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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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Brawl MP Eric Joyce: Don’t blame me for Brexit just because I headbutted a Tory

The former Labour politician described Corbyn's politics as "quite literally bonkers".

Disgraced former MP Eric Joyce has insisted he’s not to blame for, well, everything that’s happened in British politics since he started a brawl in a House of Commons bar.

The butterfly effect theory runs that if Joyce had not kicked off in Stranger’s Bar one night in 2012, then the nation would look very different indeed.

The fracas, in which Joyce headbutted Tory Stuart Andrew and lamped his own party whip Phil Wilson, led to him giving up his Falkirk seat and quitting the Labour party.

That led to the infamous Falkirk selection fight which saw accusations that the contest was rigged by the unions and the Labour left.

As a result Ed Miliband drew up new rules for Labour membership, which included the option of paying just a few pounds to join and vote in leadership elections.

That allowed thousands to get involved in the 2015 leadership election and make Jeremy Corbyn leader. Corbyn’s ineffective campaigning and failure to deliver the Labour vote at the Brexit referendum is blamed by some for the Leave victory. And as a result of that Nicola Sturgeon is champing at the bit for another independence referendum and this week Theresa May called an early general election to essentially set up a five-year Brexit parliament.

“It’s quite a nice theory,” admits Joyce. “And on one level it’s factually true. But much as I like to self-aggrandise myself, if it hadn’t been Falkirk it would have been somewhere else.

“People were saying to me that the left were making a big push in Paisley to get rid of Douglas Alexander, then my thing came along and they made their stand in Falkirk rather than Paisley.

“Until that point I’d had running battles with the left, but I battered them down every year.”

After Joyce left Labour, Karie Murphy, now a key figure in Corbyn’s office and inner circle and close to Unite boss Len McCluskey, tried to win the nomination to replace him. But questions were raised about the role of Unite in the process and it was claimed that locals had been signed up to the party without their consent. As the scandal grew, then-Labour leader Miliband announced his fateful reforms to party membership in an effort to draw a line under it. (Labour later cleared Unite of any wrongdoing). 

Joyce told me: “Ed was very weak with the left and he had this terrible gullibility. If it hadn’t had been Falkirk the same issues would have surfaced somewhere else.”

He has largely kept his head down since stepping down from Parliament two years ago, other than the occasional blog on the state of the Labour party or the issue of Scottish independence – which he now supports. He’s canned plans for an autobiography but claims he’s adapted some episodes from his life for a thriller instead.

However, in this rare intervention he’s scathing about Corbyn and also about the moderate Labour MPs who oppose him.

He said: “Jeremy Corbyn’s politics are quite literally bonkers.

“When I was an MP I took a lot of interest in Africa. I used to do quite a lot of stuff with Jeremy, he was really engaged and he just stayed behind the scenes focusing on his constituency and his issues. Then occasionally he’d make these bonkers speeches and I’d stay away.”

But he claims the current crop of MPs don’t have the skills to deal with the Corbynista tide.

The former soldier explained: “When I got selected I treated it like a campaign, I located in the constituency, contacted everyone, eventually I got selected, and when the left put their head above the parapet I knocked them down.

“A lot of current MPs got where they are by patronage, they’ve not had to fight battles, they’ve been special advisers. And when it came to Corbyn they weren’t able to carry their local party.

“Politics is all about numbers and organising. And while the Blairite bits of Labour write articles for Progress and tweet, the left just go and get the numbers.”

No longer a member, but describing himself as a Labour supporter, Joyce, an MP for 15 years from 2000, is gloomy about his former party’s prospects.

“It’s hard to see Labour in power before 2025, if ever," he said. "There was no coup, Labour had a nervous breakdown.”

James Millar is a political journalist and founder of the Political Yeti's Politics Podcast.

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