Woman Wanted: Must Be Ornamental And Under Thirty

The Arts

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

10 comments on “Woman Wanted: Must Be Ornamental And Under Thirty”

  1. Jackie Hayles says:

    “The Girl Before”, like “The Girl on the Train” is another massive seller – mainly to women. The girls are all similarly flawed and vulnerable, and there is a blurring between them, so that afterwards they are hard to imagine as characters with individual features. It hadn’t occurred to me what is wrong with both novels and why they fail to satisfy or stay in the mind. The genre almost glorifies victim status, although they are admittedly page-turners.

  2. Tim Beaton says:

    Not sure how relevant this is, but i find it interesting the in the (what is now called) Scandi Noir movement, at least as far as television programmes go, we have had several of the most memorable women in fiction, The Killing (Forbrydelsen), The Bridge and even Borgen (which probably missed out on the soubriquet, “Noir” but who cares!) gave us three complex and compelling women, who were the central characters. Not to mention the fantastic Lisbeth Salander character, who is where the main action of the story is centred.
    So… is it that we need more female writers in the literary world? Strange, because women writers are traditionally well represented in the world of crime fiction. Maybe Bryant and May need a strong female character (Meera notwithstanding!) to join (or Shock! Horror! Replace one of them should the Grim Reaper finally call…) They are getting older by the day…as are we all. Dunno what we do. Maybe we all need to be more selective in the books we buy?

  3. Steveb says:

    Am I allowed to recommend Helen McCloy as a forgotten golden age writer?

  4. Brooke says:

    Helen McCloy–forgotten no longer. ebooks available.
    No bad plotting. But once again a male character as protagonist.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    What about “I See You” where a vulnerable woman is determined to get to the bottom of what the police consider to be mere happenstance. She falls apart occasionally and is patronised by everyone but she sticks with it right to the startling end. I found that book disturbing because it seemed to be something that anyone could actually do. I also liked the organised way she set about finding what was going on.

  6. admin says:

    Good suggestions, but being republished as e-books is no guarantee of readership!

  7. Tim Beaton says:

    It is also nice to see that some writers at least will base books around female characters.. Chris Brookmyre’s Jasmine Sharpe trilogy comes to mind. In fact the two main characters, Jasmine, and Catherine McCleod are both believable women. That it was written by a man is largely irrelevant. Any other writers, male or female who do this? Any recommendations?

  8. Ian Luck says:

    A lot, and I mean a lot of the ‘Women in Peril’ covers of pulp crime, fantasy, and science fiction magazines of the 1920’s, and 30’s, were drawn, beautifully, and I have to say that, because it’s true, by a lady called Margaret Brundage. Pre Hays Code, pretty much anything went, and there were a lot of pale, completely naked blondes being tied to altars (more often than not, by other, darker, naked women) or menaced by ‘Johnny Foreigner’, or being dragged out of collapsing temples by some square-jawed Steve or other. To modern eyes, they are surprisingly racy, but ultimately rather odd. What H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Frank Belknap Long, and Clark Ashton Smith thought of them, god only knows.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    Look at all those S bends in the cover of “…Spike Heeled Shoes” the girl and then echoed by the man next to her. Great design and bright red, too. Why were they always wearing what I thought of then as evening wear – all those spaghetti straps and plunging necklines?”

  10. Ian Luck says:

    A good selection of Margaret Brundage’s work can be found on Pinterest, if you are interested.

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