Oh, and She Never Gives Out and She Never Gives In*

ViolenceAgainstWomenA fascinating discussion at Mrs. Peabody Investigates (A blog you really need to follow if you’re a fan of crime fiction) has got me thinking about two trends in crime fiction. One of them (and this is what was discussed at the blog) is the increase in depictions of extreme violence against women in some crime fiction. I’ll get back to that shortly. The other trend is the increase we’ve seen in the last few decades of strong female protagonists. I’m most emphatically not saying the two trends are necessarily related. I find that duality really interesting though.

Of course, there’ve been crime novels that depict violence against women for quite some time. For instance, Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, published in 1952, is the story of Central City, Texas deputy sheriff Lou Ford. Everyone thinks of Ford as a nice, competent lawman, even if he isn’t exactly an exciting person. Then a local prostitute Joyce Lakeland is brutally beaten. Then there’s a murder. As the investigation into these events goes along, it becomes increasingly clear that Ford is not the person everyone thinks he is. In fact, he’s battling with something he calls ‘the sickness.’ While this novel is not as extreme as some of today’s novels, it certainly is uncompromising.

So is Mickey Spillane’s treatment of women. In several of his Mike Hammer novels, women are the victims of all sorts of abuse. And in this ‘hardboiled’ category of noir crime fiction, that violence is not glossed over, even in Spillane’s earlier work. There are other examples too, especially among other ‘hardboiled’ novels, of plots that involve violence against women.

But what seems to be a much more common theme among today’s crime fiction novels is the deliberate targeting of female victims. I won’t – promise – list for you all of the novels in which there’s a series of brutal torture/murders of women. But if you pay attention to crime fiction, you know exactly what I mean. Those who’ve been involved in the discussion on Mrs. Peabody’s blog are right that there are many more of these kinds of plots than there used to be. And in many of those novels, the violence isn’t just extreme; it’s described in excruciating (and I mean that word) detail. I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t know what the reason is that books like this sell as well as they do. But if they didn’t sell my guess is that fewer of them would be written.

What’s interesting (or maybe it’s just my opinion) is that at the same time as we have this increase in the number of books that feature extreme violence against women, we also have the development of several very strong female protagonists. Again, there’ve been strong female characters in crime fiction for a long time. Dorothy Sayers’ Harriet Vane, Patricia Wentworth’s Maude Silver, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Ngaio Marsh’s Agatha Troy are just a few examples of Golden Age female characters. And recent decades have added to that number. From Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone to Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss to Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest, we’ve seen the number of strong female characters grow rapidly. Space doesn’t permit me to mention each one of them (I know, I know, fans of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone and of Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski).

And even in novels that feature male protagonists, the female characters have gotten stronger and more self-sufficient. Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti for instance is married to the very strong and independent Paola Falier. And Michael Connelly’s Mickey Haller was married to the formidable Maggie ‘McFierce’ McPherson, who can most definitely hold her own as a character. There are many other examples too; I’m sure you could give me more than I could ever offer to you.

It’s not just a matter of strength of character either. More and more, female characters have positions of high authority and power, too. Again, I won’t go on and on with a list of examples. Suffice it to say that in just about any sub-genre of crime fiction, there are women who are high-ranking police officers, bank presidents, well-known attorneys and so on.

And from what I read in reviews and on blogs, readers want it that way. They want female characters, whether or not they are protagonists, to be ‘fleshed out,’ to be strong, and to be interesting as people. If you look at the sales for authors such as Leon and Connelly, you know that people buy a lot of books in which women are portrayed as strong characters. What’s more, those authors don’t write a series of books in which killers target only beautiful young women and subject them to unspeakable horrors.

So why are we seeing these two simultaneous trends? I don’t know the precise reason. And it could very well be that the two trends have absolutely nothing to do with each other. I’m going out on a proverbial limb here, not being a psychologist or other expert who’s studied the role of women. One guess might be that different sorts of people buy those two different sorts of books. I don’t have access to marketing data, but I wonder whether people who buy books that feature extreme violence against women also buy books in which they play significant roles and are in fact, strong protagonists. Another guess might be that this dual trend says something about society’s view of women. That’s a complicated issue in and of itself of course. But books usually do have something to say about the society in which the authors live.

I honestly don’t have the answer, but I would love to hear your thoughts. Do you see this same dual trend? If you do, where do you think it comes from? Where do you see it going? If you’re a writer, do you think about the roles your female characters play?  Thanks, Mrs. P, for the inspiration.




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s She’s Always a Woman.


Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Dorothy Sayers, Helene Tursten, Jim Thompson, Marcia Muller, Michael Connelly, Mickey Spillane, Ngaio Marsh, Patricia Wentworth, Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton

23 responses to “Oh, and She Never Gives Out and She Never Gives In*

  1. Margot, the less I say about the extreme violence towards women found in too many of today’s novels, the happier we’ll both be. Suffice to say I won’t read that kind of garbage, I won’t review it (as some publishers have found, to their dismay); I have no use for it, period.

    On the other hand, when it comes to strong female characters – whether detectives or just characters in the plot – I think we could both name dozens of candidates. I’m glad you mentioned Harriet Vane, Miss Silver, Agatha Troy and Jane Marple, but there are so many more. You can go back even earlier to Victorian/Georgian women like Loveday Brooke and Dorcas Dene. American detective story writers have come up with wonderful female characters such as Hildy Withers, Haila Troy, Nora Charles and Emily Bryce. And certainly there are plenty of female P.I.s and police detectives today, not to mention wonderfully drawn characters like Mary Daheim’s Emma Lord, Nancy Atherton’s Lori Shepherd, and Jeanne M. Dams’s Dorothy Martin. Gives “cherchez la femme” a whole new meaning, doesn’t it?

    • Les – I couldn’t agree with you more about reading and reviewing books that focus on that kind of extreme violence. There are so good stories that I’ve not read, and so I don’t spend my time reading them either. And as for strong female characters, you’ve mentioned some I like very much but just didn’t have space in this post to mention. As you say, there’ve been solid and strong female characters in crime fiction for generations. And Those books have stood the test of time. So yes indeed, it does give cherchez la femme a whole new meaning…

  2. Skywatcher

    There are more women as the central protagonists in modern crime novels, because there are more women in positions of power in the real world. They are simply reflecting reality. The reason for the disgusting violence inflicted on women in some modern crime novels is that certain novelists think that the only way to get attention is to disgust the reader. It’s not needed, but it is easy to do, so lots of them try. Such a shame.

    • Skywatcher – It is indeed a shame, and you may be onto something here. If the author thinks that extreme violence will get readers to pay attention, that’s enough for authors. Anything to sell copies of a book. And you’ve a well-taken point that as women’s roles in modern society evolve, novels reflect that. It makes a lot of sense that we’d see more strong female protagonists.

  3. Such rich fodder for discussion, Margot. I rarely read what I call ‘stalk and slash’ thrillers. I don’t say never, because I like to keep an open mind and occasionally read outside my comfort zone. That said, I am more like to read books in that genre written by women (such as Val McDermid or Mo Hayder) than men. I can’t fathom the popularity of books involving women hating serial killers, least of all for women readers, except to think Agatha Christie was right when she suggested we might have an instinctive need that is satisfied by terror.

    What I really like to read — and to write for that matter — are books with strong female characters. Perhaps this says something about my own instinctive need, satisfied not by terror but by revenge — if not justice.

    • Angela – You know, I hadn’t thought of that comment by Agatha Christie, but there is something to be said for that. I honestly don’t know if we all have that instinctive need or not. But for those who do, I suppose a book in which there’s a horrible crazed serial killer on the loose might address that need. It’s hard for me to say in an unbiased way.
      You’ve an interesting point too – and definitely fodder for another blog post at some point – about the gender of the author. Usually gender of the author makes no difference (at least to me) so long as the book is well-written, with well-developed characters and the like. But I wonder whether ‘stalk and slash’ (I like that term) novels by women are qualitatively different to those written by men. I’ll have to think about that one. Hmmmm…..
      And I do like your insights about your own writing. I can certainly see a need for revenge, or justice or something like them satisfied by a strong female character who is not defeated by what happens in your story. You’re inviting me to think about my own writing and what it satisfies in me. Thanks – so much to think about!

  4. Margot: I am not sure if there is more graphic violence against women in contemporary fiction or against men and women. My ancedotal analysis of books, T.V. and movies is that there has been a major increase in the past 25 years of the level of violence in terms of the number of bodies and detailed descriptions. i do not know if anyone has attempted a more scientific analysis. It appears to me the decision makers of what is read and shown have concluded more and worse violence is better. The comic book movies that dominate Hollywood best illustrate the trend.

    On the impact of violence I watched the Swedish (subtitled) movie on the weekend of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest. I found the images of the rape of Lisbeth Salander more powerful on screen than in the pages of the book. In both book and movie I found that particular violence was not gratuitous.

    • Bill – You make some very well-taken points here. There is an increasing level of extreme violence in general in crime novels of the last couple of decades and not all of it is against women. And it very likely is related to what decision-makers think will sell well. For whatever reason, they think that more violence and more graphic violence is better.
      But as your example shows, not all violence is gratuitous. There are some scenes of violence, such as the rape scene you mention, that are important parts of a plot. When that’s the case, and when the violence is not overly drawn-out, it makes sense to have it in a story. I think one can do that, too, without reaching the extreme level that we’re seeing these days.

  5. “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” was the first thing to come to mind. Strong, unusual title character–who is also a victim of violent crime. I’d say there’s definitely a trend…not sure what’s sparking it. As a reader, I cringe–had to skip vast portions of many books because of the graphic violence.

    • Elizabeth – You’re right. That Larsson series has both a strong female character who is at the same time a victim of really violent crime. I’m not sure what has sparked this trend either, but like you, I’m no big fan of graphic violence. I’ve been known to skip pages because of what’s depicted in them.

  6. Pingback: Depictions of violence and women in crime fiction (with list of STRONG WOMEN IN CRIME) | Mrs. Peabody Investigates

  7. I must check out Mrs P’s post ( I am behind in catching up with blogs). I know that writers have mentioned before that you can mutilate men, women and children on a page but the minute an animal (cat/dog in particular) is tortured people get very angry. I’m not sure why this is. If I’m totally honest I skip through descriptions of violence so I wouldn’t be best placed to comment on them. It’s not something I’m interested in reading.

    • Sarah – I hope you get the chance to check out that fascinating discussion. You make a very interesting point about the difference between violence against humans and violence against animals. I really think that’s excellent ‘food for thought,’ and I’m going to have to think about that one. The truth is, I have similar feelings. Like you, I don’t care at all for brutal violence. But I’m especially upset when it happens to a pet. I’ll have to reflect on that for a while. Thanks for giving me something to think about…

  8. Many thanks indeed, Margot, for the link to the post and the kind mention. And thanks too, for taking this discussion further and being brave enough to tackle some of the really uncomfortable and difficult questions that have arisen, such as why graphic depictions of violence sell.

    I think Bill is on to something when he notes the influence of comic book series. These have had such a huge effect on the way blockbuster films are styled, and I wonder if a higher level of violence has become the norm in many forms of popular culture in the past 25 years (video games being the obvious example of a format where you see a lot of this).

    I found what you had to say on the two simultaneous trends very interesting. That’s definitely an area ripe for analysis (someone please write a book). It may be that the trends are disconnected, but on the other hand, the emergence of the strong female investigative protagonist could have been triggered precisely by the negative stereotyping of women in crime (and allowed to flourish thanks to the growing strength of the women’s movement in the 1980s…am I right in thinking that’s when we get the big surge?). Oh, it’s all so fascinating! Thanks, Margot.

    • Mrs. P – It is fascinating isn’t it? I hope someone does explore this in more detail and perhaps do a thesis or book on it. I’m not sure if those trends are necessarily related but they certainly could b e. You could very well be right that the emergence of the strong, positive female protagonist was a reaction to the negative way in which women were depicted in earlier years. As you say, the real-life women’s movement evolved in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s from a few issues to a larger, more general movement in which women began to insist on being treated as full social, political and economic equality with men. That surely affected the development of today’s strong female protagonist.
      As for the surge in extreme violence, I agree that Bill has a strong point about the effect of what I’ll call media entertainment of the last few decades. It could be, as you and Bill suggest, that publishers and authors see what people buy and what what seems to be lucrative. The more violence there is in popular media such as video games, films and so on, the more acceptable such violence is in novels – or should I say, the more accustomed people get to seeing novels that depict that kind of violence. It makes me wonder what would happen if people suddenly stopped watching such films and video games and buying such books. My guess is those who create and sell books and other media might pay attention.

  9. If there is torture, I just shut the book. Or turn off the TV. I simply cannot stand it and neither can my husband. And now it’s beginning to be done with children-like in the newest Robotham book.

    • Patti – I have much the same reaction as yours to that kind of extreme violence. I simply don’t read it or watch it or write about it. There are too many excellent books out there that don’t depend on brutality. And you’re right too that there are now books in which children are subjected to that kind of violence too. I won’t read or write about that either.

  10. If I buy a book which has violence against women described in detail, I put it aside. There is enough of that happening in real life- I cannot stomach it in fiction too.
    The only book that qualifies as such, which I read were the Millennium Trilogy. Probably because even as she was being violated badly, I knew that she would soon turn the tables. And she did, repeatedly. That said, I still skimmed over those parts, because I could not have been able to read those descriptive passages.

    The name that immediately comes to mind when I think about strong female “side kicks” (for lack of a better word) is Annie Carbot. She has an on-off relationship with Alan Banks, she makes one really bad mistake in her choice of partner (as does Susan Grey- interesting that both do in the same series), but overall, she is her own woman, and admired by everyone for being that.

    There’s also Vish Puri’s Mummyji, who I adore. Because she looks and talks like dozens of women I know, and at the same time is tenacious when she is on the job. I often wonder why Hall didn’t reverse the roles, and make Mummyji the Miss Marple, and give her detective son the supporting role- Vish Puri would have made a great Watson.

    • Natasha – Like you, I don’t read books that have extreme violence against women as a main theme. There is so much of that in real life that I have no wish to seek it out in fiction. As you say, the one key thing about the Millennium trilogy is that Lisbeth Salander is a very strong character despite what happens to her. She does take her revenge and she’s a real survivor, too.
      And you’ve mentioned three other female characters I like very much. Peter Robinson’s Annie Cabot and Susan Grey are terrific. I like the way they face life, deal with their mistakes and so on, and come out stronger. I like Jenny Fuller, too, although I admit, not quite as well. Still, she’s a good character. And as for Mummyji, she’s absolutely wonderful. I love the way she is not just tenacious, but has a way of getting round people so that they don’t even realise what she’s doing until it’s too late. And she’s so quick-thinking too. I wonder what that series would have been like if Hall had made her the central protagonist. It’s an interesting question. I think more people expect Puri to be ‘in charge,’ and maybe that makes clients more comfortable. It’s hard to say. But I love it that even Puri knows not to cross Mummyji. It’s so obvious he knows how smart she is, whether or not he admits it, even to himself.

  11. kathy d.

    Good discussion. However, I’m a bit played out on these two themes, having been wholeheartedly engaged in the excellent discussion over at Mrs. Peabody’s blog.
    One thing I’m sure of, to echo sentiments above, is the influence of the women’s movement here and in Europe. Without a doubt this is a factor in the development of strong women protagonists who are smart, independent, brave, feisty, seeking justice. (Some seek revenge, but this isn’t usually my thing, although I understand Lizbeth Salander seeking to avenge herself; so much horror was done to her by so many male sadists. She could have ended up in a catatonic state, withdrawn, unable to cope with people at all, but she didn’t. She acted to protect herself. Luckily, she got help from Blomqvist and in book 3, from several (7, I counted) women, especially Annika Gianni.
    Women came to the fore in society; many more are writers, doctors, lawyers, professors, actuaries, administrators of school systems, so much more.. (My father was an actuary, and in the 1960s and 1970s, a woman in his office was famous as “the woman actuary”)
    That’s reflected in crime fiction. And then there are the contributions made by Sisters in Crime, which many stalwart women writers founded and have run. And it exists in many countries now, spread beyond the U.S.
    On the violence against women, it existed when I began reading mysteries decades ago. Then I refused to read it. The Mickey Spillane/Mike Hammer vile covers depicting violence against women just turned me off. Still true.
    I do skip a lot of books, and sections in books. Although I liked the Millennium trilogy, I had to skip parts, showing violence against Salander and others. That Stieg Larsson wrote a misogynist murderer as a nazi was quite thoughtful on his part, showing the extremes that result from hatred, and male superiority.
    But now, I don’t understand why there is so much of it, why publishers and booksellers want it and promote it to writers, in stores, online, in blurbs. Look at a supermarket paperback display; horrific covers and blurbs. Why? What does this speak to in society? Is there still so much misogyny out there? (I just have to look at the last election year and so much anti-woman rhetoric that appealed to some voters so it still exists.)
    I thank women writers and Sisters in Crime for countering this vile stuff in crime fiction. And I thank the male writers who also write of women’s issues and write strong women characters, like Erlendur’s Elinborg.

    • Kathy – Thanks for your thoughts. I know you’ve been quite involved in discussion at Mrs. P’s blog, too and I appreciate your taking the time to comment here. too. You are quite right I think that the women’s movement has played a critical role in the way women are depicted in books and on television. And I’m quite certain that it’s been that movement that has led to (or at least influenced) the genesis of groups like Sisters in Crime and other groups that support women writers. That movement really was what you might call a game-changer.
      As for novels that depict extreme violence against women, I don’t read them either. And even in novels like those in the Millennium trilogy, if there is a scene of extreme violence against women, I skip that section. And I have the same question you do about what it all says about society. Not being a sociologist, I don’t have a really solid guess as to why there seems to be a lot of misogyny out there still. But you’ve made an interesting point that there’s other evidence that it’s there.

  12. http://cockeyedcaravan.blogspot.com/2010/12/storytellers-rulebook-58-from-zero-to.html

    I’m a big fan of the above blog and I think this post kind of gets to the point of why you see more female violence in fiction these days. The simple fact is a women is more vulnerable and easier to be sympathetic towards. Men die all the time, especially during war time. It’s almost desensitizing in a way. People don’t care as much about a guy who gets killed but the idea of a dead female who probably wasn’t able to protect herself from the Michael Myers type killer is much more sympathetic, so when the main character, male or female, makes it his personal mission to bring the killer to justice. It’s far easier for the audience to become sympathetic toward the protagonist.

    • Ben – That’s an interesting point. Certainly we tend to be especially sympathetic towards the most vulnerable people. That’s why, for instance, there is an especial level of contempt, both in crime fiction and real life, for those who prey on young children. And I think you do have a very well-taken point that we’re even more ‘on the side of’ the protagonist who goes after that kind of criminal.

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