Politically-Incorrect Pulp and The feminists Who Love It.
Cat Lynch (B.E.A Guest Writer)
I’ve got a secret Internet, and today I’m going to share with you (be gentle?)
I’ve been working on this image of a squinty, thinky , Thick-book reading feminist eschewing social norms and ridiculous beauty standards, concerned with things like truth, knowledge,* and organic gardening. But the truth is, I get tired. And when I do I usually reach for the brain-equivalent of those cheet-o balls from the 90’s**. (Why yes, I will listen to “I Want It That Way” ten times in a row. America’s Next Top Model Marathon’s on? Sure! Young adult fantasy novels? YES please.)
But my longest, and deepest, love is for politically incorrect whodunits, trashy dime-store pulps, and gritty, hard-boiled stories. Love them. I blame my mother. Halfway through high school she bought me a copy of Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None’ and I was hooked. At first I thought maybe it was the mystery I loved, the puzzle and the intellectual challenge, but even the highest recommended contemporary thrillers just don’t do it for me in the same way. That’s not to say I haven’t found some real jewels*** but none of them have quite the same effect to the tired mind in a state of crisis.
The types of stories I find myself drawn to are horribly dated, especially when viewed through a 21st century feminist lens. The protagonist is usually male, and women tend to fall into one of two categories; Virginal Victim or Villainous Vixen. The ones belonging to the former are largely forgettable. They are the numerous damsels in distress tugging at Archie Goodwin’s arm, or the first girl in a James Bond novel- the one that ends up dead (A perfect modern example: Strawberry Fields from the movie, Quantum of Solace). The specifics may vary from Good Girl to Good Girl, but a few key traits remain the same- usually shy or “nice,” maybe pretty, but never ravishing, if not a virgin then at least morally pure and almost always- a victim.
On the other hand, are the infamous femme fatales. These women are sexy, strong, and always trouble. In a world where even the grittiest good guy always wins, they always lose (but day-am do they do so with style). These are the names we remember; Cora Smith, Vesper Lynd, the earlier (but no less brilliant) Scarlett O’Hara. In his (fascinating and highly recommended article) No Place for a Woman: The Family in Film Noir , John Blaser states an argument for the Femme Fatale as being a symbol of rebellion- one “… of defiance against the traditional family and woman’s place in society,” and that even though she is defeated every time, “Her sexual emancipation commands the gaze of the hero, the audience, and the camera in a way that cannot be erased by her final punishment.” But to me, the F.F. is still a two dimensional character. She’s an object of desire, but she’s still an object. She maybe more exciting than the Good Girls, but she’s no more real.
It’s strange that I would like stories that are so black and white at first glance, especially in regards to women, considering how I was raised. The seeds of my own feminism were planted by my mother- an ardent feminist who also loved to sew and bake. A woman who sees no reason to see herself as an inferior based solely on gender, and who finds just as few reasons not to love makeup and pretty things. A woman who bought her daughter both Batman and Barbie. This lack of parameters around words like ‘woman’ and ‘feminist’ is largely responsible for how I see myself as well as others, a fact for which I’m unendingly grateful. I know that just as superficial traits like domesticity, prettiness, etc don’t make a woman more womanly, there are no characteristics, beyond a belief in equality and fairness for all humans regardless of gender, that make a feminist a feminist.
At the same time, however, every once in a while I feel like I’m failing somehow. I let the world get to me and start thinking I’m not feminine enough, or not feminist enough. (Does this shirt go with this skirt? Why do I care?…does it look like I’m trying to hard not to care? Stop caring! Stop caring about caring!!) Maybe that’s where dated, simple (and more often than not, slightly trashy) stories come in. In the worlds of Sam Spade or Mike Shayne, I don’t have to worry if my hair looks good (or if worrying about my hair in the first place makes me a traitor to The Cause). Bad day? I can be one of any hundreds of female victims- innocent and good, waiting to win the heart of the gritty Dick who will save me (or at least, give it a good try). Worse day? I’m Brigid O’Shaughnessy, taking what I want, when I want, giving them Hell and looking fantastic while doing it.
I know, I know. The women of the 40’s and 50’s were just as varied/messy/complicated as women are today (and with the added stress of stricter gender roles), just as I know the victim/vixen dichotomy still persists in popular culture (see also: Mary-Anne vs. Ginger). And in many ways, pulps and pulp-style stories were ahead of their time. They got away with a lot of innovative things, because they were able to fly under the radar, having already been labeled as rubbish. In reality, the better part of me would like to believe this is why I read them, but really, it’s just nice to get away from reality now and again. I don’t say this as a defense for my escape into fantasy, I’m just trying to decode my own brain and offer it as another complicated, messy and contradictory part of me- woman, feminist, human.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got wet nails, a stack of Raymond Chandlers and an Ani DiFranco album calling my name.
*Mostly through stories of social failings, a fascination with scabs and way too many pictures of my cat/other people’s cats
**OMGomg, I can’t be the only one who remembers those. Do they even still make them? Never mind, I shouldn’t know.
***See: Ian Pears and Carlos Ruíz Zafon for some truly excellent novels
Enjoyed what you just read? Check out more of what Cat Lynch has to offer at sheepgomoo.wordpress.com