Bit of a content warning for discussion of rape and violence against women.
Back in fall of 2018, I wrote what Mr. Act and I have been referring to as “the rape paper,” or as I call it in my head, “the raper.” It was the culmination of an investigative research project I undertook into contemporary women’s detective fiction, post-1980.
I want to quote two things. First, from an op-ed called “Private Eyes, Public Spheres” by Sara Paretsky (Paretsky is the “I” in the quote):
Simon and Schuster sent me bound galleys for Heywood Gould’s new book, Double Bang. Michael Korda himself had signed the letter asking me to write a comment for the jacket. I tried reading this book, but in the first three pages two women were beaten up and sodomized and I didn’t see how I could go the distance. I did ffip through the last few chapters, to find the psychoanalyst heroine with black eyes and so many bruises that she couldn’t face her job for the day. Now what has happened to make it necessary for a writer like Gould to destroy so many women in such sadistic detail? We know in general that when we feel helpless and overwhelmed we lash out and seek to destroy those we think have stripped us of power. The violent rage with which Gould ravages women makes me think that he himself feels attacked by them. What could we have been doing to Heywood Gould?
Second, something from the rape paper, which addressed a different part of the op-ed:
In a 1988 op-ed, Sara Paretsky offers an anecdote that is emblematic of the challenges faced by women writers. While on an award committee for the Private Eye Writers of America, Paretsky refused to nominate any novel because of what she saw as gratuitous violence against women in all the choices. She goes on to say that her refusal to comply “created a lot of animosity among the boys on the committee. One of them took me aside to tell me that he would do everything in his power to see that no book of mine ever won a prize” (3). Paretsky’s story speaks both to the extraordinary, graphic violence against women that was prevalent in the genre during the post-Dashiell-Hammett ‘hardboiled’ era, and to the hostile attitudes of the male writers themselves toward women. Her essay examines the question of why, exactly, the hardboiled tradition so delights in violence against women.
To Paretsky, what changed to turn the paternalistic, honor-bound heroes of Westerns into the violent men of the hardboiled was the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920, giving women the right to vote and, she argues, turning them into a threat that needed to be dealt with (2). Catherine Ross Nickerson further cites “concern about a collective loss of masculine status” and a “’disintegration’ of the previously unassailable belief in […] female purity” following the rise of Freudianism (210) as agents that led to a desire, played out in fiction, for the “resubjugation of women” (211). Nickerson concludes, “The hard-boiled style’s hostility to and mistrust of women can hardly be overstated” (209). Unsurprisingly given the relationship between narrative and ideology, these anti-women detective stories reached their peak during the 50s, as attitudes about women’s place in the home reached its nadir.
The misogynistic violence of the hardboiled school of detective fiction, which rose to prominence in the 1920s and dominated crime fiction for decades, signified a sharp departure from the detective fiction that preceded it: the so-called Golden Age’s carefully curated, clean murders. However, the casual use of violence against women as a plot device (and a way to act out frustration with changing social conditions) was neither new nor innovative. Sexual violence in particular has long been a way for female characters to be punished and delegitimized, as well as a way to emphasize the importance of male characters and serve as their motivation. As detective fiction author Linda Barnes put it, these authors “[use] a woman in each book, and [dispose] of her as easily as [they] possibly could so his hero could spend the rest of the book avenging this disposable female” (Walton and Jones 95).
Writing the rape paper was emotionally harrowing. I had not intended to write about rape. It’s just that it kept coming up. I read about 20 books, maybe more, for the project; at least half a dozen of them had plots revolving around rape. It was clear there was something else going on, something I felt very strongly was the story of the fiction I was reading, something I felt very strongly about articulating. It was very difficult. The research drove me to tears sometimes, and I could often only complete a paragraph of the paper at a time.
The Golden-Age mysteries, the Agatha Christies and Dorothy Sayers, the Knox and Dine, are also called cozy mysteries. They are bloodless, goreless, and often violence-less. They are intellectual puzzles in narrative form, explorations of psychology and possibility, not crime and punishment. For their fans, this was the appeal — the theorycrafting and arguing over rules, the analysis of human behavior… not at its extremes, but at its most familiar. Later on, writers — mostly male writers, mostly disparaging women — of hardboiled-era writing would scoff at them for this. It wasn’t “realistic.” This is a criticism that used to be hard for me to wrap my head around. No one reads cozies for gritty realism, you read them to solve a puzzle. It took me a while to realize that the criticism was actually not about realism, but about the genre’s perceived femininity, no doubt in part because its biggest, most enduring name was a woman. The next gen of writer’s wanted to bring men, men’s men, back into mystery. They wanted crime and punishment. And they wanted it a certain way: crime by men, punishment for women.
Violence against women is so pervasive in modern media, and a certain type of man revels in it. Just yesterday I read a piece about Fatal Attraction, and how the fervently antifeminist director loved that it had become “an audience participation movie” in which men in the audience would shout “kill the bitch!” and similar at the screen as it got near its end. How the men would laugh at Alex’s pain and cheer her death. He thought it was great. The one woman writer on the script was disturbed and confused by it.
But it’s not confusing, not any more confusing than incels, than Eliot Roger or the time that dude in Canada killed 14 female grad students to punish them for being presumed feminists. It’s not confusing, because while many, if not most, men are just complicit in patriarchy, there is a large enough pool that actively want to see women suffer. There are enough of them to rape 1 in 5 American women. Enough to put a rapist on the Supreme Court. Enough to put one in the white house.
I saw Battle Royale in an indie theater while I was in college. I liked it a lot, though I found it deeply disturbing. What I found most disturbing was the predominantly-male audience laughing when the women were killed. I remember turning to Mr. Act (who was then new-boyfriend-Act) and asking why people were laughing. He couldn’t articulate it. At the time, neither could I.
I was similarly disturbed seeing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in the same theater a year later. I remember a thin blonde woman, covered in blood, running down a street in her underwear screaming. I remember realizing I must have had a look on my face. I remember the men in the room cheering and laughing. I remember then-still-boyfriend-Act leaning over to me and saying, “Not exactly a feminist masterpiece.” I remember my impression that he hadn’t expected to be so disturbed by what was happening.
It is hard for me not to read Battler’s monologue as R07’s admonishment. As him asking us what happened, how we let this happen. How we let our love of a puzzle game being distorted into a love of violence, especially against women. How were we trained to discard the humanity of others like this? And what does our ability to Other people in this way say about our own humanity? How do we live with this cruelty in ourselves? How do we justify it? We can’t. Neither can Beatrice. Like Beatrice, we’ve lost sight of what made the Age so Golden. We’ve lost site of sportsmanship and puzzles and psychology and humanity, and in its place we sit in glee as people are tortured for our entertainment, because we as a culture have become the kind of people that find torture entertaining. How can we possibly be okay with that?
R07 is certainly aware that some part of his audience was in Higurashi to see young girls be murdered. I don’t think this is his fault. I do think this scene was the right response. I think this was a clever place to put it — pretty much as early as you could without risking too many people quitting because they felt preached at. Structured perfectly to try to force the audience to confront their own delight in the cruelty.
This is meant to be a game. Cruelty is not a game.
The stories about rape I read in 2018 were intriguing not because they existed, but because of how different they were. My paper was not actually about the pervasiveness of violence against women in the novels. It was about how those novels spoke against the genre’s violence. The novels I read were about bringing the victim’s voice back into the conversation. About condemning the men in power who hurt women. Depite them being as much as 30 years old, they felt timely, relevant. They felt like the beginning of metoo. I was no longer surprised at how many women read these novels. I can’t imagine what it was like to see your trauma represented honestly by other women for the first time. These books were important. The stories they tell and the way they told them, I believe, helped to lay the foundation for current feminist efforts, efforts to stop all this violence. I think Battler’s speech here can be read as part of that effort, too.
I will always like the Golden Age the best. I enjoy logic puzzles, for one. But moreso, I enjoy the novels for the exact things the midcentury critics derided them for. They do not glory in violence and cruelty. They do not treat me as meat to be bought and sold. And they have solutions. Puzzles have solutions. Not always clean ones, not always just ones, but in a world where there is so much violence, so much fear, so much hate, the idea that every lock has a key that fits into it gives me a deep comfort I can’t find anywhere else. The Great Game is in some ways a great equalizer, and I find that reassuring. Cozy.
I am glad R07 and I seem to agree on this.