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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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Is this the beginning of the end for Northern Ireland’s abortion ban?

A High Court ruling has found it to be “incompatible with human rights law”.

A High Court judge has today ruled that Northern Ireland’s ban on abortion constitutes a breach of human rights. Belfast High Court Judge Justice Horner has said that the province cannot justify its continued ban, which refuses terminations in all circumstances unless a woman’s life is in danger, proclaiming it “incompatible with human rights law”.

The Court has recommended that exemptions to the ban be allowed for women who have conceived as a result of rape or incest, as well as women carrying foetuses with such severe abnormalities or disabilities that they will not survive outside the womb.

As it stands, the most recent legislation on abortion relating to the province is the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, passed under Queen Victoria. Unlike the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland was exempt from the 1967 Abortion Act which legalised terminations for women in England, Scotland and Wales. 

At least 1,000 women travel from Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK to have abortions every year. The judge ruled that it was inconsistent for Northern Irish women to be denied abortions locally but for the law to permit the same women to travel to access services. He said: “If it is morally wrong to abort a foetus in Northern Ireland, it is just as wrong morally to abort the same foetus in England. It does not protect morals to export the problem to another jurisdiction and then turn a blind eye.”

Rather, Justice Horner said that forcing women to go abroad caused women to suffer undue emotional distress and financial hardship, without in any way reducing the number of pregnancies or abortions undertaken by local women: “There is no evidence before this Court, and the Court has in no way attempted to restrict the evidence adduced by any party, that the law in Northern Ireland has resulted in any reduction in the number of abortions obtained by Northern Irish women. Undoubtedly, it will have placed these women who had to have their abortions in England under greater stress, both financial and emotional, by forcing them to have the termination carried out away from home.” 

He noted that travelling abroad was only realistically an option for wealthy women as the entire process can cost up to £2,000, whilst the poorest women were forced to continue pregnancies: “That smacks of one law for the rich and one law for the poor.”

Finally regarding victims of sexual crimes such as rape and incest, the judge ruled: “She [a victim] has to face all the dangers and problems, emotional or otherwise, of carrying a foetus for which she bears no moral responsibility and is merely a receptacle to carry the child of a rapist and/or a person who has committed incest, or both... The law makes no attempt to balance the rights of the women that are involved.” 

The pronouncement has shocked many in Northern Ireland, where religious communities remain strong. Undoubtedly there will be backlash amongst churches and anti-abortion campaign groups. Attorney General John Larkin is outspoken in his opposition to abortion and has previously described the procedure as akin to shooting a baby. Speaking this morning in response to the ruling, he said he was “profoundly disappointed” and is considering appealing the decision. 

A spokesperson for Amnesty International, who have backed the court case, said that the campaign group are awaiting clarification as to whether new legislation would need to be passed by Stormont to incorporate today’s ruling, or if the ruling alone will be enough to legalise terminations for rape victims, incest victims and severe disability. Stormont remains vehemently opposed to abortion on demand, with Sinn Fein stating that abortion in some circumstances is acceptable. If today’s High Court ruling alone is not enough to affect local laws, it is highly unlikely that Stormont will act on the decision. 

Yet, the High Court’s clear message today cannot be ignored. When Stormont most likely refuses to enact it over the coming months, then the House of Commons might find themselves with an ethical obligation to intervene. Westminster has long refused to get involved in the debate, citing the principle of devolution that Northern Ireland gets to have the ultimate say over its own laws. However, as of today, human rights abuses are officially being committed against British citizens through the Northern Irish abortion ban, which would make for a legally compelling case for Westminster intervention.