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The Portrayal of Women in Detective Novels (a guest post by Dana King)

The Portrayal of Women in Detective Novels (a guest post by Dana King)

Hello beautiful people,

Let me introduce you to Dana King, author of the Nick Forte novels. I will be reviewing Mr. King's latest novel Bad Samaritan, a book which addresses violence against women for principal theme. He wrote to go along a piece about the portrayal of women in detective novels from a historical perspective. That interests me, because I want YOUR opinion on it.

If you think a male opinion on the portrayal of women in typically male-centric fiction misses the point, I see where you're coming from.  I'd argue that you have to know how men working on the issue perceive the said issue in order to engage dialogue and Mr. King courageously lays it on the line here. I want to hear your thoughts, especially if you're a women reader/writer/publishing professional, etc. 

Don’t let my name fool you. I’m six feet, one inch (1.85 m) and 240 pounds (109 kg) with a mustache somewhere between Wilford Brimley and Mark Twain. (The Beloved Spouse was hoping for Sam Elliott. Sucks to be her.) What business do I have writing about the treatment of women in detective fiction?

I confess to being somewhat late to this party. My mother was a strong woman (still is at 91), as were both my grandmothers and my godmother. I was never taught to think of women as the “weaker sex,” nor could I imagine anything might come up that the women who formed my personality couldn’t handle. As I came of age and became physically attracted to women I knew there were guys who treated them badly, but it didn’t occur to me that it went any farther than lying and cheating. I grew up in a small town with the small town boy’s belief that the really bad things we saw on TV or read about were big city stuff, or fiction. I don’t remember ever hearing of a rape or sexual assault through high school, though that was 45 years ago and a lot of things that should have been reported weren’t.

In college several friends and I did what we could to escort our female friends home at night. Obviously we were aware there were men “out there” who might mean our friends harm, but at a somewhat abstract level. Having transferred many of the strengths of my female relatives onto my friends, I saw my role as a security blanket, though I was at least aware there were reasons they might need one.

That changed when my daughter was born and I realized at a visceral level that I’d been mistaken about a lot of things. I became aware of my size and how I could be viewed as a threat just because of it. I finally considered the myriad of real threats women face—physical, psychological, emotional, and financial—from men at all strata. I learned men were not just some abstract concern and that women had cause to view men as an adversary, society’s apex predator.

Let’s define the limits of today’s discussion. I write and read hard-boiled detective stories, so that’s what I’m talking about here. No disrespect to the long and venerable tradition of the classic detective puzzles and their authors, but that’s outside my wheelhouse. Today we’re talking about the tradition established in the pulps from about the time of Carroll John Daly and Dashiell Hammett on.

Things have changed a lot since then. There are far more female protagonists who are far more diverse in their approach to working cases. Many more outstanding female writers get published and noticed. Neither is today’s topic.

What I want to talk about is the treatment and depiction of characters other than the protagonist. Peers and friends. Romantic partners. Women who merely pass through the story, such as the secretary in an office or the waitress who brings coffee. How has their treatment changed over the years? Has it changed at all? If so, has it been for the better?

Back in the day there were about four-and-a-half types of female characters:

Objects. Generally sex objects, but basically women used as set dressing. They were there to give the men something to react to. Full disclosure: In my new book, Bad Samaritan, one would not be unreasonable to charge that Lily O’Donoghue is presented as an object. I plead nolo contendere, with an explanation: Lily presents herself that way for reasons of her own, and those reasons have reasons of their own.

Victims. Lots of victims. Take away female victims and 75% of the genre disappears. Too many writers take the cheap and easy way out and build suspense by placing a weaker character in thrall to someone physically stronger, and they don’t dare do it with a child. Sure, women are victimized like this in real life—that’s what much of this post is about—but it’s the lazy way to ratchet up tension. If a woman is going to be the designated victim, how about we don’t have her killed or threatened solely because she’s a woman

Sirens. The women who lead men to their demise using their dicks as leashes.

Mice and shrews, usually wives or girlfriends. They take whatever comes their way without a word, or they nag about it incessantly. Either way, though, they take it.

These were the default positions into the 60s or 70s, when social consciousness and the feminist movement said, “Enough of this shit.” Women started to fill non-traditional roles. They could be cops, bosses, real people. Many types were tried, some more successful than others. Some were so “successful” they became almost as hackneyed as what they purported to replace. Christopher Rice did a nice job of describing several that morphed into stereotypes that have outlived their usefulness in a piece for The Daily Beast:

The cop’s wife who just doesn’t get it. In Rice’s words, “She is, apparently, the only woman on all of planet Earth who never saw a movie or TV show about how hard it is to be married to a cop.” She is the successor to the mice and shrews described above.

The babe assassin. Rice, again: “She is svelte and cat-like. She looks like a supermodel, but she can crack a man's neck between her thighs. She's the femme-fatale on steroids.”

The Ice Queen bureaucrat. See “Objects” above but leave out the sex. She exists to obstruct the hero, pulling out a regulation just as he’s about to close the case.

The token lesbian cop. This passes as diversity. Once she’s established as a lesbian she can act just like a male cop, including sleeping with various women. Especially sleeping with various women.

In fairness, any of the above can work well so long as authors treat them as archetypes and not stereotypes. The problem is that they’re still not thought of as people first; there’s a role to be filled and we’re getting a lot of shit about always using women in the same way, so let’s make this one an ice queen cock block who’s also a hot lesbian assassin when off duty because she was married to a cop and hated it. True, there is more diversity, but too many subordinate female characters fall into one of Rice’s four categories, or, even worse, those cited closer to the top of this page. And we’re almost a hundred years from the advent of the genre.

What can be done about this? Publishing and promoting more woman authors would help—and it has—but that can only take us so far. Publishers aren’t in business to right wrongs. They exist to make money, especially in this day of conglomerate ownership. They need to feel warm and fuzzy about the book’s sales potential far more than its moral posture. They’d be lined up around the block to buy the rights if they thought there was a strong market for such books.

Now we’re to the crux of the issue: why don’t these books sell? (At least not in the blockbuster numbers publishers look for now that the concept of the mid-list has evaporated like steam in the wind.) The answer is deceptively simple. Despite what we hear from those who believe violent video games cause school shootings or that sexual situations in popular entertainment promote teen pregnancy, the sad truth is that culture does not shape society; it reflects it. Always has. Always will.

We can lament the mistreatment of women in literature—and life—all we want and it’s not going away until a preponderance of society decides to treat women as equals. Not just say women should be treated as equals. Actually do it. And not just treat them as equals. See them as equal. For a man to say he “treats” women as equal is for him to continue to place women in the subordinate position; he gets to choose how he interacts with them. Only when women are accepted as equal will this get better.

If it’s situationally appropriate to address a man as “sir,” then a woman is “ma’am” without having to think about it. If a woman attains a high position, the assumption must be that she earned it through her own work and skills, not that she slept her way into it. Not to judge a woman by how well she displays male characteristics, but by how well she does whatever it is she’s doing, and if she does it better then you, shake her hand and congratulate her as you would a man. If a woman asks for consideration to take care of a family matter, the issue is not that she doesn’t take her job seriously enough, it’s more likely that the men she’s being compared to don’t take their families seriously enough.

Well-intentioned organizations can create literary prizes to celebrate books that have no violence toward women all they want and it’s not going to help. It’s nice that the award promotes books for people who might legitimately need trigger warnings but no problem has ever been resolved by pretending it isn’t there.

I finished what might be my fifth viewing of all five seasons of The Wire while working on this piece. Few examples of popular art have done what David Simon set out to do with such unapologetic honesty. Anyone who watched all sixty episodes and didn’t come away at least wanting to understand how things got so bad in Baltimore, and what options the residents have for coping, isn’t worth talking about, or to. Yet nothing material changed. People study The Wire for college credit, but Baltimore still has the second-highest murder rate in the country. That’s not the fault of the creators. Their job was to be the mirror. It was up to the rest of us to look into it and see what could be different. The fact that so little has changed is an indictment of us all.

So it is and will be for the treatment of women in crime fiction. I hope no one is disappointed I didn’t have any answers for you. I’m still trying to figure out the right questions.

Dana King has two Shamus Award nominations for his Nick Forte series. (A Small Sacrifice and The Man in the Window.) The fifth Forte book, Bad Samaritan, dropped in January from Down & Out Books. He also writes the Penns River series, of which Resurrection Mall is the most recent.

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