Preface (Just So Y’all Know What Up, What’s Haapnin’):
This will contain big spoilers for some big names on the bestsellers list.
You have been warned.
Hey boys, girls and nonbinary pearls. I have some thoughts about gender in fiction.
To preface this post, make no mistake or prejudgment about my character; I am not an MRA nut, nor do I think ‘misandry’ is a legitimate sociopolitical ideology. I am simply a critical thinker. I theorize a lot. I welcome dissenting opinions and views that clash with my own. I am a man who is generally quite critical of my gender and our oh-so-fragile masculinity, and I understand that the patriarchy overwhelmingly benefits men as much as it hurts us. But that’s just the thing: it hurts us, too. And as bell hooks said in ‘Feminism Is For Everybody’, “all sexist thinking and action is the problem, whether those who perpetuate it are female or male, child or adult.”
As a fiction writer, I have made it my mission to create representations of people, both male and female, that reject stereotypes and one-dimensionality in favor of complexity and fully fleshed-out lives portrayed with nuance, depth and realism. Terence famously once said, “I am human: nothing human is alien to me”; and though I’d like to say this with confidence as a writer, I’m no god. I don’t have some omnipotent connection to all human experience by virtue of my humanness. No matter what is alien to me or not, I am utterly defined and limited by my own experience of the world. When I write from different perspectives than my own, it is an exercise in empathy as well as simply listening to how other people describe their lives and experiences.
For the past few months, I’ve been writing a domestic thriller which deals in part with gender dynamics, and a good portion of my characters are women. In an effort to escape the pitfalls of any writer writing outside of his or her human experience, I’ve made the conscious decision late this year to solely read female perspectives, to go beyond what I understood to be the ‘male perspective’ in crime fiction. It hasn’t been a big adjustment since, in general, I have always been drawn to female-helmed narratives. (In particular for some reason, white women writers. I don’t know exactly why, but alas, that is an issue for another blog post, one that I ought to write upon reading Hilton Als’ book ‘White Girls’, though I suspect that will only leave me with more questions than answers.)
With this newly self-imposed reading restriction, I’d hoped that the literature I was reading would help me traverse the often troubling waters of portraying violence against women, and people in general, in tactful yet piercing ways, free of the usual sexist tripe that has proven so vile to some that in 2009 novelist and critic Jessica Mann swore to never review a violent crime fiction novel again. However, throughout the various women-penned novels I was reading, I realized the one factor they virtually all shared was a common narrative of violence against women by the hands of sociopathic, heartless, and misogynistic men.
Instead of being led down what I presumed would be an idealistic stream of feminist gusto and grrrl power, I found myself gasping for air in a scarlet stream of fictional female bloodshed. I would read these suspense novels in all of their verbosity and density, relishing the intricate plotting and variegated characterizations, and I would be on the edge of my seat ready to solve the Whodunnit mystery, and I would find, just as I had bitten into my last good nail, that the killer was merely a cruel, unhinged madman who up until the climax had appeared totally average and pedestrian. I would discover this again and again, novel after novel. These narratives were offering me borderline romanticized portraits of violence against women by the hands of inhuman, cold, and quite frankly unbelievable male characters. They made me extremely uneasy.
I began to notice that these stories not only featured a psychopathic man, but a particular kind of man: a thinly characterized, hollow man with little depth, who throughout the novel is portrayed as a sort of average Joe who is gentle (to an almost facile degree), unremarkable, plain, and boring. Then, suddenly, in an explosive climax, said hypothetical man’s villainy abruptly comes to a head, reaching an orgasmic tipping point as he transforms from a feeble ‘every-man’ into a superhuman adversary as he reveals his motives for brutally killing the given female victim, after which point he usually dies by the hand of the protagonist in self-defense, or is arrested.
At first I didn’t think much of this trend. Oh, I thought upon finishing each novel, what a coincidence. All these novels end the same. Great minds think alike, I guess. After careful consideration, however, it dawned on me that in my quest to find alternative narratives outside of the sadistic and often outright sexist portrayals of women and men, I had been reading exactly what I had been trying to go beyond.
Take for example ‘The Girl On The Train’ by Paula Hawkins. Lauded as the next ‘Gone Girl’ (a comparison I resent for reasons that are beyond this blog post) this novel offers an intriguing unreliable narrator in Rachel, a self-destructive, messy and lonely alcoholic who is not, by any means, a likeable girl. In fact, none of the women in the novel are likeable, which to her credit is an impressive feat by Hawkins, considering the everpresent literary discourse of making one’s characters ‘likeable’. That, along with how easily the book reads (I finished it overnight) are the only compliments I can really give it.
Only a few chapters in, I figured out who the killer was without much reader-detective-work, which annoyed me, but I was fine with it because in fiction the destination is secondary to me; how the author takes me there is what’s important. However, once I reached the book’s sloppy climax and I discovered that my suspicions about Rachel’s ex-husband Tom were right, I was unimpressed.
Hawkins creates in Tom an easy antagonist; no subtlety, no conflicting morals, no signs of humanity. He is typical of any Saturday morning cartoon villain; Hawkins even equips him with an archetypal, Incredibles-esque monologue scene. In his review of the novel, Niner Times writer John Lineburger accurately assesses how Tom’s “painfully slow monologue” fails Hawkins’ thriller. Lineburger writes, quite indicatively, that Tom’s diabolical speech and subsequent showdown with Rachel is “so played up, so uncharacteristic of human behavior, that it totally shattered my suspension of disbelief up to that point.”
Indeed, Tom does feel ‘uncharacteristically human’. He is manipulative to a fantastical degree, almost goofily so, and utterly impervious to police suspicion. He presents himself as perfectly docile and gentle, the ideal husband, brother, and friend, until the book’s end, where he suddenly undergoes a drastic shift in personality. Like Lineburger, I found myself dissatisfied by the simplicity of the conclusion and of the story itself. I was dissatisfied with the plot, within which each female character’s life (or death, as it turns out) revolved around the fact that they were all romantically connected to Tom, a thinly developed, prototypically villainous man. What made it worse was that childbirth centers these connections: Rachel becomes an alcoholic because she can’t get pregnant with Tom, Megan is killed because she gets pregnant by Tom, and Anna prides herself on stealing Tom from Rachel and getting pregnant by him. How progressive. Mind you, these are character arcs created by a woman. It all felt unimaginative, basic, and, frankly, sexist.
Considering ‘The Girl On The Train’ is now a major film, we may have bigger societal fish to fry here, like the fact that the movie adaptation features a skinny, conventionally attractive Rachel that majorly clashes with book-Rachel’s overweight and frumpy appearance. Or the fact that one of the major supporting characters of color, Megan’s therapist Dr. Kamal Abdic, who is a dark-skinned Indian man in the novel, has been cast as a light-skinned Hispanic, which no one else who read the book seems to have noticed. (I guess all non-white people are interchangeable now?) But as it stands, Hawkins’ novel perpetuates the harmful ideology of women being defined by male violence, and men as its thoughtless, heartless agents of it.
Another novel I read, ‘The Next Time You See Me’ by Holly Goddard Jones, has a similar problem. Yet another text that reviewers likened to ‘Gone Girl’, this novel initially swept me up into its world of pretense and secrecy. However, once the central mystery of who killed Veronica ‘Ronnie’ Eastman was resolved, I was deeply discouraged to find the same narrative trope fulfilled as we the readers discover that Ronnie, a complex and extremely lovable (if flawed) character, is killed and dismembered by an elderly factory worker she takes home from a bar. Wyatt, in a fit of drunk, misogynistic rage, chokes her to death when she refuses to sleep with him. It is a rage that largely stems from Wyatt’s inferiority complex as a victim of ridicule by his young co-workers. Following this reveal, we are given a climactic showdown in which Wyatt, who up until this point had been portrayed as a facile and unthreatening old man, suddenly achieves superhuman strength and unparalleled fury as he beats a particularly abusive co-worker with a shovel, presumably to death.
Despite how it’s been marketed, ‘The Next Time You See Me’ is not your typical crime novel. It’s dense in character development and light on the mystery. Jones herself, in a Bookslut interview, explained that only after heavy edits of her first incarnations of the story did she realize “the book might operate a bit like a mystery novel. But traditional mystery stories are more about the what than the why — they don’t probe too deeply into the motives of those intimately connected to the crime — and I’ve seen this all along as a mystery of why. Which is hard to do, if you want to keep the reader in the dark about the particulars of the crime. So perhaps that’s subverting the form. If you read it strictly as a whodunit, you’ll probably be disappointed.”
Well, indeed I was disappointed. However, it wasn’t because I had false expectations or had read the book incorrectly. What disappointed me was how Jones creates such rich and developed characters who felt tangibly human, only to resort to genre tropes and gender stereotypes by the novel’s end. Wyatt’s misogynistic rage comes from a real place, a real, ugly place in our society. But in the novel, it comes across as outlandish and left-field, a far-cry from the character that Jones so eloquently builds before the book’s overblown and sensationalistic climax. Jones also loses me in how rushed the novel’s ending feels in its convenience (Wyatt dies, the ultimate service of justice) and its loose ends (Jones never explores the pathology or mindset behind Wyatt dismembering the body, which goes above and beyond the actions of a distraught drunk guy who accidentally murders a woman.)
It all just feels tacked on. Am I seriously supposed to believe a feeble, heart-attack prone old man has the capacity to kill and disarticulate a random stranger just because his co-workers hurt his little fee-fees? Notwithstanding believability, this plot twist fulfills the treacherous trope of woman as victim and man as tyrant. Here, we had a fascinating and complex woman character Ronnie solely existing in this book to be killed, rather elaborately, by a man who for a good chunk of the novel was incapacitated in a hospital due to a heart attack, simply because she bruised his ego and the plot needed a central conflict. It seems that Jones was aware of the gross injustice of a character as interesting as Ronnie being relegated to murder victim; in a passage towards the novel’s end, Ronnie claims not to read novels because “they always kill off the people you’d actually want to spend time with and stick you with the bores.” If only this self-awareness could have translated into the entire novel. Am I suggesting that Wyatt was a bore? The man listened to ‘the Swap Meet’ in his free time and watches TV, while Ronnie wore studded denim jackets and moved through life under the motto “Live in the now, that’s what I say.” You decide.
To briefly sidetrack, I would be remiss not to mention Gillian Flynn’s ‘Gone Girl’, having mentioned two novels, amongst a sea of others, that it has been compared with. While the violence in ‘Gone Girl’ is chiefly by the hands of women, or a woman to be specific, I think it is important to note how Amy Dunne’s pathology is quite male-centric. Though her psyche is verifiably disordered, Amy’s motivations for her wrongdoings are chiefly due to what she perceives to be male inferiority; one could say that Amy Dunne’s villainy directly stems from her ego being bruised by her husband cheating on her. As a huge fan of ‘Gone Girl’ and Amy Dunne as a literary figure, I often grapple with the fact that the only reason we get to revel in her eccentricity and outlandish behavior is because a man spurned her. I still relish in the glory that is Amy Dunne’s literary villainy, but I find it quite indicative that if there was no Nick Dunne, there’d be no Amy Dunne, thus no ‘Gone Girl.’ No man, no woman. Adam’s rib creates Eve. The same trope across the ages, over and over again, a vicious cycle.
Crime has no limits. Crime does not discriminate. Crime is ageless, sexless, raceless, classless. Crime affects us all in some way, shape or form, and so one could make the argument that women in crime novels are just as susceptible to violence as anyone else. However when that fictional violence becomes a sickening pattern where women are reduced to their deaths and men are reduced to their psychopathy, matters go beyond a simple crime narrative and become more insidious.
What troubles me most is that what may seem like a chiefly male writers pathology in crime literature is, in fact, just as prevalent among women writers across the boards. In the Guardian article I linked earlier, ‘Sexist violence sickens crime critic’, Leslie Mann argues that some of the most “inventive” portrayals she encountered in crime fiction were in fact by women, who are “best qualified to do so because girls grow up knowing that being female is ‘synonymous with being prey.” This powerful sentiment touches on a pervasive issue in fiction and in reality: that to exist as a woman is to exist pre-and-post-mortem. What these narratives reinforce is that to be a woman is to be perpetually under a metaphoric and literal thumb, in life, in death, and in memory. To be a woman is to be defined by your ability to be diminished.
This is an issue I’ve noticed in other fiction genres as well. Take YA novel ‘Speak’ for example, the seminal work by Laurie Halse Anderson that purportedly “changed everything”. To its credit, this book has created an amazing ripple effect in efforts to empower women and men alike who have been silenced by the horrors of sexual abuse. I found its preface quite touching, knowing that Anderson has touched millions of readers and emboldened them to reclaim their agency. In my own life, I know quite a few women who have read this book in their youth and still laud it to this day.
I, however, hated it. I hated the writing style, which felt cloyingly blunt yet also frustratingly vague with cliché and questionable lines about depression like “I turn up my music to drown out the noise” or “I wash my face in the sink until there is nothing left of it, no eyes, no nose, no mouth. A slick nothing.” I hated how contrived Melinda Sordino’s silence was. I hated that the author, probably with self-awareness, had Melinda put up a Maya Angelou poster to allude to a real-life rape victim who was silenced by her rapist. I hated how her silence was used as a plot device to build suspense, up until the reveal of sorts that our protagonist had indeed, been raped.
And above all, I hated the horrid, tacky, and offensive climax.
I know I am in a minuscule minority here of people who disliked the book. Perhaps I am not the target audience; it was, after all, written for middle-schoolers, particularly those victimized by assault. Perhaps I am being too critical of a work that, all things considered, has done more good for the world than bad. Still, I felt cheated by this narrative of a young intelligent girl who, in her youthful struggle to find her own voice, could only do so once she had been raped by a heartless, simplistic male character who by the end of the novel attempts to rape her again in a garish and borderline soap operatic climax straight out of a direct-to-DVD crime thriller that merely serves the purpose of having our protagonist finally ‘speak.’ How subtle.
I was troubled by the portrayal of this young boy being turned into a plot device. The dreaded rape that plagues Melinda plays out like many real-life rapes do; that is, the victim does not know how to say ‘no’, and so the perpetrator erroneously assumes that mean ‘yes’. I had initially suspected that Anderson would make a nuanced statement with this assault on the importance of consent and how young boys need to be taught that the lack of a ‘no’ doesn’t automatically mean ‘yes’. Unfortunately, she instead takes the easy route and creates a by-the-book vindictive rapist who is fully aware of his actions and solely seeks power in victimization: in their final showdown, the rapist ominously tells Melinda: “You’re not going to scream. You didn’t scream before. You liked it.”
I don’t doubt men who think like this exist, nor do I believe that every character has to necessarily be reflective of some societal issue. However, consider that this is a fiction novel for preteen students who are just beginning to learn how to think beyond what’s black or white. Consider how many rapists, particularly teenage rapists, don’t in fact know that they’re rapists because they have been harmfully conditioned by our society to think their actions are acceptable. I think Anderson does a disservice to survivors of sexual assault by creating this one-dimensional, frothing-at-the-mouth villain that is easily apprehended by the protagonist and completely loses his upstanding reputation. Real life is more complex than that. Most victims do not get this cathartic moment of triumph over their abuser. We don’t all get to ‘speak’. We can’t all have the last satisfying twist of a corkscrew in our abuser’s neck (looking at you, Girl On The Train). More often than not, the villains we deal with in real life get away. They leave the situation unscathed and go on living their lives, free of remorse and repercussions.
But perhaps victims of sexual assault don’t want their fiction to be like real life. Literature is, after all, supposed to be an escape from reality. Perhaps sexual abuse survivors don’t want their antagonists to get away with it. Who really does? Perhaps it’s a vicarious victory for them when a fictional character overcomes a fictional villain. Perhaps women readers don’t always necessarily want the violent men in their fiction to be complex and human; to be fair, sometimes it doesn’t hurt to be transparent in literature. Perhaps I should be mad at our book market, which, as author Val McDermid points out, often forces authors to write more “sensationalistic and gratuitous” content to please the ravenous masses. Perhaps, instead of focusing my attention on women writers, I should be mad that real-world oppression and injustice give these authors more than enough material to pull from for their work. Perhaps the reason this literature disturbs me so, as McDermid also says, is that “when women write about violence against women, it will almost inevitably be more terrifying because women grow up knowing that to be female is to be at risk of attack. We write about violence from the inside.”
I don’t have the answers. All I have are my experiences, my understanding, and my feelings. And I can’t shake this feeling that in reproducing the same tired tropes, in relegating women to victim and men to abuser, we are rehashing a centuries old song and dance of male dominion and female diminishment. I can’t help but feel troubled when I read a novel and yet again am presented with a complex, interesting, fully developed woman character who is reduced to murder victim, to corpse, to blood and guts on the page, and a plain, reductive, borderline soulless male character whose sole existential purpose is villainy. Who wins here, when everyone on either side is empty, or dead, or both? Life is more complex than patriarchal thinking would lead us to believe; our characters deserve better.
Featured Image Credit: Ian-S (Courtesy of Joel’s Blog)