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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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Keep the Burkini, ban the beach

Beaches are dreadful places. Maybe it would just be easier to ban them.

To hell with political correctness, I'm just going to say it. I think women who wear burkinis to the beach are silly. I also, for that matter, think women who wear bikinis to the beach are silly. Not because of what they're wearing – women, quite obviously, should be able to wear whatever the hell they want without interference from eyebrow-furrowing douchecanoes and neighborhood bigots whose opinions are neither relevant nor requested. No, my problem is with the beach. 

Beaches are dreadful places. I question the judgement of anyone who chooses to go, of their own free will, to a strip of boiling sand that gets in all your squishy bits, just to lie down. I associate beaches with skin cancer and sunstroke and stickiness and sharks. As a neurotic, anxious goth who struggles with the entire concept of organised fun, even the idea of the beach distresses me. I won't go and you can't make me. Especially given that if I did go, whatever I chose to wear, some fragile man somewhere whose entire identity depends on controlling how the women around him behave would probably get outraged and frightened and try to ban me.

Men love to have opinions on what women should wear on their holidays. Nipples are not to be tolerated, and burkinis are now an invitation to Islamophobia, so I can only imagine how my grumpy summer goth robes would go down. The annual summer storm over women's beach attire has a xenophobic twist this year after burkinis – the swimsuit alternative for women who want to conform to a “modest” Islamic dress code – were banned on many beaches in France (although one specific one, in the town of Villeneuve-Loubet, has been overturned by a test ruling in the country’s highest court).

Not to be outdone, Nicholas Sarkozy has promised to institute nationwide legislation against the “provocative” garment if he's re-elected as president, jumping gleefully on the bandwagon brought to global attention by race riots in Corsica. Photos have emerged of Nice police officers apparently forcing a sunbathing Muslim woman to strip down and issuing her with a penalty slip. I can only imagine what that poor woman must have felt as the state swooped down on her swimsuit, but hey, Sarkozy says that public humiliation of Muslim women is a vital part of French values, and women's symbolic experience is always more important than our actual, lived experience. There are many words for this sort of bullying, but Liberty does not come into it, and nor does Equality. Fraternity, of course, is doing just fine.

Whatever women wear, it's always provocative to someone, and it's always our fault – particularly if we're also seen to be shamelessly enjoying ourselves without prior permission from the patriarchy and the state. If we wear too little, that's a provocation, and we deserve to be raped or assaulted. If we wear too much, that's a provocation, and we deserve racist abuse and police harassment. If we walk too tall, speak to loud or venture down the wrong street at night, whatever we're wearing, that's a provocation and we deserve whatever we get. The point of all this is control – the policing of women's bodies in public, sometimes figuratively, and sometimes literally. It's never about women's choices – it's about how women's choices make men feel, and men's feelings are routinely placed before women's freedom, even the simple freedom to wear things that make us feel comfortable as we queue up for overpriced ice cream. It's not about banning the Burkinis, or banning the bikini. It's about stopping women from occupying public space, curtailing our freedom of expression, and letting us know that whoever we are, we are always watched, and we can never win.

If you ask me, the simplest thing would just be to ban the beach. I consider people on the beach a personal provocation. Yes, I grew up in a seaside town, but some of the beach people come from far away, and they aren't like me, and therefore I fear them. The very sight of them, laying around all damp and happy, is an active identity threat to me as an angry goth, and that means it must be personal. As far as I'm concerned the beach is for smoking joints in the dark in winter, snogging under the pier and swigging cheap cider from the two-litre bottle you've hidden up your jumper. That's all the beach is good for. Ban it, I say. 

I do, however, accept – albeit grudgingly – that other people have different experiences. Some people actually like the seaside. And given that I am neither a screaming overgrown toddler with affectless political ambitions nor a brittle, bellowing xenophobe convinced that anything that makes me uncomfortable ought to be illegal, I have learned to tolerate beach people. I may never understand them. That's ok. The beach isn't for me. Not everything has to be for me. That's what it means to live in a community with other human beings. As performative Islamophobia and popular misogyny bake on the blasted sand-flats of public discourse, more and and more conservatives are failing to get that memo. I'd suggest they calm down with an ice lolly and a go on the Ferris wheel – but maybe it'd be easier just to ban them. 

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