"Dead, brutalized women sell books"

And bored, desensitized readers buy them, for lack of anything fresher

By Kate Harding

Published October 26, 2009 6:27PM (EDT)

I recently ran across a blog post in which the author solicited recommendations of crime fiction that was, if not explicitly feminist, then at least not explicitly misogynistic. As a fan of the genre, I read the comments eagerly, only to find the most common response amounted to: "Uhhh...." And nearly every title that was suggested as at least mostly fitting the bill was historical crime fiction, not anything with a contemporary setting. (Laurie R. King, who's written a series about a female apprentice to Sherlock Holmes, got far and away the most nods.) I was bummed to come away with so few new book recommendations, but since I'm also a fan of many other genres and it was just one blog post, I didn't think too much about the disappointing result.

Author and literary critic Jessica Mann has given that subject a lot of thought -- and concluded that the treatment of women in crime fiction has gotten so horrendously torture-porny, she won't be reviewing any new titles that continue a trend she describes thusly: "Each psychopath is more sadistic than the last and his victims' sufferings are described in detail that becomes ever more explicit, as young women are imprisoned, bound, gagged, strung up or tied down, raped, sliced, burned, blinded, beaten, eaten, starved, suffocated, stabbed, boiled or buried alive." I'm nauseated, but on a day when I learned that the first five "Saw" movies have grossed $669 million, I can't say I'm surprised. It's enough to make one long for the days when female characters were merely weak, silly and two-dimensional.

In the most disturbing story I've heard about cover art bearing no resemblance to the text since Justine Larbalastier's "Liar," Mann tells of seeing a recent book with a dead woman on the cover, even though the novel's victim is male. She asked the publisher what was up with that, and he told her, "Dead, brutalised women sell books, dead men don't." And even female writers apparently feel forced to choose between accepting that industry reality and being relegated to the remainder bin. Natasha Cooper, former chair of the Crime Writers' Association, told The Guardian, "There is a general feeling that women writers are less important than male writers and what can save and propel them on to the bestseller list is if they produce at least one novel with very graphic violence in it to establish their credibility and prove they are not girly."

I'm sure there's a revolting amount of truth in that, and I'm certainly not one to be overly optimistic about western culture moving in more a female-friendly direction. Nevertheless, I don't think the problem here is only systemic misogyny. It's also that so much crime fiction these days -- like so many mainstream movies -- is churned out quickly, with little concern for strong writing and storytelling, let alone strong female characters. Sensationalistic violence becomes the chief selling point when the prose style is crap, the characters are underdeveloped, the dialogue is flat, and the plot twists are nonsensical. And just as with movies, there's really no reliable data on whether women would spend money on compelling stories about women who do more interesting stuff than getting tortured, maimed and murdered, because those stories are so rarely made available anymore. Horrific violence against women is often the only thing in a crime novel or Hollywood film that's not mind-numbingly predictable and boring.

Remember the days when movies had clever, crackling dialogue, tightly crafted plots, and whip-smart leading ladies, even though they were produced in a far more openly sexist era? Yeah, me neither. But I know they existed, once upon a time, and I might just spend less of my entertainment budget on renting old movies if new ones were half as good. Similarly, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler were hardly feminists, but they're a hell of a lot more fun to read than current crime novelists who phone in a new story about "brutalized dead women" every year because that's the minimum the market will accept -- so why bother aiming higher?

Tiny glimmer of hope time: I got that stat about the "Saw" movies' disheartening success from one of many articles about "Saw VI's" surprising and decisive box office defeat last weekend by the no-budget "Paranormal Activity" -- which is, as Mary Elizabeth Williams recently wrote in Salon, "a hit for the most surprising reason of all: because it's very good." I haven't seen that movie and have no idea if I'd enjoy it personally, or what a feminist critique of it might look like. But I do know it's been widely praised for terrific storytelling and for drawing more on the lessons of horror classics than recent box office hits. As a result of those things (plus the extremely low budget and smart marketing), it's already one of the most profitable movies ever made. Do you suppose Hollywood will take a lesson from that?

Probably not. And most publishers will probably not risk the profits that come from dehumanized, tortured female characters, just to see if a well-crafted little thriller might take off. But at least Jessica Mann has eliminated one more outlet for promoting lazy, misogynistic, lowest-common-denominator writing to a desensitized market that's long since given up hoping for anything better.


Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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