Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Why can't I talk about women in crime literature without being an 'angry feminist'?

Why are women presented in such undesirable ways in violent/crime/thriller literature? 

And why am I allegedly a massive, righteous feminist for asking this question? 

For anyone reading this who doesn’t know me particularly well, my research focus for my PhD is a critical discussion of how the female gender is employed and manipulated in violent literature. For anyone reading this who doesn’t follow me on Twitter (and therefore doesn’t receive my weekly updates on what book I’m reading at the moment), I’ve recently finished Philip Kerr’s A Philosophical Investigation, and in a lot of ways, it was a good book. The novel is focussed around an alternative future (or at least, it was the future at Kerr’s time of writing; if memory serves right the setting is actually 2013), in which a Lombroso-inspired programme has been set up to identify men who are predisposed to violence - this is all done in the name of avoiding future ‘gynocide’ (the murder of females).  

The concept intrigued me. It raised interesting questions about fictional serial killers, and it also raised interesting questions about philosophy, self-fulfilling prophecies, and a lot of other ideas that I wasn’t truly expecting. Unfortunately, there were one or two other things that I wasn’t expecting either…

For one, I wasn’t expecting a live sex show during which the female on stage inserted a Champagne bottle into her rectum. 

Did that sentence make you cringe? Imagine reading a few paragraphs of that description instead. 

I didn’t, and still don’t, understand the relevance of this particular scene. Nor do I understand why the sirens of a Police car screamed like sex-mad construction workers (it’s a brilliant description but sex, again, really? I bought this book for murder), or why the first-person serial killer narrative scattered throughout the book has to include moments when he virtually violates the female detective working on his case. However, what I really don’t understand is why when the book slips back into the close third-person narrative for the female detective, the narrative voice actually acknowledges how vile the above sex show is. There is - don’t quote me word for word - a comment made about how the detective can’t believe what some men are aroused by, and indeed what some men will sit through. 

So I think what really bugs me here is that, not only is the scene disgusting, base, and mostly unnecessary as far as I can see, the overarching narrative voice actually agrees with the above assessment. 

So why is it even there?

Why does the serial killer virtually violate the female detective?

Why does the serial killer doctor pornographic images of her, and then post them to her?

Why does she have to hide these images from her male colleagues due to embarrassment?

An idea that has been raised a lot - in these early and tentative days of my research, might I add - is that, in our growing demands for gender equality in fiction (or in my case, my growing demand for gender equality in crime fiction), what we’ve actually landed ourselves with is an awful lot of female detectives, which is fine in one way but frustrating in others. Generally speaking, I’m beginning to feel a bit like we either have these really strong, overtly-dominant women who are over-compensating for their gender, or we have these good-at-their-job women who surrounding characters judge as being a good detective, for a woman. 

Okay so this might be something resembling a righteous, anger, feminist riff, but I think that’s allowed. In some respects we are miles ahead of where we all thought we’d be when it comes to women both inside and outside of books, and in other respects - crime fiction is probably a prime example of this, actually - I just feel like we’re miles behind where we could possibly be. Even when someone does break the mould slightly and don a violent female in their work, look at the reasons why these women are violent and you’ll find that typically it’s because of something that their husbands or fathers have done. Unlike violent men who are allowed to commit acts of violence due to their base, biological need to destroy things… apparently.

(PS: if you have examples of violent females in literature, leave me a little note in the comments or even drop me a tweet because I’d love to read more of these!)

I suppose ultimately this is a small rant stirred by the sex show present in Kerr’s publication. It frustrated me that in amongst world-class philosophers, amateur psychology, and the much-loved first-person narrative of a serial killer, Kerr still felt the need to include the occasional debasement of women as well. Perhaps a 1992 reading audience would have been accepting of this, but as a 2015 woman reading the novel, all I really felt was disappointment. 

(And if that makes me an angry feminist, then I’m okay with that.)

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