One Bite at a Time




Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Female Protagonists

Christa Faust recently linked her blog to an article she wrote for Los Angeles Magazine on the fetishization of beautiful female victims. (It’s well worth your time; I’ll wait until you finish.)

I don’t read as much crime fiction by women, or with female protagonists, as I might, or probably should. This has gotten better over the past couple of years, but not greatly so. I have my reasons:

Female protagonists are too often men with breasts and no Adam’s apples. They’re young, sexy, and kick ass. I have nothing against young, sexy, kickass women in principle, but they’re not exactly falling out of trees. (Neither are young, sexy, kickass men, either, but the genre isn’t afraid to have middle-aged, dumpy male heroes.) What’s the point of replacing one stereotype with another, even less realistic?

Female protagonists too often depend on men (or divine intervention) to solve their cases or save their asses. Stephanie Plum comes to mind. You can think of others without me.

Stories with female protagonists are too often cozies in hard-boiled clothing. A lot of people like cozies; generally, I don’t. Whether you do or don’t, a cozy masquerading as hard-boiled is either awkward or comes off as a parody, and parody is harder to pull off than it looks.

Authors—male and female—too often seem uncomfortable with a heroine’s, uh, personal life. How sexually aggressive, or even sexually active, should she be? Will she seem like a bitch if she’s Type A, or a pushover if she’s not? Awkwardness by the writer in this area can easily ruin a book. (Awkwardness in this area by the character can make a book. Many people have this issue, and I suspect women in traditionally male positions probably more than most.)

I’ve come across three female authors who handle all of the above well: Sara Paretzky, Libby Fischer Hellmann, and Christa Faust. (There are, I know, many more. I just haven’t got to them yet.) Christa’s Angel Dare in Money Shot could be a seminal character. (No pun intended.) It’s good to hear Christa has finished the sequel. Having gone that far, Christa is now looking at another breakthrough:

Would it be possible to create a female version of Bucky Bleichert, the obsessed detective in Ellroy’s Black Dahlia? Would a traditionally feminine woman ever fall for a murdered man? Would she moon over his handsome photo, promising his image that she would bring his killer to justice? Or is there something so inherently masculine about the archetype of the white knight avenging the dead maiden that its opposite just doesn’t work?

There’s some hard-wiring to be overcome. Men are the traditional hunters/protectors and women are the traditional gatherers/nurturers. We also know those are not hard and fast rules, especially not in the 21st Century where familial roles are often reversed and single parents are not uncommon. Why wouldn’t some of these characteristics bleed over into the other gender in a realistic way?

Why can’t a woman go “down these mean streets…who is not [her]self mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid?” The situations she could reasonably get herself out of might not get as dire as what a man might be expected to handle, but such a woman would have to be smart and resourceful enough to recognize them and plan exit strategies. She need be neither a nymphomaniac nor frigid; she’s more likely to handle a .32 than a .44, but the smaller gun is just as deadly if used expertly. She may prefer cooking over sports, or not; I know women of both persuasions, and neither precludes the smarts and toughness needed to carry such a story.

Personally, I’d love to read a book like the one Christa describes, so long as it’s not done as a novelty. (And she certainly wouldn’t do it that way.) Such a book might open the gates for a lot of writers. If Spenser can be so overtly masculine while loving to cook, why can’t a woman be solidly feminine and like to build cabinets?

There are two potential hurdles to be overcome. One is whether a woman such as we’re talking about could be reasonably written. I suspect so, but not by me. Part of that is, frankly, because I’m a man. I can relate to the “Laura” scenario; I have no idea if a woman would be so inclined to fall prey to a “Lawrence” obsession. There are a lot of excellent writers who don’t have that problem.

The second, and, I suspect, greater problem is how the public would take to it. We all know best-sellers aren’t created by challenging people’s notions. James Patterson didn’t get to be James Patterson by trying to expand his readers’ horizons. Even Lee Child, whose writing I like, gives pretty much the same Reacher conventions book after book. There may be a glass ceiling here of “cult phenomenon.” Nothing wrong with that. Hell, compared to what makes a best seller, much of what anyone who sees this might read probably qualifies as a cult book.

What such a book might best do is start a discussion. A sub-genre might spring up. A lot of those books would be shit—most of anything is shit—but good examples would grow like mushrooms through it. Enough of this and the female characters who support traditional male heroes might eventually become more diversified and multi-dimensional in a realistic way. There’s no down side to any of that.

I hope she follows through and finds a publisher. She’ll sell at least one copy.

2 comments:

Charlieopera said...

Anthony Niel Smith (or Neil Anthony Smith) wrote a terrific book about a limbless badass woman (psychosomatic). She seduced me and I was convinced she'd seduced the guy she had running in circles for her.

It was a terrific read on many levels.

I read the Faust article, but I'd already read what their discussing over at Ed Gorman's blog (kindle stuff). Unfortunately, it is a quickly shrinking business (it seems). I'd sure welcome what Faust and Megan Abbott discussed (an obsessed woman pulling a black dahlia on a man). It sure would be interesting and it probably would require writers with their resumes to break the mold.

Dana King said...

I think you're right: it will take someone with the reputation of a Christa Faust or Megan Abbott to get a book like this past the publisher's marketing department. I've not read Abbott yet, though BURY ME DEEP is on my list; form what I hear, she's the goods. I have read some Christa Faust, and she could pull it off.