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Laurie Penny on The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo: Girls, tattoos and men who hate women

The real problem with sensationalising misogyny is that misogyny is not sensational.

For a long time, I refused to read Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy. Not out of disdain for popular fiction, nor because of the many objections in feminist circles to the books' graphic depictions of sexual violence, but because I judge books by their covers. I simply declined to spend my money on one more novel entitled The Girl With the Distinguishing Physical Attribute of Minor Narrative Significance.

Having been thoroughly bored by Girl With a Pearl Earring and The Girl With Glass Feet, I naturally assumed that The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo would be stuffed with monotonous, sexist clichés.

So, imagine my surprise when I discovered that not only is the Millennium franchise a global pulp fantasy crammed with dashing heroines taking bloody and unorthodox revenge on male abusers, but the original Swedish title of the first book is Men Who Hate Women. The English-language publishers found this sentiment rather too confrontational, and it's not hard to see why.

Salander girl

I now can't help grinning every time I see prim ladies in office suits reading the Millennium books on public transport, or scrutinising the posters for the hugely popular film adaptations, the second of which is currently in UK cinemas. Larsson, who died of a heart attack just before the trilogy was published, was disgusted by sexual violence, having witnessed the gang rape of a young girl when he was 15. According to a friend of his, the author never forgave himself for failing to help the girl, whose name was Lisbeth -- just like the young heroine of the trilogy, who is also a rape survivor.

Lisbeth Salander is an immensely powerful character, a misandrist vigilante with a penchant for black fetish wear and ersatz technology, like the terrifying offspring of Batman and Valerie Solanos. She is so well drawn that one can almost forgive Larsson for having her sleep with the protagonist (an obvious author-insert of the kind normally only found in teenage fan-fiction) for no discernible reason. Salander is smart, she's brave, she always wins, and she won't let anyone tell her what to do. No wonder so many women secretly want to be her.

It is clear that the author of the Millennium franchise did not intend to glamorise violence against women. Unfortunately, it's rather hard to stop the heart racing when rapes and murders are taking place in gorgeous high-definition over a slick soundtrack: part of the purpose of thrillers, after all, is to thrill. Decorating a punchy pseudo-feminist revenge fantasy in the gaudy packaging of crime drama rather muddles Larsson's message."Misogynist violence is appalling," the series seems to whisper; "now here's some more."

However, the real problem with sensationalising misogyny is that misogyny is not sensational. Real misogyny happens every day. The fabric of modern life is sodden with sexism, crusted with a debris of institutional discrimination that looks, from a distance, like part of the pattern. The real world is full of "men who hate women", and most of them are neither psychotic Mob bosses nor corrupt business tycoons with their own private punishment dungeons under the putting green. Most men who hate women express their hatred subtly, unthinkingly. They talk over the heads of their female colleagues. They make sexual comments about women in the street. They expect their wives and girlfriends to take responsibility for housework and to give up their career when their children are born.

Reality check

Most rapists, similarly, are not murderous career sadists who live in flat-pack Ikea torture palaces conveniently rammed with incriminating recording devices. Most rapists are ordinary men who believe that they are entitled, when drunk, angry or horny, to take violent advantage of women who know and trust them.

Equally, most men who see women as objects don't dismember them and stuff them into rucksacks. They visit strip clubs. They watch degrading pornography. If they work, just for instance, in publishing, they might reject a book title that draws attention to violence against women and replace it with one that infantilises the female protagonist and focuses on a trivial feature of her appearance.

Cathartic though revenge fantasies may be, not every woman is a ninja computer hacker with street fighting skills, and fantasies that divide men into sadistic rapists and nice guys obscure the subtle matrix of real-world misogyny. Real misogyny requires a sustained and subtle response. And real sexism, unfortunately, can't always be solved with the judicious application of a Taser and a tattoo gun.

Read Laurie Penny's weekly column in the New Statesman magazine.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 06 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The Pope on Trial

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Jeremy Corbyn's confidence shows he knows he's safe

Even after the Copeland by-election defeat, Labour MPs believe their leader is unassailable.

A week after Tony Blair’s pro-Remain cry, Jeremy Corbyn rose to deliver a speech on “the road to Brexit”.  But it is the road to ruin that Labour MPs believe he is leading them along. The party last night became the first opposition to lose a by-election to the government since 1982. Were the Copeland cataclysm replicated across the country (and Labour traditionally underperforms at general elections), the Conservatives would win a majority of 114.

MPs believe this new nadir is not in spite of Corbyn but because of him. They blame his historic opposition to nuclear power (the seat’s major employer) and personal unpopularity for the Tories’ triumph (with the largest swing to a governing party since 1966). In his speech, Corbyn hailed Labour’s victory against Ukip in the accompanying Stoke by-election (though Paul Nuttall didn’t make it hard for them) and attributed the Copeland defeat to voters feeling “let down by the political establishment”. Yet in the Cumbrian constituency it was not a populist upstart that benefited but Theresa May’s government. Even the Prime Minister’s refusal to save local maternity services (“Babies will die,” warned the opposition) wasn’t enough to spare Labour. 

Asked by ITV journalist Chris Ship whether he had “looked in the mirror” and asked “could the problem actually be me?”, Corbyn flatly replied: “No”. He did not sound as if he was lying. “Why not?” pressed Ship. “Thank you for your question,” the leader said.

Corbyn speaks with the confidence of a man who knows that he is, for now, unassailable. In Labour’s internal conflict, it is not last night’s result that counts but last year’s leadership election. Corbyn emerged strengthened from that contest and MPs fear a similar outcome in the event of a new contest. Though activists express increasing anxiety about the party’s fortunes, most remain loyal to the leader they re-elected last summer. “We are a campaigning party, we campaign for social justice in this country,” Corbyn emphasised. Many voted for him believing, after the Tories’ surprise majority, that the 2020 election had been lost in advance. From this perspective, opposition is not the means to an end (government) but an end in itself. 

The bulk of Corbyn’s speech was a defence of the party’s decision to accept Brexit. In the post-referendum climate, Labour is being squeezed by the pro-Remain Lib Dems and the pro-Leave Tories (who have benefited from Ukip defectors). Though the party has championed amendments, such as one guaranteeing EU nationals’ rights, its commitment to vote for Article 50 regardless meant its efforts have struggled to acquire momentum. “No deal is a bad deal,” Corbyn declared of May’s threat to depart without an agreement. But that the Prime Minister can even float this possibility is a mark of Labour’s weakness.

A day may yet come when Corbyn faces a palace coup or reaches for the pearl-handled revolver. But Copeland is proof that his job is far safer than those of many of his MPs. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.