Monday, 15 August 2011

Desperate women.

Recently I submitted a couple of short stories to the Sisters In Crime Australia Scarlet Stiletto Awards, a short fiction competition for Australian women writers. The terms of entry for the contest specified "active woman protagonist". Now of course I know what this means, the character's desire drives the story, she has a plan, meets obstacles etc. etc. You won't find me arguing with this, it's Storytelling 101. I guess the judges didn't want to read a whole heap of stories where the female characters were all, you know... dead. Corpses in car boots.

And the truth is, across contemporary mainstream crime fiction, TV drama and films, this is still largely the case. (I'll never forget a review I once read for a new TV series in which the (male) reviewer wrote angrily, "from Twin Peaks on down, it's just more dead women!")

Interrogating my stories to see if they fit the brief--and pondering the relative 'activity' or 'passivity' of my characters--started me thinking about the role of women in our stories.

In 2011 the dominant culture promotes ass-kicking, strong, independent, sassy female characters and that's all good, I'm one of those girls and even if I weren't, them's the times we live in. BUT. I think we're missing something. Not every female character in books and TV and movies has to represent the Warrior archetype, there are others that are just as valuable (and some pretty great hybrids, like the Mother/Warrior in Terminator 2: Judgement Day)

'Strong' women are so often drawn as 2D cartoons, no facets, no inner life or secrets or contradictions. In trying to 'liberate' us from depictions of weakness or victimhood or frivolity, the culture offers us yet another cardboard fantasy. 'Role models' rather than actual characters. Bleugh. As for the femme fatales, (femmes fatale?), when they're written well they are a blast but it's rarer than it should be to find one who rings true, where there is honesty and nuance in the telling.

I've lived in this world as a female for a few years now, I've travelled the globe and met all kinds of folks and there's one thing I know for sure: sometimes the most dangerous, desperate thing a woman can do is to allow.

For many women in this world, attaching to a man and surrendering control is the best--sometimes the only--way of achieving a goal (shelter, money, babies, immigration) and the truth is, it's as fraught with danger as picking up a sword and going to battle.

For a real life perspective, let's look at my former next door neighbour. When she first moved in, she rocked up with her children and the house was peaceful and they smiled. They did, I saw them. Then, over time, desperate allowing: she let her new boyfriend move in to her house and bring his brothers and friends with him. She let him sell drugs from her doorstep. She started selling them herself. He set up methamphetamine production and distribution from the house, her house (italics because she yelled "this is my f*ckin house" two or three times a day; they were probably baby's first words). She gave him her car keys, she had a baby with him. She left him alone with her kids from previous relationships. Then domestic violence, lots of it, possibly molestation, she lied to the cops and the child protection workers for him, every time they came to the door, every single time. She kicked him out, she let him come back, she kicked him out, she let him come back. I don't know how the story will end but it doesn't look good.

It's a real life crime story, not original or compelling in itself but maybe a starting point. It's a real woman's role in a crime story. I'm not denying my former neighbour responsibility when i talk about allowing, I'm just saying she dropped a long way down for the love of another and she wasn't chasing that man down the street, she was just opening the door every time he knocked. (I hope it doesn't end with a corpse in a car boot but it's not inconceivable, the stakes are high and people aren't exactly in their right minds.) This happens all over the world, every day, but the question it raises--why does she keep going back to him?--is a great one, an important one. I wish I could find more well-written stories that grapple with it, cos you know, I've been guilty of over-allowing myself in the past and I'd love to know what the f*ck that was about. For some readers, why do I keep letting him/her back in? might be THE question in their life, the only question.

I found that very question wrapped up in Megan Abbott's delicious Bury Me Deep, the heroine at a turning point where she was racking her brains, saying to herself, "he is nothing, and yet still...?" Go find that bit, it'll knock you out.
As a somewhat related aside, one of the reasons for Ms. Abbott's breakaway success is that she is able to render women from earlier times (ie. USA in the 1940s) in an authentic way. She acknowledges her characters' 'passive' roles in society while giving them agency and curiosity and desire.

On to another example, seventies cinema is IMHO unbeatable and one of the best movies from that era, brutal and poignant and devastating, is Looking for Mr. Goodbar, which I'm sorry to say has not been released on DVD. (*Cough torr.ent cough*.)

I'm calling this story noir, not because it's dark--it is--but because the main character falls down a hole and then just keeps digging herself deeper and deeper until tragedy is the only possible outcome. It's based on the true story of a lonely New York schoolteacher with a habit of cruising bars for one night stands. It was fictionalised by Judith Rossner in 1975 as the novel Looking for Mr. Goodbar. In 1977 a true crime account was published by journalist Lacey Fosburgh (Closing Time: The True Story of the Goodbar Murder), the same year the novel became a feature film.
It might seem a dated idea now, everyone does whatever they want with anyone now, right? Umm. Just watch the movie. It's not a morality tale about the dangers of casual sex. It's drama, in the truest sense of the definition: people doing stuff to people.

Theresa Dunn gets in real trouble and the way she handles it gives us insight into how women feel and behave, but also how the character as a specific individual feels and behaves. She walks out into the night, she takes a lucky dip of random men from the streets of the city and she lets each one of them in. Literally, figuratively, metaphorically. I guess prostitutes do this every night but we know their goal, it's usually survival, money for living and the feeding of families and/or addictions. Theresa doesn't have to do this, she has other options for finding love and lust and companionship, but she's chasing something, she's getting a payoff. What is it? She doesn't know who they are, bad guys good guys, she doesn't think about that, she gives herself up completely to her inner pain and seems at times to be playing out some kind of death wish.

Brave. Risky. A challenge to sexual liberation and feminism, yes, a challenge to pretty much every value system I can think of. The fictionalisation of this true story shows what's best about storytellers, whose role it is to be truthful and revealing, the light bringers, not just flashing cool images and stereotypes at the reader or viewer, on the other hand not just repeating what is 'worthy' or what makes us look appealing or acceptable. I don't know that you could make this movie today.

So, back to passivity and I do apologise for the looong post but it's a big idea.

An internal, intuitive experience in a rough and tumble world makes for a fascinating story (I'm thinking of The Sound and the Fury and also Jane Campion's gorgeous In The Cut, adapted from the novel by Susannah Moore). Speaking of corpses in car boots, Detective Sarah Linden in
The Killing is a good example of a beautifully rendered heroine with a tangible inner life. She uses her gentle, compassionate nature in the service of her goal, ie. finding Rosie Larsen's murderer. She maintains an introspective manner without ever becoming a 'passive protoganist' (whose only function onscreen to be acted upon by others). I'm not saying she's sensitive because she's a woman or a mother, it's not like that, it's just who Linden is. She knows things nobody else can know, she goes places nobody else can go, because she listens and receives. A great quality for a detective.

British TV drama Thorne: Sleepyhead is another good example (adapted for television from Mark Billingham's Sleepyhead). We go inside the mind of a young woman whose attacker has deliberately afflicted her with 'locked in syndrome'. Her passivity is terrifying, she literally does not move, and yet she quests, she wants, she tries. It says something to me about being female, something I haven't seen or heard before.

The fact is, and this is getting all confessional here, it can feel good to yield (okay, unless you're the last character I mentioned). Maybe that's the answer to the why question, maybe it's that simple. Nobody sets out in life to be a hardass, not at first anyway. It feels good to be kind and accepting and to let go of the reins, it feels fantastic to truly, deeply forgive. It can feel like the reason you were put on this planet, like your spirit's work is done. BUT. When you're talking about real life, real human beings, you gotta pick the person on the other side of that dance, that lunge and parry. It can't be just anyone. There are opportunists and there are thieves and there are humans with great contempt for humanity. That makes for great books and movies, we love those books and movies. But in real life? It's called Russian Roulette, and it's a lonely game.

Just ask Theresa Dunn.

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