Books & Ideas

Femininjas

Women in Fiction Fight Back

January 01, 2013
Angela Callanan

In Stieg Larsson’s best-selling Millennium series—The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc.—a disaffected teenaged rape survivor, Lisbeth Salander, kicks ass and takes names. Readers and critics hailed Larsson’s creation as groundbreaking. To pick just one representative case, Michiko Kakutani, in her review of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, calls Salander “one of the most original characters in a thriller to come along in a while: . . . the vulnerable victim turned vigilante; a willfully antisocial girl.” One would think the critics had never seen a woman in pants before, let alone one who can hold her own against the patriarchy.

And perhaps they never have, in which case introductions are a couple thousand years overdue. “Let no man think I’m a trivial woman, a feeble one who sits there passively,” Euripides’ Medea announces. “No, I’m a different sort—dangerous to enemies, but well disposed to friends. Lives like mine achieve the greatest glory.”

Ah, Medea—the first bad girl of literature, if one discounts Lilith, who’s never given a chance to voice her own opinion of Adam before he dumps her for Eve. Medea, the raging fury, is most remarkable not so much for her extensive list of crimes, knowledge of poisons, or lack of what modern readers might call sympathetic traits as for her unrepentant, single-minded desire for vengeance against her two-timing lover, Jason. First she poisons his innocent bride, gloating at the news of her anguished death. Then, with her own hands, though not without some protracted anguish of her own, she kills her two young children by Jason. Refusing the grief-stricken Jason a final embrace of the boys’ corpses, she gives him a terse kiss-off—“Your words are wasted.”

Medea might cast a cold eye on Larsson’s characterization of Salander as a near-anorexic, childlike waif who musters almost superhuman powers in her own quest for vengeance. Emphasizing Salander’s youth and gamine appearance evokes some disturbing similarities with Bella—the weirdly infantilized, profoundly unsexy narrator of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series—and with Fifty Shades of Grey’s equally dumb and vanilla BDSM protagonist Anastasia, whose college education might have benefited from a SparkNotes reading of Mary Gaitskill and Mrs. Gaskell.

Whatever might be said about these popular 21st-century novels, they can’t be described as feminist works, books that advocate for, and present a vision of, equality between women and men. Larsson’s novels come closest, although their depiction of Lisbeth as a sociopath, irrevocably and pathologically damaged by her rape, is an uncomfortable reminder that, in popular culture, rape survivors are still defined by their trauma. Recent statistics indicate that one in six women will be the victim of a violent sexual assault or an attempted assault. Add to that the number of sexual assaults that go unreported, and you have a vast number of potential sociopaths.

The truth is that many of us who survived rape have gone on to live relatively normal lives, despite suffering from post-traumatic stress and other psychological disorders. I sometimes wonder if the success of books such as Twilight and Fifty Shades is itself a form of mass PTSD or Stockholm syndrome—a reaction to the ubiquity of violence against women and to the way in which stories of sexual violence, real or feigned, have become a culturally accepted form of entertainment; and a reaction to the often intolerable pressures of living in a world where power is still mostly in the hands of men.

But even Larsson doesn’t venture far enough into this battleground. Lisbeth, for all her violence, does not reject her objectification in male fantasies. However, some recent novels feature female protagonists who do, genuinely, transgress in this way. They are, to borrow a coinage from poets Charmira Nelson and Kai Davis, “femininjas”: women characters who utilize stealth, exile, and cunning, not to mention subterfuge and hand-to-hand combat, in their efforts to fight back.

• • •

“This is the story of Bella,” Helen Zahavi writes, opening her debut novel, Dirty Weekend. “She’s no one special. England’s full of wounded people. . . . You must have seen them. You’ve probably passed them. You’ve certainly stepped on them.”

First published in 1991 to considerable controversy, Dirty Weekend was republished last year in an electronic edition after being out of print, and thank God for that. Unquestionably ahead of its time, the book has been unjustly forgotten, despite (or maybe because of) its Hollywood adaptation directed by Michael Winner of Death Wish infamy.

Zahavi’s novel takes place in Brighton, also the setting for Graham Greene’s great noir Brighton Rock. (Dirty Weekend’s original cover art features a crushed stick of Brighton rock, the phallus-shaped candy that gave Greene’s novel its name.) Bella has a few things in common with Greene’s innocently oblivious heroine Rose. Both have symbolically charged names; both come under the microscopic, deranged scrutiny of sociopathic men; both undergo a powerful religious experience during a nightmarish narrative of Brighton’s underworld.

A minor difference is that Rose’s epiphany revolves around self-deluding religious belief, whereas Bella’s involves the inexpert yet highly satisfying deployment of a hammer into a man’s face.

Bella lives in a spectacularly grim basement bedsit: lightless, clammy, smelling of drains. She’s a “good loser”:

All she wanted was to be left alone, which didn’t seem a lot to ask. She expected little, and received less, and thanked her gods for what she got. . . . it was a dull, grey life, a mutant kind of life, an abortion of a life. But it was hers, and she accepted it.

Bella is one of “the women men don’t see”—to crib the title of a classic story by the American writer James Tiptree Jr., whose real name was Alice Sheldon—until she is seen, in the worst possible way, by a psychotic voyeur in a flat that overlooks hers. Zahavi’s descriptions of Bella’s initial contact with her stalker, Tim, are terrifying; they eschew the sickly pornification of such encounters in too many novels and films. Instead, Zahavi captures the horrific banality of a stalker’s obsession, how in repetition it becomes ritualized sexual behavior.

“Cheap women buy cheap curtains,” Tim says when he first calls Bella, who has an unlisted phone number.

I can see the shape of you through the material. When you have the light on I can see you moving about. I like the way you move. I like looking down and seeing you move and knowing you’re in there. I can tell by the way you move that you know I’m watching you. You’ve got a kind of look-at-me way of moving. It’s naughty of you, to move like that, when you know I’m watching.

The stalker becomes more suggestive, and more threatening, until Bella finally takes action and contacts the one person she believes can help her—not a member of the local constabulary or rape crisis unit, but an Iranian self-professed clairvoyant who goes by the unlikely name of Nimrod. It’s one of the novel’s longest and funniest set pieces, and not without its own horrors: a former journalist, Nimrod lost a hand for his political beliefs. He elicits from Bella the revelation that she used to be a prostitute, then asks, “Tell me what frightens you.”

‘Everything frightens me.’
‘What above all?’
‘Men,’ she said. ‘Men frighten me.’
‘You’ve known many men. You know their weakness. You know their cowardice. What is there to fear?’
‘Their hunger frightens me. The way they look at me frightens me. What I read in their eyes frightens me.’
‘And what do you read?’
‘What they want they must possess. What they can’t possess they must penetrate. What they can’t penetrate they must destroy.’

Bella’s responses become a litany: she is creating her own ritual. And as many rituals do, this one demands a sacrifice. Nimrod gives her a switchblade, along with a brief lecture:

‘For most people,’ he said, ‘The world is divided into murderers, victims, and spectators . . . . You must choose what you will be.’

‘I want to be a spectator.’

‘You don’t have that option.’

‘So I have no choice.’

‘You have a choice.’

‘What choice?’

‘The only choice . . . . Take the knife.’

She does, and she goes hunting.

We’ve been through first-wave, second-wave, third-wave, and now fourth-wave and no-wave feminism. In their gleeful nihilism, books such as Zahavi’s might be seen as exemplars of post-wave feminism. In Dirty Weekend, Zahavi unapologetically stacks the deck against the Y chromosome. Bella is a modern Circe: within a short time of meeting her, each man she encounters turns into a grunting, heaving, lust-addled pig, and she slaughters every one of them.

“You see them on the screen,” Zahavi writes of the men whose fantasies repeat in every medium, “trying not to smirk as they sit there in their freshly laundered linen . . . . And running through it all, bubbling away beneath the surface, you hear the self-justifying snivel of the unrepentant rapist.”

So Much Pretty is a full-bore attack on the commodification of violence against women.

Bella’s killing spree is a fantasy of another sort, a distaff fantasy. Like the eponymous heroine of Lolly Willowes, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1926 novel about a twentieth-century witch who strikes a deal with Satan to escape male tyranny, Bella upends the usual relation in which men see in women only what they want to see—objects of lust. She casts her spell, and now men see only what she wants them to see. She is Wedekind’s Lulu with an Italian automatic, and the ending of Dirty Weekend is an obvious homage to Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s unforgettable silent film Pandora’s Box (1929), down to the confrontation with a knife-wielding serial killer who preys on women, in both versions named Jack (as in the Ripper). Only instead of dying in Jack’s embrace, as Louise Brooks’s Lulu does in the film, Bella guts him.

“To stab him, she discovered, was to know him,” Zahavi writes, and as Bella savages the beast, it would take a heart of stone not to cheer.

Or perhaps not, if you’re a man. Dirty Weekend’s final lines are as minatory and sinister as anything in recent fiction. Mothers, lock up your sons.

• • •

Cara Hoffman’s So Much Pretty (2011) opens with a description of another anonymous victim:

They are looking for someone with blond or dark brown or black hair.

Someone with blue or maybe brown or green eyes. She could be five foot six or five-eight. Her hair could also be red, could be an unnatural color like pink or white.

It is likely she weighs between 110 and 140 pounds and may have a scar or bruise on her throat.

She would be working somewhere unseen. Working as a waitress or secretary or laborer. She could be a student. . . .

She could be hitchhiking or taking public transportation, could be walking. She could be named Jamie, or Catherine, or Liz. Alexandra, Annie, Maria. Any name at all. . . .

As we are well aware, it is easy for a woman who fits this description to just disappear.

As we are well aware, it is easy for any woman to disappear. Perhaps the sole common denominator in the novels discussed here is women’s deeply embedded fear of annihilation. Not necessarily fear of death or murder, though those are certainly on the table, but the far more generalized, frightening, existential dread that the critic John Clute calls “vastation”: a fear of obliteration, of being swallowed by the abyss, of being erased.

Again and again in these novels, a woman’s sense of her own identity comes under threat, and we witness it dissolve like a body in lime.

In Sophie Hannah’s The Other Woman’s House, Tana French’s Broken Harbor, Mo Hayder’s Gone, and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, the danger appears to come from a husband. In Megan Abbott’s Dare Me, set in the hothouse adolescent world of competitive cheerleading, it comes from another girl. In other books, it’s an entire culture—California’s porn movie industry in Christa Faust’s Money Shot, the Arab world in Zoë Ferraris’s City of Veils, the diseased American heartland in Hoffman’s So Much Pretty.

Hoffman is a former journalist who covered upstate New York’s rust belt. In So Much Pretty, her first novel, that experience bleeds into her characterization of Stacey Flynn, a small-town reporter investigating the disappearance of a young local waitress named Wendy White. The hard-drinking Stacey is fueled by rage; she isn’t obsessed with vengeance but rather with justice:

‘You know, I spent most of today on the phone with the Bureau of Crime Statistics . . . . I looked up the names of all the women who were murdered this year—and the subcategory of all the women who were murdered by their boyfriends or husbands or guys they’d dated. . . .

‘If you wanted to make a memorial for those women who died in that kind of violence throughout history—which no one does, of course—but if you did you would be carving names at roughly the same rate the crimes are being committed. If you wanted a historical monument—you know, one that had casualties, beatings, rapes, disfigurations—you’d need something like the Great Wall of China.’

Hoffman isn’t interested in designing a memorial for those women, but in righting the balance of power between men and women—and not through discussion or education, political empowerment or economic equity, but by the means men have traditionally used: violence, directed at both guilty and innocent.

She creates a heroine who becomes a real-life action hero—Alice Piper, the precocious fifteen-year-old daughter of almost pathologically optimistic artists who moved upstate from the Lower East Side in search of a more authentic, rural life in the town of Haeden, a place that’s been literally poisoned by the agribusiness that bought out its failing dairy farms.

A casual friend of the missing Wendy, Alice is a loner who wishes the kindly older girl hadn’t graduated from high school before Alice started her freshman year. Hoffman—for whom fairy tales such as Peter Pan and Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories are obvious reference points—has said that she’s given her young protagonist the sort of origin story one usually associates with superheroes, though Alice has no actual superpowers. She is, however, an exceptionally gifted child and a superb swimmer. Her one close friendship is with a similarly intellectually precocious boy who, like herself, is an outsider among Haeden’s claustrophobic, small-minded populace. Hoffman doesn’t mince words in her depiction of Haeden, or of anything else for that matter. As Stacey puts it in a diatribe directed against her male employer, Scoop:

‘You’re here because you are comfortable around stupid people. You know they’re easy to exploit. And the cost of living is cheap. There’s about one hundred of you who are even capable of abstract thought! And even those people are nearly unintelligible. . . . I don’t need to learn how to speak your fucking language, because your language is being eradicated, thank fucking God! Do you know that word? “Eradicated”? Your life, your way, your language. And for a good fucking reason. It’s all bullshit!’

Scoop merely gapes at Stacey in disbelief: “He had never in his life seen anyone behave like that.”

Poor Scoop should get used to it. Stacey isn’t the only woman turning a Medusa’s gaze upon the men of Haeden. Alice is young enough, smart enough, strong enough, and idealistic enough that when her ideals are shattered, she adopts a scorched-earth policy toward evildoers. Like Zahavi’s Bella, Alice is a maenad with a mission.

Wendy, the missing waitress, shows up dead after having been abducted, held captive, and repeatedly gang-raped. In the hallways at school, Alice overhears a group of boys talking about the rape and realizes they are the perpetrators.

She doesn’t go to the police with the information. Instead she starts to educate herself by reading about similar crimes.

“These were things I didn’t know about,” Alice realizes.

My mother and father never told me about these things. They gave me books to read. Theory and philosophy. Ideas about why the culture is the way it is. But we didn’t talk specifically about who was doing these things. . . . It was a big gap in my education.

Quick study that she is, Alice immediately grasps who is doing these things, and who did them to Wendy:

Men raped her, men killed her, men dumped her, men found her, men are examining her remains, men are looking for the men who did it. Then the men who did it will be represented in court by men, and a man will make the decision based on laws men made throughout the legal history of this country.

Like Zahavi, Hoffman has no compunction about stacking the deck against the opposite sex. It would take centuries, perhaps millennia, to compensate for all those female corpses. Alice and Bella are simply making up for lost time.

“Research is essential in making any rational decision,” Alice states in one of the novel’s most chilling lines. So Much Pretty isn’t satire, but there are Swiftian echoes in Alice’s actions and in her revelation that “my parents, whom I love, were utterly wrong.”

All the boys I had ignored or pitied or excused throughout school were also something else. They were something entirely different.

After Wendy White’s body was found, I saw the world as it was for the first time. When her body was found, I was also found. I woke up in her grave and gazed down at my legs, took in the power of my lungs, my biceps, my hands, and knew what they were for.

The ending of So Much Pretty is controversial and shocking. On her high school’s Spirit Day, when many of the students wear costumes, Alice dresses in a mermaid wig and glitter makeup, pulls a gun out of her backpack, and starts shooting boys. It’s a horrifying scene, difficult to read, difficult even to write about, especially for a parent, which Hoffman is. The final body count is seven: Alice kills the boys who preyed on Wendy; she also kills innocent male bystanders. As her chilling earlier revelation has made clear, Alice’s response to the boys’ behavior is rational and in kind, with a Glock 37 pistol. She’s now playing the same game they are, only on the girls’ team. She’s just leveling the playing field.

One of the police officers—a woman—who books Alice as a possible suspect notes of the prisoners with whom Alice is briefly incarcerated,

Alice Piper, if she was guilty, had done something I’m sure a lot of them dreamed about. Hell, I think there’s girls not even in jail who’ve had those feelings.

There’s a lot of angry girls in here. That’s just how it is. Put two and two together. You can see it in their faces. None of them were shedding tears over what happened at Haeden High.

Hoffman says that So Much Pretty is only in part about male hatred of women. It’s also a full-bore attack on the commodification of violence against women, so deeply embedded in our culture that we no longer notice how sick it is.

“Every single day, every half hour, someone is disposing of a woman’s life,” she said in an interview. “And that is very entertaining in this country. Look at CSI—it usually begins with a female victim. Look at the news. As much as possible, media links to sex. You see a piece about a man who sets his girlfriend on fire; the picture is of her in a bikini.”

In popular culture, women who don’t play by the rules tend to either be killed or to choose their own annihilation. Even Beth, the manipulative, perhaps sociopathic head cheerleader who wreaks havoc in Abbott’s Dare Me, in part because she’s spurned by the girl she loves, deliberately takes a near-fatal swan dive in front of a packed gymnasium during the team’s final competition.

Alice Piper isn’t self-destructive. Alice Piper doesn’t fit the diagnostic criteria for a sociopath. She’s not impulsive; she has no record of violent behavior; she’s not a compulsive liar, or antisocial, or emotionally detached. She’s a precocious child who has an abrupt and terrible moment of clarity when she sees the world for what it is—a place where the balance of power is determined by violence, lies, and cunning. To seize power from the enemy, one must learn to use his weapons.

In this, as in so many other things, Alice is a quick learner.

• • •

Amy, the charmingly narcissistic antiheroine of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (2012), really is a sociopath. The “treasured only child of creative-genius parents,” Amy is a wealthy writer possessed of her own creative genius, though we don’t see it in action till halfway through Flynn’s sublimely clever novel.

Gone Girl opens with the frantic efforts of Amy’s husband, Nick, to prove himself innocent when Amy goes missing. Their living room shows signs of a desperate struggle.

Nick knocks back more than a few stiff ones after Amy disappears, and just about everything suggests that he murdered her. The most damning evidence is Amy’s diary, which recounts all the sweet little events and memories they shared during their marriage, and Nick’s gradual unraveling after he loses his job. As one entry reads, “Being married to Nick always reminds me: People have to do awful things for money.”

Do the awful things include bludgeoning your sweet, patient, loving wife and then dumping the body in the Mississippi? Poor Amy!

But two hundred pages in, we find ourselves reading about the real Amy. “Not Diary Amy, who is a work of fiction (and Nick said I wasn’t really a writer, and why did I ever listen to him?), but me, Actual Amy.”

Unlike Diary Amy, Actual Amy is a cold-eyed chameleon who expertly impersonates the kind of woman she believes a man wants. In fact she’s more basilisk than chameleon, and her killing gaze nails both men and women; her tongue drips acid and some nasty truths: not only are we faking it in bed, but we don’t really like football, either.

Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. . . .

Cool Girl . . . is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain. (How do you know you’re not Cool Girl? Because he says things like: ‘I like strong women.’ If he says that to you, he will at some point fuck someone else. Because ‘I like strong women’ is code for ‘I hate strong women.’)

Gone Girl topped out at number one on Publishers Weekly’s hardcover fiction bestseller list. It’s a brilliant novel, witty and creepy and often hilarious. But I have to wonder how many women laughed out loud once Actual Amy took over the page, and how many boyfriends and husbands cringed. Nick isn’t a rapist or an abusive partner. He’s sexy, intelligent, and mostly supportive. He communicates well and seems eager to please his romantic partner. His mortal sin is to be taken aback when, after two years of marriage, Amy stops pretending to want to be a Penthouse centerfold:

I hated Nick for being surprised when I became me. I hated him for not knowing it had to end, for truly believing he had married this creature, this figment of the imagination of a million masturbatory men, semen-fingered and self-satisfied. He truly seemed astonished when I asked him to listen to me. He couldn’t believe I didn’t love wax-stripping my pussy raw and blowing him on request. That I did mind when he didn’t show up for drinks with my friends. . . . That awful phrase men use: ‘I mean, I know you wouldn’t mind if I . . .’ Yes, I do mind. Just say it. Don’t lose, you dumb little twat.

• • •

In “The Women Men Don’t See,” Tiptree’s notorious 1973 story, Mrs. Parsons and her daughter are vacationing in Mexico. When their plane crashes, they’re marooned in the Yucatan with a fellow American who feels his job is to “protect” them, even as he casually contemplates rape:

The woman doesn’t mean one thing to me, but the obtrusive recessiveness of her, the defiance of her little rump eight inches from my fly—for two pesos I’d have those shorts down and introduce myself.

At the story’s close, the narrator is stunned when the Parsons opt to take their chances with an alien spaceship rather than remain safely with him. “Do all Mrs. Parsons’s friends hold themselves in readiness for any eventuality,” he wonders, “including leaving Earth?”

Maybe. “What women do is survive,” Mrs. Parson tells him at one point. “We live by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine.”

What women do in the books mentioned here doesn’t consist of survival so much as sabotage. They throw bricks and rocks and flaming bottles into the chinks of the masculine world machine, then pick up a gun and fire into the turning gears. If rape and other sexual violence, religious servitude, and the politically determined inaccessibility of contraception can be seen as acts of war, stories like these may not just be a means of escapism. In the mind’s eye, they might be weapons, to be picked up, opened, and deployed.

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