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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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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn is punished for his “friends” Hamas

In the face of David Cameron's unrelenting assault, the Labour leader still refused to withdraw his remark. 

When Jeremy Corbyn referred to Hamas and Hizbullah as "our friends" he certainly didn't imagine that he would one day have to defend the remark at Prime Minister's Questions. But that was the position he found himself in today as David Cameron remorselessly targeted him. Challenged three times by the Prime Minister to withdraw the comment, he refused to do so, though he came close when he insisted: "Anyone who commits racist or anti-Semitic acts is not a friend of mine." 

So unrelenting was Cameron's assault that Corbyn's questions on spending cuts were rendered irrelevant. The Labour leader instead returned fire by challenging the PM over Zac Goldsmith's noxious London mayoral campaign (which has painted Sadiq Khan as the friend of extremists). Suliman Gani, the iman whom Khan has been attacked for sharing a platform with, was a Conservative supporter, Corbyn noted. He quoted a former Tory candidate who denounced Goldsmith's "repulsive campaign of hate". But Corbyn's lax response to anti-Semitism has weakened his moral authority.

Cameron gave no quarter in his defence of Goldsmith, defying the theory that he wants Khan to win in order to shore up the Labour leader. But he also undoubtedly hopes that the lines which appear to have failed in London will succeed elsewhere. With pure ruthlessness, he declared of Corbyn: "He may be a friend of the terrorist group Hamas but he's an enemy of aspiration." Labour was left to rue how its leader's back catalogue crowds out its attacks on government policy. Should Corbyn make it to the next general election, it will face far worse. "A party that puts extremists over working people" was Cameron's parting shot. 

After this brutal electioneering, it was left to the SNP's Westminster leader Angus Robertson to return the debate to policy. Cameron confirmed that the government was preparing a climbdown on accepting more unaccompanied child refugees. "We're already taking child migrants in Europe with a direct family connection to the UK," he said. "I'm also talking to Save the Children to see what we can do more, particularly with children who came here before the EU-Turkey deal was signed." He added: "It won't be necessary to send the Dubs amendment back to the other place [the House of Lords]."

The other notable moment came when Cameron announced that the Chilcot Inquiry would finally be published "not long after" the EU referendum. It this occasion that Corbyn will ikely to use to make his long-promised apology for the Iraq war (for which, of course, he bears no blame). But as today made clear, there will be no such remorse for the wrong "friends". 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.