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—Queenpin, The 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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