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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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Northern Ireland's political crisis ups the stakes for Theresa May

Unionism may be in greater immediate danger in Belfast than Edinburgh.

 Sinn Féin have announced that they will not put forward a candidate for deputy first minister, and barring a miracle, that means today's 4pm deadline for a new power-sharing executive will come and go. What next for Northern Ireland?

While another election is possible, it's not particularly likely. Although another contest might change the political composition at Stormont a little, when the dust settles, once again, the problem will be that the DUP and Sinn Féin are unable to agree terms to resume power-sharing.

That means a decade of devolved rule is ending and direct rule from Westminster is once again upon us. Who benefits? As Patrick explains in greater detail, a period of direct rule might be good news for Sinn Féin, who can go into the next set of elections in  the Republic of Ireland on an anti-austerity platform without the distracting matter of the austerity they are signing off in the North. The change at the top also allows that party to accelerate its move away from the hard men of the north and towards a leadership that is more palatable in the south..

Despite that, the DUP aren't as worried as you might expect. For one thing, a period of devolved rule, when the government at Westminster has a small majority isn't without upside for the DUP, who will continue to exert considerable leverage over May.

But the second factor is a belief that in the last election, Arlene Foster, their leader, flopped on the campaign trail with what was widely derided as a "fear" message about the consequences of the snap election instead of taking responsibility for involvement in the "cash for ash" scandal. That when the votes were cast, the Unionist majority at Stormont was wiped out means that message will have greater resonance next time than it did last time, or at least, that's how the theory runs.

Who's right? Who knows. But for Theresa May, it further ups the stakes for a good Brexit deal, particularly as far as the Irish border is concerned. A lot of the focus - including the PM's - is on her trip to Scotland and the stresses on that part of the Union. It may be that Unionism is in greater immediate danger in Belfast than Edinburgh.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.