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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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How much of a threat is Ukip to Labour?

Paul Nuttall's party is set to beat Labour into second in the Sleaford by-election. But MPs fear far worse is to come.

A week ago, in the Richmond Park by-election, Remainers took their revenge. The Liberal Democrats overturned Zac Goldsmith's elephantine 23,015 majority by turning the contest into a referendum on Brexit (the constituency voted for Remain by 72-28). Today, in the Sleaford and North Hykeham by-election, Ukip aim to do the same - but from the reverse position. The seat, where the party finished third in 2015, was 61.5 per cent for Leave.

There is no prospect of a Ukip victory. The Conservatives currently hold a majority of 24,115 and Theresa May's "hard Brexit" stance (which prompted the resignation of the seat's MP Stephen Phillips) has attracted anti-EU voters. But Ukip, which was just 974 votes behind Labour in 2015, will likely finish second. New leader Paul Nuttall's ambition to "replace" the opposition demands no less. Just as the Tories' support for a hard Brexit insulates them from a Ukip challenge, so Labour's support for a softer version (including free movement) makes it vulnerable. The Liverpudlian Nuttall aims to win seats off the party by exploiting the divide between the party and its working class voters. Labour MPs deride Ukip's populist pretensions (noting that Nuttall once supported NHS privatisation). But they once similarly mocked the SNP as "tartan Tories".

Mindful of this, Labour MPs are taking the threat seriously. Even those with majorities traditionally weighed, rather than counted, worry Ukip could sweep them away ("there's no safe seat outside of London," one said). As I write in my column this week, Labour MPs fear Brexit could realign British politics along Remain-Leave lines. The Lib Dems will be the champions of the former, with Ukip the champions of the latter. The Tories, a Labour MP says, will stand above the fray with "the only viable prime minister". Meanwhile, the SNP will remain hegemonic in pro-Remain Scotland. "We face a tougher electoral map than at any time in our history," Jonathan Reynolds, the shadow Treasury minister, told me. Many expect Labour to finish fourth in Sleaford as Remainers defect to the Lib Dems.

To some, however, the potential for Ukip gains appears limited. The party finished second to Labour in just 44 seats in 2015. It was less than 10 points behind in only one of these and less than 20 points behind in just 14 others. But having seen their Scottish colleagues eviscerated, Labour MPs are loath to describe any swing as "impossible". Ukip could indirectly cost the party seats by attracting defectors in Tory-Labour marginals (witness Ed Balls's fate in 2015). Labour's poll ratings averaged just 29.5 per cent last month. But MPs fear this is merely "the tip of the iceberg". At this point in previous parliaments, the party's support has only ever fallen.

In response, Labour MPs are taking drastic action. "People will follow the Lib Dem playbook, treat the party as a franchise and run ultra-local campaign," says one. Leaflets will be free of references to Corbyn and national policy. “You’ve got to cut the mother ship adrift and row yourself to safety. It's every man for himself now."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.