Crime Fiction – an Essentially Masculine Genre

The Crime Fiction genre has long held conventions antithetic to feminism. Through the values these conventions imply, female traits are devalued and female characters marginalized. In Michael Ondaatje??™s forensic novel Anil??™s Ghost and Alan Moore??™s graphic novel Watchmen, female crime fighters must assume male traits to succeed in restoring order and delivering justice. Similarly, in John Huston??™s classic noir film The Maltese Falcon and Alfred Hitchcock??™s film Rear Window, female characters are portrayed in chauvinistic or marginalizing ways through the engagement of Crime Fiction conventions.
The female crime-fighter appears to be only successful when she adopts certain chauvinistic traits. In Anil??™s Ghost this is certainly true of the eponymous crime fighter, who engages with the conventions of the hard-boiled seeker-hero, such as Huston??™s Sam Spade. While the amateur female sleuth ???has been a staple of mystery novels for generations??¦ the professional female character is an exhilarating newcomer to a market long dominated by men??? (Mizejewski). This is shown in Anil. She is a loner, her family dead and her husband and lover abandoned. Her name serves as a metaphor for her masculation, as she first buys it of her brother ??“ paradoxically, using her sexuality ??“ and then denies her family??™s attempts to emasculate her name by adding an ???e??™ to the end. An important element of the male hard boiled crime-fighter is pursuit of women, and this is satisfied by the sexual relationship is implied between Anil and Leaf. Also a part of hard-boiled romance is that the crime-fighter is never taken in by their lovers, as Anil is not taken in by Cullis, and does not allow herself to be restrained by him, striking back forcefully. However, Anil is fundamentally a female character, and so her fundamental inability to fit the masculine convention is reflected in her ultimate failure to achieve justice and restore order.
This marginalization is also present in the superhero sub-genre. As ???a dissection, homage and scathing critique of the superhero genre??? (Grossman), Watchmen explores how in this sub-genre women are represented. Laurie, or the second Silk-Spectre, has both typically masculine and feminine features. Her affinity with violence, occasional ruthlessness and risk-taking are engagements with both the hard-boiled hero and the male, superhero archetype. However, this is brought into conflict with a perceived weakness of her femininity. For instance, she requires shelter from the supremely masculine character ??“ often reinforced visually ??“ of Dr Manhattan. In contrast, the overwhelmingly masculine Rorscharch, who embodies the conventionally masculine character traits of morality, determination and courage, takes on an exaggerated form of the ???Sam Spade??? dismissal of women, transforming it into direct hate borne out of an abusive past. His landlady has ???purple bite marks on her fat white neck. Fresh ones. She reminds me of my mother???. This unflattering imagery is a typical example of Rorscharch??™s values towards women. However, we are actively encouraged to connect with Rorscharch to some extent. In this way Moore forces us to ask – if characters that clearly engage with the sub-genres conventions are fundamentally chauvinistic, what does that imply of the values fundamental to the genre.
Conventions of Crime Writing impact feminism beyond the convention of the crime fighter. Secondary characters engage with sub-genre conventions such as the femme fatale, or reinforce conventional gender roles. In John Huston??™s The Maltese Falcon, the only notable female character is Ms OShaughnessy, a clear ???femme fatale??™, a convention described by Michael Mills as ???one who leads men into danger or disaster???, and a clearly chauvinistic convention borne from a context devoid of feminism. The convention of the femme fatale engages with several chauvinistic ideas ??“ that the women uses her ???womanly charms??™ to get what she wants, and that these goals are nearly always malicious. OShaughnessy attempts to lure Sam Spade into several traps and control his actions, but always Spade remains a step ahead and aware of her manipulations. This appears to be a double hit from the convention, in that not only does OShaughnessy use methods demeaning to women to pursue her goals, but she ultimately fails in this pursuit. Through Huston??™s textbook engagement with this convention an inherent sexism inherent emerges.
Like Huston??™s film, Rear Window has clear chauvinistic values present as a result of its place in the genre. Secondary female characters are portrayed in a sexist light due to Hitchcock??™s engagement with the genre, and thus reveal the genre??™s inherent sexism. Lisa and Stella form the two main female characters, who do encouragingly form the majority of the three protagonists. Additionally, they form the active crime fighters, seeking clues in Thorwald??™s forbidding apartment in a fashion reminiscent of the hard-boiled detective while Jeff is delegated to a powerless viewer. However, these characters engage with stereotypes of femininity which exposes the text??™s values regarding genre. Stella is the comical, mature and stern women, and Lisa is the somewhat airy socialite. Whilst these stereotypes are not engaged to the level of Huston??™s femme fatale, they still appear to be a strong inspiration for these characters. Lisa and Stella both service Jeff, providing him with everything he needs. While this is justifiable narratively, it still forms a strong symbol of the values present in the text. The sub-plot of Jeff??™s fear of commitment is reflected in both the crime taking place across the courtyard and in other mis-en-scenes like that of the newlyweds. Mrs Thorwald is, like Jeff, immobilized, and this powerlessness is suggested in that no struggle is shown when Mr Thorwald kills her. Instead, she simply disappears.
When texts engage with conventions of crime-writing, they take on the values inherent in those conventions. Many of those conventions, especially those relating to particular sub-genres like the hard-boiled or the superhero crime fiction text, hold fundamentally ant-feminist values. These values seep through into characters and narrative, presenting women as cliched, or suggesting that feminist traits are ineffective in a crime-fiction text. Even when these traits are abandoned by female characters, they still prove ineffective merely due to the fact that they are women. This suggests a fundamental masculinity, but also chauvinism, of many of the sub-genres in crime writing, if not the entire genre.

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