Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A women's lot

Barbara here. We have a bit of a gender war going on here on Type M, and it's great fun. I am going to weigh in on Bechdel quickly before taking the gender talk in a slightly more personal direction.

I think the purpose of the Bechdel Test is not to force score-keeping or to criticize anyone's work for falling on the wrong side of the test. It's to create awareness. As every woman knows, a lot of biases and prejudices influence us below the level of awareness and form such an integral part of our culture and our own personal experience that we don't even notice them. Particularly if we are not a member of the group on the receiving end. Women are more acutely aware of biased attitudes that affect them, while men are often blissfully unaware. Black people are more aware of racism than whites, gay people more aware of homophobia, and so on.

As Rick, Violette and Vicki all pointed out, we have come a long way since the barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen days; women enter the professions in equal numbers to men and have broken many of the stereotypes that formed barriers. But we still have a long way to go, especially when it comes to rising to the top. The more money, status, and power a position has, the more likely it is to be filled by a man. This is true whether the field is politics, academia, finance, corporate CEOs, or show biz.

Closer to home, in the world of Canadian and American crime writing where men and women publish in more or less equal numbers, men still tend to get more reviews, more festival invitations, more award nominations, and bigger publishers. It's as if the stories women tell are somehow less important than men's. And as Vicki highlighted in her Delany Test, as if women's stories are just about women instead of people.

The Delany Test and the Bechdel Test can help us become more aware of this subtle but extremely powerful bias. It's true as Rick pointed out that women can push back with an equal bias. Some men men won't read a book about a woman, and quite a few, as I can attest, won't even read one written by a woman, because they are pretty sure it "won't interest me." As an aside, the only two female authors who have won the Arthur Ellis Best Novel Award in the last ten years (myself and Louise Penny) have male police detectives as their main character.

Which brings me to my own personal gender diversion. For fifteen years I have written about a male detective. When I first conceived of Inspector Green in the 1980s, I was heavily influenced by my favourite British crime novelists like PD James and Ruth Rendell, both of whom had male police detectives. In those days the police were overwhelmingly male in real life as well, so it didn't even occur to me to make my detective female. In the first few books, I didn't even include a female on his team (also quite normal in real life). One day a woman reader demanded to know why I chose to make my hero a man. She went so far as to say I "should" be writing about a woman, as if I were somehow betraying my own sex.

I don't like being told what to do, as my family knows. And I don't regret for an instant the time I've spent with Inspector Green. I love him as a character and he's been a source of constant inspiration and entertainment, but that comment was the first step in raising my own level of awareness. From that point on I included female officers on Green's team, both the enthusiastic but brash Detective Sue Peters and the ambitious, self-serving Superintendent Barbara Devine. In short, both people who happened to be women. Over the course of the series, I have collected a lot of committed readers, both men and women, who enjoy Inspector Green and the whole cast.

I am now embarking on a brand new series, and this time in the interests of a fresh challenge, coupled with the wish to explore new characters and new themes, I am switching things up. I am picking up the mantle of the amateur sleuth and giving up the police procedural format, and my main hero will be a woman. I will be sticking to my gritty, psychological style, with an emphasis on the human condition. But will I be pigeonholed firmly in the "woman's story" camp now? Will my male readers follow me, and will they enjoy the experience of cheering on a woman as she confronts the struggles and evils she encounters?

Let's hope so. Let's hope we've come that far.


Rick Blechta said...

I will say it again, I will always read a book with strong characters who resonate, regardless of whether they're female,male, or possible even a cat. That last one, by the way, is one in which I haven't been tested yet, but I know that day is coming...

LD Masterson said...

I fear you could run into an assumption that a female amateur sleuth means "cozy". Hopefully, good marketing and your established fan base will avoid that. Best of luck with the new series.

Barbara Fradkin said...

This series will be a long way from cozy, LD. As you say, though, preconceptions can be brutal. Rick, thank you! You are a true Renaissance man. Luckily, crime fiction has books for every taste and mood. Although cats...?