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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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Leadership contests can be a gory affair – so I was glad to provide some comic relief for Labour

My week, from performing at the Edinburgh Fringe, the Brexit satire boom and the return of the Pink Bus.

I have a lot to thank the New Statesman diary for. My rather tragic musings in this column about life as a former special adviser, going from hero to zero and watching Daily Politics in my pants, seemed to provoke great amusement. So much so, that I decided to write a show about the whole thing: my time in the Labour Party, where it all went wrong, and wondering how a hardcore feminist ended up touring the country in a bonkers pink bus. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you my stand-up comedy show, Tales from the Pink Bus.

I was nervous about performing at the ­Edinburgh Fringe – it was more than ten years since I’d been there as a stand-up. You’re competing against household names and the crowds are very discerning. I opened my set by admitting that I hadn’t done any comedy for a long time, but I’d been advising the Labour Party for the past decade. For some reason, that got a massive laugh.

Memory deficit

I was also anxious about how I would remember my material for the whole show. Fifty minutes is a long time without notes. I’m haunted by the memory of my old boss Ed Miliband, forgetting a section of his final party conference speech after trying to do the whole thing from memory. The bit he missed out was on the deficit. I didn’t want people to miss my deficit material. I’m not going to lie – there’s a lot of it. I’m trying to cut it down but it’s been a struggle. Who knew. 

Thankfully, all my shows went really well, largely thanks to the brilliant team at Funny Women and the Gilded Balloon who made it all happen. I had lovely audiences and decent reviews, and sold out every night like the big fat Red Tory/New Labour Blairite that I am. (I’m here all week.)

Therapy party

A lot of friends and family came to support me. I was so paranoid about no one coming that I made all my family buy tickets, including my cousin, who came all the way from India. Speaking of family, it was also great to get support from so many Scottish Labour folk. Kezia Dugdale, Alistair Darling, Margaret Curran, Ian Murray, Dame Joan Ruddock, plus loads of party staffers, were all there to cheer me on. It was like a Labour safe space.

I was worried that it would all be a wee bit too close to the bone, but as one of them said to me afterwards in the bar: “Christ . . . it was a relief to laugh about things instead of crying. You’ve just saved us a fortune on group therapy.”

Stand-up fight

It wasn’t all good times, though. I watched the Labour leadership hustings on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme. It occurred to me that any comedian performing in Edinburgh would feel great empathy for Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith. There are endless gigs, hard-to-please crowds, brutal reviews, you miss your loved ones back home – and by this point even they are bored by their own material.

The hustings continue to be a gory and vulgar display of a party self-harming. Each side is taking lumps out of the other, with very little discussion about policies or making things happen. Corbyn showed once again that he’s still hugely popular with the members. Smith showed he’s a strong performer who cares about how we can win again – but power doesn’t seem to matter to us any more. I jump in a cab and ask the driver what he makes of it all. He tells me he really likes that Corbyn chap because he doesn’t live in a fancy house, doesn’t claim any expenses and takes public transport. “Will you vote for him?” I ask. “Dinnae be daft, love,” comes the reply.

Sharp takes on our times

Politics was rife at this year’s Edinburgh Festival. Everyone was talking Brexit. I chaired a panel on satire and the message was clear. The nation wants to talk about politics, but not in the arid way that we see every day on the news. The audience was crying out for sharp political satire to help us make sense of things and hold politicians to account in a ruthless, truthful way. A group of American students told us their generation was energised and educated by political satire such as The Daily Show. In these tumultuous times, there’s only one thing for it – bring back Spitting Image. I also appeared on another panel on satire with Rory Bremner and Ricky Gervais for Radio 4’s Front Row. I can see David Brent’s next adventure already: running for parliament.

Syrian voices

One of the most critically acclaimed pieces of theatre at the festival this year is ­Angel, written by Henry Naylor. It’s a nail-biting story set in Syria, about a young girl who ends up becoming a Kurdish freedom fighter and killing a hundred Isis men: when a woman kills them they don’t get to paradise and get the virgins.

The lead performance by Filipa Bragança is stunning and you leave feeling floored, as if you’ve watched a cinematic epic rather than one woman amid the bones of a sparse set on stage. It’s a harrowing reminder of the war in Syria and how we have forgotten about it. Angel should be performed in parliament and every MP should see it. It makes our politics seem very small.

No exit from politics

I finally get a holiday and arrive in Rhodes. I need solitude, and most of all a break from politics. I’ve done my time. After a day of relaxing and trying not to look at Twitter, I start to feel the tension ebb away. I’m at the secluded restaurant and suddenly all I hear is: “All right, mate? Fancy seeing you here!”

I turn around and there are Roy and Alicia Kennedy – the Posh and Becks of Labour. Roy is a key Lords frontbencher and Alicia is Tom Watson’s chief of staff. As I waddled off after the breakfast buffet this morning, I  heard them call, “Remember to vote, Ayesha – ballots have dropped.”

No rest for the wicked. 

“Tales from the Pink Bus” is in London on 31 August. For tickets or further information, visit: funnywomen.com 

Ayesha Hazarika is a former special adviser to Harriet Harman

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser