Woman Wanted: Must Be Ornamental And Under Thirty
We’ve come a long way since James Bond slapped a girl on the bottom and told her to fetch him lunch.
Watching old Hollywood films yesterday, it was shocking to note how many of them gave no dialogue lines to women but simply dumped them from the plot once they’d taken a shower and walked about provocatively in a bikini. Black males were pimps or thieves, and black women were invisible.
In many crime novels the lesson still hasn’t been learned.
I don’t want to read any more plots which involved female sex workers being murdered or women being held prisoner. Most real-life murders involve males knifing other males in arguments over territory. We’re still obsessed with making women victims.
It wasn’t always this way. In older crime novels, the women were often in the driving seat. If they were bad they were femmes fatales, and if they were good they were taking revenge on bullying men. Stronger female characters appeared as soon as women started working. I can’t remember a time when my mother didn’t have two jobs, and she loved reading about women who took charge of their own lives, even if their victories were small.
While I was seeking out writers for ‘The Book of Forgotten Authors’ I found a typical pulp paperback with the kind of cover you needed to pick up: a tough blonde in a red skirt and slip, pointing a gun, dragging a guy along with her as a hostage. The caption read: ‘She had the face of a madonna and a heart made of dollar bills!’ They were assertive and gutsy, and knew how to get what they wanted.
It was an image that didn’t last. Women in the 1950s were treated like Victorian wives, those delicate creatures who kept fainting away whenever they were confronted with bad news. The habit of classifying women into ages – the innocent maiden, the middle-aged spinster, the mad old harridan – was typified by W. S. Gilbert, with the creation of Mad Margaret in Ruddigore, but it had always been lurking somewhere in the male psyche.
The female crime writers of the 1950s were merely reflecting the conservative times in their fiction, when women we would now consider still young could be written off as neurotic lonely spinsters. Often their heroines had physical or mental fragilities, and their sell-by date appeared to be around thirty.
The idea of hysterical fantasies being a female weakness (‘hysteria’ comes from the Greek hysterikos, meaning ‘of the womb’) had been present from the time when fainting fits were blamed on everything from tight corsets to a reliance on laudanum. ‘Highly strung’ women were watched for signs of insanity that would get them locked away in asylums. They would be visited by male doctors who would warn them that they were suffering from nerves and needed to get some rest. In these novels the family doctor would only discuss the female patient’s problem with her husband, and in bizarrely non-specific terms. ‘She’s a bit weepy, brooding over not having children,’ says one such doctor.
I unearthed a large number of overlooked female writers for ‘The Book of Forgotten Authors’ because many, like Margaret Millar, are brilliant and should not be forgotten, but also because they’re now on the cusp of popularity once more and are coming back into print.
More women are buying crime novels than men, and you would think the idea of the pathetic female victim would have been finally laid to rest. Instead we get books with ‘girl’ in the title that reduce women to the status of teenagers once more. Paula Hawkins’ heroine is an unreliable self-obsessed drunk who is basically interchangeable with any other woman in the book. But in Jane Harper’s award-winning ‘The Dry’, a marvellously evocative thriller set in the parched outback, women and men are equally rounded characters. Interestingly, she has still made her main character male because the setting calls for it.
And in the Irish writer Martin McDonagh’s superb new film ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’, we have one of the strongest female protagonists I’ve ever seen on screen. Not the fake feminist Wonder Woman, who struts about in fetish gear, but a Mother Courage figure who hires three billboards to point a finger of blame at the police department that failed to find her daughter’s killer. Frances McDormand actually manages to top her performance in ‘Fargo’ playing a force of nature who realises that she must soften her attitude to get what she wants.
If things can change in Hollywood, why can’t they chance in crime novels?