Female Noir: Rewriting a Genre

As I’ve mentioned before (and, as is obvious to anyone who’s read my blog,) I have a bit of a thing for mysteries and hardboiled noir. I’m by no means an expert on either genre, admittedly, but it’s a hobby interest of mine. I just really love the way gender plays out in them: in the “Golden Age” detective novels, sleuths like Poirot, or, to go far back to the grandfather, Sherlock Holmes, were supposed to use their “manly” reason to solve problems. When a woman would step in, such as Harriet Vane in Dorothy L. Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey series, her detective work is, at least superficially, chalked up to her feminine intuition.

The American hardboiled genre takes this and turns it on its head; these sleuths think with their gut. The city landscapes of Noir are dark and corrupt—operating on logic within their irrational world would get you killed. And yet, we think of the hardboiled genre as being very “masculine.” Gendering genre still feels weird to me, because, of course, there’s nothing intrinsically male about any of the aspects I’ve listed and am about to list, but within the culture, these films (like many others of their time and now, admittedly) came from a distinctly male perspective. The cynical, money-hungry sleuths of the genre looked upon their cities as embodiments of the fallen American dream, and encountered villains who either didn’t play by the rules of the dream, or were amongst the groups not even allowed to play the game: women, homosexuals, and ethnic minorities. There’s a lot to say about the later two (and I’ll touch on a little bit of race later on in the post,) but I’m going to focus on women for now.

To hurry to the point, I’m going to simplify this a lot: In hardboiled fiction and film noir, writers portrayed women either as helpless and virginal, or scheming, sexy, and ambitious. The latter, of course, is the famous femme fatale, who would kiss and then kill to move up in the world, if need be. In films she is usually cold and selfish: sensuality without feeling. The former, well, her character usually seemed an afterthought to the femme fatale, there more to act as a last-minute love interest or foil to the femme fatale (who sometimes was even her step mother! Holy Brother’s Grimm, Batman!) than as a character in herself. In her introduction to Hell of a Woman: An Anthology of Female Noir, Val McDermid puts the problem quite nicely:

“I blame Raymond Chandler. I blame him for writing too well. Here’s the thing with Chandler. He had a problem with women. Vamps, victims, and vixens are the only roles he provided for us. And his perennial popularity has guaranteed his twisted view of women would remain the template whenever the hard-boiled boys hatched a new tale of the mean streets. For years, we’ve been stuck in this gruesome girlie groove because of one man’s screwed up sexuality.”

To be honest, I don’t know if it’s fair to blame it all on Chandler; I think a lot of men with screwed up relationships with women contributed to this genre, not to mention the contribution of a lot of screwed up social mores. But the point is that Noir is a very strict, template-reliant genre. We know the story: “It was dark in the city that never sleeps. She stepped into my office with hips like…” We’ve seen it parodied dozens of times. Given the format, how can you break down these gender roles and still write Noir?

Well, unsurprisingly, many of the people who find Noir fascinating are women and/or ethnic minorities. As logically follows this, many of these writers have started to take Noir back. I was introduced to woman-centric noir soon after I got out of college and had more time to read for pleasure. For my birthday last year, a friend got me Megan Abbott’s Queenpin and the aforementioned short story anthology Hell of a Woman, which Abbott edited. I later picked up another of Abbott’s novels, The Song is You.

At first, I was unimpressed; I think I had been expecting the stories to feel completely different, or at least feel more self-aware of the genre they were working in. They didn’t—QueenpinThe Song is You, and all of the stories I’ve read so far in Hell of a Woman play Noir straight through. The femme fatale still uses her sexuality to get her way. Money is still power. For the most part, no one gets a lesson about racism, classism, or sexism. So what’s the difference?

The difference is that when Noir is written from a woman’s perspective, we understand why the femme fatale is the way she is. She’s no longer the embodiment of anxiety.  Whereas in typical Noir, the femme fatale is evil because she is selfish and ambitious, overstepping her gender role, in female noir (to use Hell of a Woman’s phrase,) in female noir, she is no more power or money hungry than the men she’s dealing with. The Noir world has very strict rules, as I’ve mentioned. If she does not want to be passive, if she wants to make her mark, she’s got to play by the rules of the world. And, if the world doesn’t expect brains and beauty to match, well, her brains become a hidden trump card in the game.

These women live in worlds where performing as the femme fatale is sometimes the key to being taken seriously, as in Abbott’s Queenpin. Here, a young woman learns the ropes from mobstress Gloria Denton, the queen of the underworld. Instead of suffering through a boring secretarial job where she finds herself subjected to sexual harassment, she suddenly finds herself controlling her sexuality—and making more money at that. Also interesting is Abbott’s inclusion of an Homme Fatale, a man we all know from the start will betray her in the end, but whose beauty is such that she can’t resist. Silly? Yes, but no more than the idea that a beautiful woman can destroy a man’s judgment.

“The Chirashi Covenant” by Naomi Hirahara takes on the “Femme fatale has the hapless hero kill her husband trope, as well as the exoticizing of Asian women in one stroke.  I find this one fascinating precisely because I can imagine how different the story would be if the white male antagonist, Bob Burkard, had been the protagonist instead. Instead of being an alluring exotic woman who seduces him and begs him to kill her husband, Helen Miura is an intelligent, lonely Japanese-American woman struggling with the insular nature of her life after the WWII internment camps who has an affair with Bob. (In this story, she takes no part in her husband’s murder; it’s Bob’s impulse.) As often happens in fiction, her identity conflict becomes summed up in romantic questions, as if dating outside your culture is the ultimate way to betray it. Of course, things become even more deadly as the story takes a further turn into the Noir, and Helen is no angel in the midst of all that happens (I’m not talking about sexually either.)

Although most female noir works that I’ve read so far have female protagonists, Abbott’s The Song is You doesn’t have the gender-reversal perspective. After a brief prologue from the point of view of a murder victim’s sister, we’re introduced to the protagonist, Gil Hopkins, a studio publicist in 1950’s Hollywood, who takes us through the rest of the story. Hop, as he’s called, has privilege problems and cannot seem to connect with the women in his life–not so different from a archetypical Hardboiled hero. But as he tries at once to solve a two-year-old murder and keep others from solving it, he finds his ideas about women challenged. He starts to understand the nature of the game. He questions whether he should really blame women who have ventured into dangerous situations to help keep afloat in the dark side of Hollywood and found themselves victims (I know that one’s a no-brainer to most of us, but, as I said, Hop has privilage problems.). In one of the most poignant moments, of the novel, he realizes the full extent of what it meant to have abandoned Iolene, a black woman, at a sleazy club with known sexual predators. With horror, he realizes that if the men he left her with treated white women so inhumanely, he could not imagine how they would treat a black woman. No, guilt is not enough, but it’s these moments where he begins to understand the privilege behind the typical Noir judgments that we really see the subtle ways that Abbot is playing with the formula even without a woman’s perspective to guide us through.

I suppose it would be easy to argue how much these stories help really feminism or find many ways in which they are problematic (but, as we’ve been discussing, so is much fiction.). After all, Noir is a genre which glamorizes the dark underbelly of the city, to borrow its own phrase. Ultimately, even if it’s fun to see women level the playing field or have the upper-hand, despite them having to use their “feminine wiles” to do so, it’s still unfortunate and uncomfortable that these are the options they have in this world to be assertive and independent. But I think that part of the point of female noir is exposing these problems; this is, from a Noir perspective, the result of asserting independence and ambition when society only sees you as your body. Also, well, ideal or not, I’ve got to admit that I find them a lot of fun despite the dark subject matter. If you’re a fan of thrillers, they’re worth checking out. They raise a lot of interesting questions about gender, genre, and how to re-imagine a story that’s been told one-too-many times.

NOTE- I apologize in advance for any incoherence. It’s been over 100 degrees F here, which I’m not used to, and I’ve not gotten much sleep because of it. Still, I didn’t want to waste my guest blogging week, and so here you go.

(Cross posted to From the Cracked Mirror.)

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15 comments for “Female Noir: Rewriting a Genre

  1. R
    July 31, 2009 at 5:29 am

    This is a really interesting post but I have to disagree with you a little regarding your assertion that “The Noir world has very strict rules”. It is true that there is a tendency toward certain representations but there are many exceptions. My knowledge lies more in film than in fiction but a notable example would be Nora in The Thin Man. She is neither femme fatale nor virginal. There is actually more diversity in the genre than is usually claimed. Lots of noir produced by men critiques patriarchy and deconstructs masculinity as well as providing interesting female characters.

    I think the trouble with gender in noir and hard-boiled fiction is less to do with who is writing it (you have shown this above) and more to do with which stories we choose to label as “typical noir” or rate highly. Who gets to decide on what constitutes a classic is a result of power (and we know who holds it). This means inevitably that the most conformist masculine stories are valued above others, and that male authors will be valued above female in these genres. It doesn’t mean that feminist friendly stories don’t exist.

  2. Ellid
    July 31, 2009 at 6:13 am

    I think this is a vast oversimplification about the mystery genre. There were rational, non-intuitive female detectives as far back as Loveday Brooke and Lady Molly at the turn of the last century, and plenty of hard-boiled female detectives like Vic Warshawski, Honey West, and Eve Dallas. Maybe Chandler wrote femmes fatale, but Dashiell Hammett created Nora Charles.

  3. Ellid
    July 31, 2009 at 6:22 am

    One more thing…Gaudy Night is perhaps the most feminist book in the entire detective canon. Using it as an example of the female detective being devalued is twisting the text for talking points, especially since the *characters* never do so. The whole book is about the value of female education, the necessity for women maintaining their intellectual integrity, and the problem of how to formulate a relationship of equals in a sexist society. Peter never once believes that Harriet is relying on intuition rather than intellect, and is amazingly non-condescending.

  4. Visan
    July 31, 2009 at 9:05 am

    Megan Abbott’s The Song Is You and Queenpin are 2 books that flip the script on traditional noir. With Queenpin, having the unnamed protagonist ruled by her libido and her lover’s bed prowess, was a good twist. And it rang true to life, with some women doing whatever for hot sex. Also, Megan Abbott touched on racial disparity in The Song Is You, with the Iolene character. Ms. Abbott is quite adroit at handling social issues without her works coming across as pendantic. Cool!

  5. July 31, 2009 at 9:48 am

    I don’t know. “Gaudy Night” was interesting, but it seemed to criticize women adopting “male” values and becoming “unfeeling”. (Admittely, I am going by the series presentation, here.) Harriet Vane was a good character, though, and didn’t shrink from confronting the facts and realities of a situation – most notably in “Having His Carcase” (sp?), where she insists that any rational list of suspects would include herself.

    Vic Warshawski (movie, again) was pretty true to the genre – even down to the getting beat up as a message to get off the case. (I’m glad this was made in the 80s(?) before “rape chic”, as in CIS, determined that she would have had to have been raped to move the plot along.) She was persistent and unintimidatible. I would have liked to have seen another in the series.

    The thing that does make the genre work, and is often overlooked, is the thinking and pulling together of threads that’s involved. Intuition plays a part, but so does logic – there is usually a red herring in there that needs to be ruled out. This is all part of the messiness and why it isn’t, for example, melodrama.

    That messiness does make it a challenge to write women’s characters. We are real used to “messed up” women with tragic pasts, but not so used to “messy” women who have complex experiences that might have shaped them; say cracking a case through blackmail, but then being haunted when the blackmailed person commits suicide, and kind of looking for a way to right the score as a subplot.

  6. Nick Charles
    July 31, 2009 at 10:36 am

    A contemporary novel (albeit set in 1950) that offers a great female perspective is Dope by Sara Gran. This book really tears into the ancient archetypes of good and evil–the question it seems to ask (subtly) is, how can anyone be good all the time in a horrible world where no one can be trusted? The protagonist, Josephine “Joe” Flannigan, is a petty thief and recovering heroine addict who gets hired to find a missing young woman, and the seedy New York underworld she journeys through is largely dominated by impoverished addicts and the desperate things they do to get the next fix. It has a few amteurish slips on the author’s part, and Joe is (intentionally, I think) a sloppy detective despite her unbending toughness and street smarts, but nothing about her weak points is gendered–yes, she has a soul and caring about other people trips her up, but Gran does a good job of making the reader connect empathically with Joe.

  7. July 31, 2009 at 11:35 am

    Lindsay Davis. Her books are set in ancient Rome (under Vespasian) but distinctly noir. The main character’s wife is an woman born to the Senatorial class, so her ability to ferret things out is based not on her feminine wiles but her awareness of a) the clout her class gives her and b) the expectations her gender and class set up. (Senatorial women are supposed to be airheaded sots.) By managing to subvert and manipulate both, she really ends up playing with the genre a bit.

  8. Steph
    July 31, 2009 at 11:41 am

    Ellid- Yes, I agree the whole article is oversimplified. I’m a little embarrassed about the intro looking back on it in the morning. I was trying to hurry through the background stuff so I could get to the meat of the situation.

    And I was not fair to Harriet Vane in the process, who is one of my favorite characters. I was thinking more of how other, not-Peter characters treat her detecting. But I love Gaudy Night, so so much. I could babble about it, but my brain isn’t quite coherent yet.

  9. Persia
    July 31, 2009 at 11:57 am

    The Thin Man isn’t noir, though. I think most ‘classic’ noir does fall into dames-and-tough guy patterns.

    I just read The Black Dahlia, a neo-noir by James Ellroy, and one of the interesting things about my (later) edition was a concluding essay by the author, where he felt like he’d been too tough and not understanding enough of his female characters. It was really interesting and I’d encourage anyone who likes noir to check it out. (And to check Ellroy out, he’s wonderful.)

  10. Rockit
    July 31, 2009 at 7:45 pm

    I’d like to put in a mention for one of my all-time favourites, Jim Thompson too. Sure, his stories tended to be from the opposite point of view – the amoral anti-hero who was smarter than the rest but who always seemed to get caught in the web he tangled – but the female characters never seemed to fall into the realm of stereotypes and they usually had, if not always rational, eminently understandable and human motivatons.

    Plus in terms of economy, his best stuff’s up there with the cream of 20th century writing. The second chapter of The Grifters alone is six pages long, and it’s an absolute masterclass in short form characterisation.

  11. Maria
    August 1, 2009 at 7:50 am

    I think this discusion is not complete without mentioning Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, as far from ingenue as from femme fatale: an old lady who tends to think logically and to think the worst of everyone. And who plays with stereotypes, posing as innofensive, frail, and a terrible gossip. She is part of the canon since 1930. And the author used to love her as much as she hated Poirot.

    Although noir genre writers were mostly male, and in general wrote the stereotypical female characters, mistery novels are totally different; in my opinion because most of the good authors are women: think of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhoney, or Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta, as unstereotypycal as females as they are (sometimes) stereotypical as detectives.

    Another female character that I love (Huge in all Europe right now), is Lisbeth Salander, by Stieg Larsson, a feminist man (judging him by his work) if there ever was one.

  12. Josh Jasper
    August 1, 2009 at 9:26 am

    I really have to quibble with the “money hungry” part of your characterization. The noir detective is always cynical, but money hungry? Nope. Down on his luck, and in *need* of money, for certain. But not greedy, just struggling to get by. He often never gets paid at all, or takes on cases for free.

    The standard trope is that the detective is very shortly going to get kicked out of his office for not paying rent, and a beautiful woman who’s not who she seems comes by and offers him a job that’s not what it seems. That’s the classic noir story start.

  13. Sophia
    August 1, 2009 at 11:13 am

    Running a s/hand bookshop, its always great when you can recommend authors that you like that are somewhat overlooked. Mary Wings only got limited print runs in europe, mainly ‘women’s press’. She writes classic noir, updated to the 80’s and 90’s, with a strong lesbian detective, mixing a surprising degree of eroticism with interesting subversions of the genre. An honourable mention to
    Glen Cook’s ‘Garrett PI’ series. Of course if we can count cyber-punk…

  14. Morgan Page
    August 1, 2009 at 1:33 pm

    Christa Faust’s Money Shot is my favourite example of Noir, and especially female-written Noir. It’s bloody brilliant. Not only that, but the tough-as-nails sex worker main character, I feel, breaks through the stereotype of the sex-worker-as-victim so prevalent in Noir.


  15. NickS
    August 2, 2009 at 2:43 pm

    in female noir, [the femme fatale] is no more power or money hungry than the men she’s dealing with. The Noir world has very strict rules, as I’ve mentioned. If she does not want to be passive,

    For what it’s worth this was very much my understanding of the Femme Fatale in The Maltese Falcon movie.

    One of my favorite scenes in the movie is the final showdown with Spade, Gutman (with his thugs), and O’Shaughnessy and the realization that O’Shaughnessy is probably the most powerful and dangerous person in the room.

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