Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Reflections on gender themes

Recently a new prize called The Staunch was created for thrillers and mysteries that do not feature violence against women. It was conceived with the best of intentions by author and screenwriter Bridget Lawless, who was disgusted with the excessive use of graphic violence against women for entertainment or titillation. However, its overly broad guidelines and its choice to look away rather than to confront the very real problems that women face have produced strong reaction among serious, socially-conscious male and female crime writers alike, among them Val McDermid.

Is there an over-reliance on female rape/ murder tropes among crime writers? Is it limited to a certain kind of graphic thriller or is the theme common throughout the genre? Is it more prevalent on TV and screen than in books? Co-incidentally, and before #MeToo, #TimesUp and the launch of this prize, my daughter, actor/ playwright/ producer Dana Fradkin, conceived of and co-wrote a short film titled The Case of the Massey Bodice Ripping, which addresses this very issue, using comedy as a way to explore the tired trope of rape as a story driver and motivator. It's still in post-production, but should been on the festival circuit soon. Like many independent projects, its funding is largely through their indiegogo campaign, where more details are available.

 I rarely read or watch stories that feature "rape porn" unless they are powerfully written and have something new and important to say (I feel the same way about excessively violent fights and slaughters of men as well), so it's difficult for me to say whether there is an overabundance of them. However, the controversy around this prize got me thinking about my own views and my own work. There are all kinds of prizes for all kinds of works, and people are entitled to create any prize they want, but if the intent of the prize is to protest how violence against women is handled in creative work, I agree with the naysayers. Perhaps more than any other genre, crime writers explore and lay bare the moral wrongs, social inequities and human struggles of their society. Violence against women is a very real issue that deserves to be looked at head-on, rather than pretending that the problems faced by 50% of the population don't exist.

That said, I began to wonder about my own work. I now have sixteen novels under my belt, so I took stock. Much of our writing is determined by our subconscious preoccupations, and over time, we see the same themes surfacing in book after book by authors. I wondered what my subconscious had to say. How did I portray mothers? Fathers? What motives and themes predominated?

As it turns out, I have never used violence against women as the primary theme or story driver, although it's been a secondary theme in a couple of them, and I have not had a single rape. I've had several books that looked at childhood scars and child abuse, both physical and sexual, but since I'm a child psychologist, that's part of my my canvas. A quick and dirty head count of my books revealed that I had eight male killers, five female, and three where both a men and a woman were implicated. I had ten male victims, three female, and three where both sexes died.

Of all the themes explored in my books, from PTSD to child abuse to love gone awry, the theme of family – misunderstandings and jealousies, revenge and betrayal, old secrets, and protection of family– often lurks at the root. It appears I kill more men than women, and that men are more often the perpetrators. But women take centre stage as agents of violence as well, more often than as victims. "Evil" is rarely evil in my books, but rather a desperate, ill-advised choice at the end of a long, sometimes righteous, struggle. Perhaps it's time I used the powerful but damaged women I seem to create to shine a spotlight on gender-based violence. Who knows?

I'm curious to know whether other writers have done this kind of autopsy on their body of work (mine was admittedly superficial), and detected recurring themes that speak to the issues that fascinate them. I'd love to hear comments on this.


Vicki Delany said...

I haven't thought about my own books, but I now will. I have said before that I am opposed to the idea of this prize for several reasons. Yes, gratuitous violence against women is often used for the titillation factor, but this prize is aiming too broadly. The victim is often the central character in a book. It's as the detectives try to solve the crime or the people who are affected react, that we learn about the complexities of the victim. And maybe she has a story we should hear. Plus, it's sorta reducing the suspense factor. We will know because this book won this prize that no female character is going to be harmed.

Melodie Campbell said...

Violence in my novels is 50/50, I've just realized. No rape. No torture. I'm actually in favour of this new award, for selfish reasons. I don't want to read any more novels in which women are abused. It's not that they can't be good novels. It's just that I've read enough. So I'm looking for that shortlist of novels this award will produce, so I have a good reading list.