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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

Photo: Getty
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Another trade minister walks away from David Cameron's failed project

Francis Maude is lucky enough to be able to walk away from this Government and their failing policies – if only the rest of us could do so.  

After just nine months in the role Francis Maude has announced he will be stepping down as trade Minister. It means David Cameron will have gone through four trade ministers in six years.

The nine months that Maude has been in the role have not been happy ones – for him, or the British public.

Our trade deficit in goods has grown to a record £125bn and our overall trade deficit has risen to £34.7bn. Meanwhile, under the Tories the current account deficit increased to its largest level since 1830 – when the Duke of Wellington was Prime Minister.

We’ve also seen a widening gap between the Chancellor and the Trade Minister in that time. While initially championing Osborne’s much vaunted “£1 trillion trade target by 2020” recent weeks have seen Maude pouring cold water over the target – referring to it as a “big stretch” and indicating it is unlikely to be met. The “stretch” he refers to is the whopping £350bn that the Office of Budget Responsibility says Osborne’s 2020 target will be missed by.

Despite saying yesterday that he would be stepping down having devised a plan to tackle Britain’s huge trade problems these new figures – incidentally released on the same day as Maude announced he’d be leaving - are evidence that if there is a plan, it’s done no good so far.

While Maude might be able to just walk away from Britain’s dire trade situation others aren’t so lucky. Domestic export industries such as steel and manufacturing, where output is still lower than 2008, have come under huge pressure in recent years from soaring energy costs and cut price competition from markets such as China.

Boosting exports is key to tackling the historic deficit, but the government shows no sign that it really understands this. While Osborne fails to provide crucial support to the steel sector, which has seen devastating job losses, he isn’t failing to take every opportunity to court the increasingly unstable Chinese market which leaves Britain even more exposed to global headwinds. It was just a few months ago the Bank of England warned that if Chinese GDP were to fall by three per cent relative to its trend then the output in the UK would be around 0.3 per cent lower as a result, yet Osborne is undeterred.

It is workers in Britain that will be paying the price for these failing policies. Those losing their jobs at Tata steel, small manufacturing businesses suffering in the industry’s stagnation and many other ordinary workers are not lucky enough to walk away from the situation like Maude.

Their situation is compounded by the Government attacking ordinary people on middle and low wages in other ways.

Although Osborne pledged in November to stop all tax credit cuts, he is still going ahead with a proposed cut to the income disregard costing 800,000 people an estimated £300 a year. This is on top of the IFS’s analysis from just a few days ago that shows the Government’s planned cuts to Universal Credit will see 2.1 million working people lose out by an average of £1,600 a year.

And coming down the line Osborne’s ‘tenant tax’ which will force all but the very poorest council tenants to ‘pay to stay’ – charging them huge market rents to stay in their home – which many will be unable to afford.

Under the new measures a couple earning £15,000 each per year – scarcely over minimum wage each – would be asked to pay market rent for their home, or reduce their working hours in order to take them out of the income bracket.

Osborne claims to want the Tories to be ‘the Party of the workers’ but this policy shows how much of a farce that is. People who work hard on low pay will be forced from their homes.

Maude is lucky enough to be able to walk away from this Government and their failing policies – if only the rest of us could do so.  

Jon Ashworth is Labour MP for Leicester South.