In The Library

Where are the normal women in fiction?

Brooke Magnanti has a Ph.D. in Forensic Pathology and has worked in forensic science, epidemiology and cancer research. In 2009, Brooke was revealed as the anonymous author of the award-winning blog Belle de Jour and bestselling Secret Diary of a Call Girl books, which were adapted into the hit ITV show starring Billie Piper.
Brooke came over to talk to us about the portrayal of women in fiction, ahead of the release of her debut crime novel, The Turning Tide.

Right. I admit it: I am fed up of “strong women characters.”

Where are all the normal women?

In a genre where psychological thrillers are all the rage and unsympathetic women have dominated bestseller lists it might seem like any sexism in crime novels is long gone.

But is that true? One metric of female characters that has had a lot of attention is the Bechdel Test. Proposed by American cartoonist Alison Bechdel, it asks whether two named female characters talk to each other about something that isn’t a man. A surprisingly small number of films actually pass the test… not to mention books.

The Bechdel Test has since spawned similar tests of characters. Are we told this woman is strong and smart, but her only action is falling in love with the male hero? That’s a case of Trinity Syndrome (of Matrix fame). Is she only there to teach the hero how to enjoy life in a childlike manner? Then she’s a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

You’d think novels would be ahead of films on this, especially with books written by women selling so well. We can all think of crime heroines on whose shoulders bestselling series rest. But who are the other women in those books? Apart from the corpses? I’ve lost count of the women in books who spend many chapters – sometimes the entire manuscript! – interacting with no other women at all. Hotshot solo investigators whose colleagues are all male. It’s depressing.

Once you start asking yourself those questions, the illusion of plenty of women in crime starts to buckle.

My background in forensic science showed me it is a popular course for women, and that in some specialities like forensic anthropology, the women outnumber the men. In our university department, which included everyone from mortuary assistants to pathologists, our head of department was female, most of the students were women, and about half of the mortuary assistants were too.

And since when does fiction have to follow the crowd? Isn’t it always better when it leads the way? Given the amount of speculative science that crime writers adopt for the purposes of plot, is having one female cop talk to one female pathologist really so unimaginable?

I don’t want to single out particular books as bad because I believe most authors do this without giving it second thought. We as writers are often so wrapped up in the crafting of a tale we forget to step back and address the bigger picture. Some people have written recent books that pass the Bechdel and Trinity tests admirably: Clare Macintosh, Ava Marsh, and Sarah Hilary’s books all come to mind.

But a recent BBC crime drama stood out, not in a good way. A retired cop is advises on a case she failed to solve years ago. For three-quarters of the plot, she speaks directly to no women, not even her stepdaughter! The sex worker victims are never heard, only pictured. It’s hard to have sympathy for someone whose skin you never get under. And harder to believe that a strong woman doesn’t have, somewhere, strong women in her own life – be they family, friends, or colleagues.

Other times women are well written in books only to be written out of film scripts. Remember Clarice Starling’s smart, sane roommate Ardelia Mapp? A key character in The Silence of the Lambs, she is barely in the film at all.

While writers are doing the work of creating strong women, let’s not forget to populate their worlds with the everyday women we all know. The shop assistants, the bus drivers, the professors and the police. Let us challenge ourselves not to simply default to male where a character can be anyone. Back in 1979, the sci-fi film Alien was famously written and cast gender-neutral. I won’t need to remind anyone how iconic and indelible that work was. Isn’t it about time crime writers did the same?

The Turning Tide is out now in paperback, ebook and audio download