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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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Commons Confidential: Hilary’s last laugh

 Benn was born into and loves the Labour Party. His was a cry of frustration. Either he enjoys the last laugh or the lachrymose coup fails.

Observing a careworn Jeremy Corbyn, you may see in his lined face his sadness about his neglected allotment in Finchley, north London, as he imagines weeds sprouting in untilled beds and aphids multiplying, untroubled by organic pesticides. If you do, you would be wrong. Corbyn is keeping his fingers green even as militant moderates plot to snatch the Labour leadership from his weakening grasp and consign Jexit to the compost heap of history.

Broad beans are this year’s bumper crop and already on the table chez Corbyn. “I planted them in October and they’re very resistant to frost,” he proudly tells visitors. “There must be ten to 20 bags’ worth left to pick.” Either Corbyn is in denial, or he was full of beans as the shadow cabinet uprooted itself.

Cider, wellies and silent discos will henceforth always evoke resignations for Tom Watson. Labour’s deputy leader was throwing shapes at Glastonbury as the Labour balloon went up. Think of Peter Mannion standing on a children’s slide for a mobile-phone signal at Stewart Pearson’s Thought Camp in The Thick of It. Watson was scheduled to replace Corbyn in the Left Field chatterati tent.

Dodging paparazzi to head back to London in his shorts, Watson confided to comrades that this episode confirmed to him that politics is a grubby business. His first act was to shower, following a weekend without washing, before trying to clear up the Labour Party’s mess.

The mass walkout from Corbyn’s top team, triggered by Hilary Benn’s sacking, was revenge for the now former shadow foreign secretary. I can reveal that Benn was reduced to tears during last year’s long reshuffle, after Jezza’s apparatchik Seumas Milne demanded guaranteed opposition to military action in Libya. Benn was born into and loves the Labour Party. His was a cry of frustration. Either he enjoys the last laugh or the lachrymose coup fails.

More tales of the wannabe prime minister Boris Johnson’s unappetising behaviour in TV make-up rooms. An artist with the blusher complained that he grabbed, uninvited, one of two cakes that she had been given as a birthday gift. He stuffed it whole into his mouth. When she finished applying the cosmetics, he snaffled the second. The Blond Ambition displayed a similar self-entitlement in championing Brexit to pursue his premiership dream.

For weirdos, every tragedy is an opportunity. Following the assassination of Jo Cox, another female Yorkshire MP received an official-looking letter purportedly from a “security consultant”, with parliamentary and Special Branch clearance, offering to review her safety. A little alarm bell sounded. He was unmasked as a Walter Mitty. The visit of two burly coppers caused him an involuntary bowel movement.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies