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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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Not for the first time, James Brokenshire is making things worse in Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland secretary's questions on Jeremy Corbyn and the IRA are valid. But he shouldn't be asking them for the sake of the Tory campaign. 

Consensus is an elusive thing in Northern Irish politics. But ask anyone how well James Brokenshire is handling his brief, and the answer from many is almost inevitably a variation on “not very”.

There are plenty of reasons for this. Some are fairer than others. But an overriding concern among nationalist and cross-community parties is that the Northern Ireland secretary cannot and has not acted as a neutral or honest broker in his time in office. They believe him to be both too close to the DUP and all too ready to take nakedly partisan lines on the issues that continue to disrupt the business of devolved government.

The legacy of Troubles violence is one such issue. By far the rawest of the disagreements looming over Stormont, neither Sinn Fein nor the DUP have brooked much compromise. That Brokenshire hasn’t been able to solve these issues in his 11 months in office isn’t all that remarkable.

One might even sympathise: few cabinet wickets are stickier than Northern Ireland, more so now than at any point in the last decade. Some – though not all – nationalists are instinctively hostile to his presence and think talks ought to be handled with kid gloves, preferably worn by a grizzled American senator.  

What is remarkable, however, is how prepared Brokenshire has been to make that situation worse – this time apparently for the sake of influencing an election his party is almost certain to win. On Monday, the secretary of state – who appears to have spent most of the general election campaign in his Bexley constituency – issued a statement via the Conservative party that challenged Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell (whose party, unlike the Tories, do not stand in Northern Ireland) to clarify their record on the IRA.

Whether these questions are valid – and they are – is irrelevant. What matters is whether they ought to be being asked by a serving secretary of state for Northern Ireland at this stage in an election. It is, to put it lightly, pretty difficult to conclude that they are. Here, not for the first time, we see Brokenshire moving in lockstep with the right-wing press away from the consensus – or at the very least sensitive, though not uncritical, engagement with both sides – so desperately necessary for the restoration of devolved government.

As I wrote when Theresa May called the election last month, the impasse at Stormont means this election cannot be siloed from the mainland campaign. I predicted that electioneering pitched at middle England will feed into the culture wars that still dominate Northern Ireland's politics. The province's troubled past remains a live issue and continues to disrupt the business of devolved government. It was clear that attacking Corbyn with the Lynton Crosby playbook will do nothing to defuse it.

And so it hasn’t. The IRA dead cat was of course to be expected, but for Brokenshire to be the one throwing it on the table is almost ridiculous. Some might argue, as they have before, that he has derelicted his duty as secretary of state for the sake of the shortest-term political expediency. Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams says the flurry of Tory-provoked interest in Corbyn’s record on the IRA is a “distraction”. Well, he of all people would. But the underlying truth is this. If we can learn anything from the fitful past few years at Stormont, it’s that arguments over legacy issues are nearly impossible to mediate.

Not for the first time, Brokenshire has made his own job – if he intends to stay in it – much more difficult. And if he is destined for pastures new in May's victory reshuffle, then his successor will not thank him for the febrile and distrustful atmosphere he has helped create. 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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