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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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The writer who never met his deadlines - but would always swear blind he had

My colleague Susan – tougher than me – said I should just drop him. And then, one day, the matter came to a head.

For this story, I intend to take you back 25 years, to the days when no one in the world had email. It’s quite important that you can picture the primitive scene: we are in the dusty and characterless offices of a small-circulation weekly magazine, staffed by care-worn editors and sub-editors, all old before their time. The prevailing smell is cup-a-soup.

There being no computers or internet, the all-important contributions arrive sometimes by fax machine, sometimes by hand, mostly by post. For me, as literary editor on the second floor, the least effective form of delivery is, oddly, fax. This is because the person who sits beside the fax machine (downstairs) makes it a rule never to inform colleagues when a fax has come for them.

Now, at this time I had a particular contributor who suffered from a strange and infuriating complex, by which he a) was incapable of meeting any deadline but b) always swore blind that he had.

“Where is your book review, Geoffrey?” I asked, routinely, on the phone.

“What?” he said, in mock disbelief. “Isn’t it there? I posted it two days ago/popped it through the letter box myself!”

But then he would seem to remember something.

“What’s your address again? Well, this explains why you didn’t receive it. I got the address wrong. Tell you what, I’ll type it out again tonight!”

I knew he was lying, of course. “Just send me the carbon copy,” I would say. But what do you know? In a freak outbreak of tidiness, he had always thrown the carbon away, or he’d simply forgotten to make one.

“Why don’t you take photocopies, Geoffrey?” I would say. “I hate to think of you typing it all again.” “I WILL TYPE IT AGAIN TONIGHT, LYNNE,” he would insist. And the next day, the piece would duly turn up, and it would be fine.

But how I railed. Why did I have to go along with this charade? My colleague Susan – tougher than me – said I should just drop him. And then, one day, the matter came to a head.

A review was late again. I sent a message via a third party: I wanted his review, but I did not want to hear he had already sent it. Half an hour later, however, there was a message for me that he’d already sent it, actually, but would retype it tonight. Fuming, I burst into Susan’s office. “He’s done it again!” I cried. “He says he already sent it, and I’m so sick of this every time, so sick of all the lies, lies, lies!” At which she said the most wonderful five words of my working life: “Tell him you got it.”

In a million years, I would never have come up with this solution by myself. I sent him a fax, saying: “Sorry, Geoffrey, you were right, I found it on my desk! Great piece. Well done.” And it felt absolutely fantastic.

Next week: David Quantick

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle