make us uncomfortable.

The dragon-tattoo-sporting Salander is damaged and violent, The Bridge’s Noren is borderline Asperger’s and The Killing’s Lund, while ostensibly normal (aside from a disturbing penchant for your gran’s woolly jumpers) is obsessive and increasingly flawed. Each has a less-talented male partner whose primary purpose seems to be to emphasise the heroine’s strangeness, rather than her brilliance.

Strange and flawed detectives are hardly a female preserve. From Holmes to Morse, Rebus to Wallander, the emotionally broken detective is a familiar figure. Often alcoholic, always facing relationship problems, they are driven, obsessive and often neglectful of friends and family. But there is one key distinction. With the men these flaws are used to demonstrate their humanity; with the women they are used to emphasise their peculiarity, to highlight a lack of empathy or warmth. (Sherlock Holmes is perhaps an exception but he is more fantastical – an intellectual superhero who, in his modern TV incarnation, manages to combine wit and whimsy with his high-functioning sociopathy.)

We may root for, like and admire the female leads but we are simultaneously encouraged to look down on them. Noren’s lack of social skills is endearing, almost childlike, but it does not encourage the viewer to think of her as a rounded person. Lund, initially the most together of the three, is taciturn and withdrawn. They may be in charge but they are also clearly victims.

Both Salander and Noren have an extremely casual attitude to sex but, again, this is used to demonstrate their aberrant behaviour. In an early episode of The Bridge, Noren, feeling horny, heads to a bar and, without small talk, picks up a guy and beds him. Her biological needs fulfilled, she gets back to the job, politely but indifferently dismissing him. And yet, when men such as James Bond (to jump genres for a moment) do the same, we are expected to admire them. Hero sex is soft-focus and fabulous, while our heroines’ couplings are often urgent, animalistic, even sordid.

The men are not only more rounded by their shortcomings but often rewarded with the devotion of implausibly tolerant and significantly more attractive women. By contrast, these strong female leads can be in charge only at significant personal cost and by stripping out such “feminine” qualities as empathy.

Indeed, the actress who played Sarah Lund talked of making her more “like a man”. Since it is clear that the main traits are often shared by male counterparts, why are they disconcerting or disagreeable when seen on women? After all, who is Lisbeth Salander but a geeky Mad Max, Saga Noren but a cross between Sherlock and Monk, and Sarah Lund but a sober Rebus?

Perhaps the real question is: are we merely uncomfortable seeing “male” traits in women? Or is this apparent incongruity actually telling us that we should be less forgiving of those characteristics we dislike seeing in women but write off as lovable human foibles in men?

robert.shrimsley@ft.com; Twitter: @robertshrimsley

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