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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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14 Labour MPs defy Jeremy Corbyn and vote for Trident

Backbenchers oppose SNP motion backing disarmament while six vote in favour of it. 

In an attempt to exploit Labour's divisions over Trident, the SNP today tabled a motion opposing its renewal. Labour whips instructed MPs to abstain on the grounds that the vote was "a stunt", as John McDonnell told reporters outside last night's PLP meeting.

But in defiance of the leadership, 14 backed the renewal of the nuclear deterrent. Their justification was clear: it remains official party policy to support Trident after annual conference voted not to debate the issue (a point made at the PLP by Ben Bradshaw, Chris Leslie, Jamie Reed and John Woodcock). For them, Labour's credibility depends on it maintaining its backing for the programme. By contrast, six MPs voted against renewal, the cost of which was revealed by yesterday's Defence Review to have risen from £25bn to £31bn. 

The SNP is, unsurprisingly, delighted at having divided Labour. Defence spokesman Brendan O'Hara said: "For Labour, today was a sign of their moral bankruptcy in the Trident debate. Astonishingly for a party that say they want to govern, some of their members abstained, some voted with the SNP and some even voted to support the Tory nuclear folly. Labour’s solitary Scottish MP Ian Murray abstained – despite voicing his opposition to Trident renewal. His leader Jeremy Corbyn also abstained – although he previously supported an identical SNP motion in January this year. This is just the latest evidence that Jeremy Corbyn isn’t changing Labour – Labour is changing him." 

A potentially far greater division lies ahead when parliament votes on renewal. Many Trident supporters abstained today but would not do so on the official decision. With the majority of the shadow cabinet in favour of renewal (unlike their leader), most frontbenchers expect Corbyn to offer a free vote. Andy Burnham, the shadow home secretary, has pledged to resign if the party opposes Trident renewal and others would likely follow. Among the most committed supporters of the deterrent are the deputy leader, Tom Watson, the shadow culture secretary, Michael Dugher, and the shadow Northern Ireland secretary, Vernon Coaker. But with Corbyn and his supporters arguing that he has a mandate to oppose renewal, and floating the idea of an online ballot of party members, today's split is but a hint of the divisions to come. 

The 14 Labour MPs who voted in favour of Trident 

Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

Ben Bradshaw (Exeter)

Mary Creagh (Wakefield)

Chris Evans (Islwyn)

Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Limehouse)

Liz Kendall (Leicester West)

Chris Leslie (Nottingham East)

Madeleine Moon (Bridgend)

Albert Owen (Ynys Mon)

Jamie Reed (Copeland)

Emma Reynolds (Wolverhampton North East)

Angela Smith (Sheffield Hillsborough)

Gisela Stuart (Birmingham Edgbaston)

John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness)

The six Labour MPs who voted against Trident

Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley)

Roger Godsiff (Birmingham Sparkbrook)

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North)

Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry North West)

Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton)

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.