Looking particularly at America in the mid-20th century, a woman had very little agency over her social role; her purpose was to serve the interests of the man as an obedient wife and homemaker. If she were to work, it would often be in a subsidiary supporting role such as a secretary, typist, cook or cleaner. Moreover, just as women’s role in society was deemed to serve the interests of a man, their role in popular culture serve a similar function. Women both on paper and on screen are ‘turned into objects of display.
They are simply the scenery on to which men project their own fantasies’. They are stereotyped into vacuous roles such as the romantic interest, damsel in distress and femme fetal. Female characters are given little to no agency by white male writers and this is overt in 20th century hard-boiled American crime fiction. In the works of Dashiest Hamlet and Raymond Chandler, female characters exist only to serve as foils to re-emphasize the hyper- masculinity of the Continental Pop and Phillip Marlowe, their respective detective protagonists.
I put emphasis on the quantifiers ‘white’ and ‘male’ because writers such as the African American Chester Homes in Cotton Comes o Harlem and the female Sara Parapets, creator of the female private detective V . 1 Warships, subvert the hardboiled form in order to give their female characters a degree agency and power. They write from the perspective of the ‘other’ (the non-white and male) to create characters that have to use their intelligence and internal strength to defeat their enemies as opposed to relying on the white male agency that is automatically granted to Hamlet’s and Chandler’s protagonists.
Therefore would argue that the representation of female agency in crime fiction does not necessarily depend n a female detective protagonist, rather, it relies more on an author that understands the experience of living without the power granted by white male supremacy in order to represent the alternative forms of agency that ‘others’, in this case females, have to create.
In Dashiest Hamlet’s ‘The Big Knocker’ and ‘$1 06,000 Blood Money, Hamlet’s female characters are denied agency by being denied both a narrative and character voice; they cannot express themselves nor be represented outside of the parameters of an androgenic lens – the narrative voice of the white heterosexual male Continental Pop. For example when the Pop interviews Miss Newell in “$1 06,000 Blood Money”, Hammed does not write an equal dialogue between the two characters, but a immunologic recollection by the Pop in which he describes her speech as ‘babbled… Her hands holding onto mine… He turned out words in a chattering stream… It was jumbled, almost incoherent in spots, and not always plausible. ‘2 The semantic field Hammed employs using lexis such as ‘babbled’, ‘incoherent’, and ‘jumbled’ implies that she is too incompetent to use language correctly. She is denied the sophistication of articulated speech and therefore is reduced to having the same functionality as a child or even an animal; Hammed infanticides her by doing so. Without a voice, Hammed eliminates her agency, her narrative function as an informant is useless without the Pop and depends entirely on him as savior of her inability to articulate.
He reinforces that a woman necessitates a man to not only solve her problems, but to validate her purpose. Moreover in denying his female character a voice, Hamlet’s projects a strong message that if a woman is denied speech she is automatically denied opinions and self- expression and therefore she cannot challenge nor criticize the male. Hamlet’s representation of female agency, or rather lack thereof, can be read as symptomatic Of the contemporary gender -politics (1927). Having grown up in a working class neighborhood in Baltimore, Hammed was very much of the demographic for which he wrote.
Hamlet’s stories have their origins being published as pulp fiction, in Black Mask magazine, whose stories of action, adventure and westerns were aimed at and appealed almost but not totally at a working class male readership. In a survey by Popular Publications, it was found that the typical reader was ‘a young married man in a manual job, who had limited resources and lived in an industrial town’. 3 In conjunction with this Joseph Thomson Shaw editor of Black Mask in 1 933 described the ‘Ideal reader as Inglorious minded… Expensive to the thrill of danger, the stirring exhilaration of clean, swift, hard action… [he] knows the soft slithering hiss of a swift thrown knife, the feel of hard fists’ . 4 It is difficult to ignore the philanthropic language of Shaw description and the emphasis put on validating masculinity in both descriptions of Black Mask’s readership. Working class men, most working in huge factory lines or blue collar jobs, had little autonomy and power in their own lives. In reading pulp fiction, they would find the fantasy of the independent idealized hyper-masculine figure.
Similarly, the detective is the mythic American hero of the brave frontiersman bringing order to and ultimately power over wilderness or in the Continental Pop’s case, urban chaos and depravity. 5 By utilizing these male character tropes and creating infanticide, passive females, writers such as Hammed worked to fulfill their male reader’s fantasy of ultimate paternal machismo ND authority. In reading literature that depicts a familiar white working hero succeeding in applying his individual agency to defeat corruption and to win over women, the working class male’s anxieties about his own masculinity and individual agency are addressed.
However it IS interesting to note that such literature that articulated these male anxieties of autonomous agency was only able to exist due to the unique agency that white men had over both women and minorities. They had the means and the privilege to create popular, widely published and digested literature. Women would not be able o create literature that depicted a strong autonomous female detective until much later in the century’ with most female crime fiction writers at the time writing male protagonists and, more tellingly, under male pseudonyms.
This is not to say that in ‘The Big Knocker and ‘$106,000 Blood Money, no female characters have agency, the one female character the Continental Pop appears to have respect for is Big Flora; she is authoritative, can fight and is strong-minded and bodied. However arguably her agency comes at a cost to her femininity; Hamlet’s description of her is completely masculine. He describes her as ‘broad shouldered, a handsome, brutal face… Her skin underlain with smooth, thick strong muscles… A beautiful fight-bred animal going to a fight’ . Hammers emphasis on typically masculine lexical quantifiers such as her ‘broad’, ‘handsome’ ‘thick, strong places her akin to a man. It suggests that Flora’s agency manifests in her bodily strength and masculine traits and therefore the agency she does have still remains safely in the realm of the male. This reading of Flora’s character raises questions as to the semantics of power and its intrinsic relationship with physical assaulting. Flora has power because she is masculine; Nancy Reagan is feminine and therefore does not. Similarly in Sara Parakeets Indemnity Only, her female detective V.
I Warships adopts phallic symbols of masculine power such as a gun in order to give herself agency. Arguably what is problematic is that any form of power- bodily strength, a gun, violence -is always considered to be within the semantic field of masculinity, there is no female alternative. Perhaps the problem with the representation of female agency in hard-boiled crime fiction, or any literature, is not that women are even no agency, rather, our language has no semantic field within which the concept of female agency can be represented.
Therefore it is inevitable that one would read Flora as masculine as opposed to simply powerful due to the ingrained understanding that physical agency equates to masculinity. While strength is equated with masculinity in superficial western semantics, sexuality is equated to femininity. In popular culture emphasis on the feminine form of women serves to fulfill the carnal desires and fantasies of heterosexual men. However the paradoxical prejudice against female sexuality, particularly in the mid-20th century, is that a sexual woman is both fetishists and castigated.
Thus the stereotype of the femme-fetal appears in the crime fiction genre; she is the transgression’s female character who rejects traditional womanhood as an obedient homemaker and finds independence in her sexual attractiveness and cunning. 7 She uses her sexual appeal to allure the male detective protagonist to his downfall and therefore is condemned by the genre as devious and evil. However it is perhaps the only character role in which a feminine looking female is given any true agency over her fate.
In Chester Homes’ Cotton Comes to Harlem, his femme fetal characters Iris and to an extent Billie, the exotic dancer at the Cotton Club, are both seen to use the sexual agency manifested in their bodies as a means to manipulate the white men that have power of them. In the chapter in which African-American Iris seduces the white cop – the ultimate symbol of white patriarchy- who is guarding her, she seduces him and calls the rest of the force who come to find him naked, locked out of the apartment with a sack over his head meanwhile she has long gone.
Similarly, Billie auctions the ton bale to a wealthy white Colonel from Alabama for $1000 having mesmerism’s him with it in her erotic performance. The language in both scenes is incredibly sexually charged and Homes entirely plays into the historical fetishism of black women by white men as exotic bodies of which they feel they are entitled due to their position of power as a cop or, historically, a slave owner who Colonel Calhoun is entirely reminiscent of.
Wanda Coleman argues that Homes is merely ‘catering to white racist conceptions about blacks’ by giving his white readership the titillation they rave through transgression’s themes of inter-racial sex and black female promiscuity. 8 While this is certainly true, would argue that Homes does so in a subversive way. These scenes are so exaggerated and ridiculous, particularly the hugely erotic scene with Billie dancing around the cotton bale, that they can be taken as a burlesque and mockery of these ridiculous white fantasies of blackness.
In doing so, Homes represents female agency. Iris completely humiliates the white cop and in doing so demeans his masculinity, undermines his authority and asserts her individual agency through her intelligence and cunning. Billie wittingly subverts the discourse of slavery as a means to entice Colonel Calhoun into giving her $ 1000 for some cotton and in doing so creates economic agency for herself. However the integrity of female sexual agency can be debated as it is not necessarily equal to the agency of male physical strength.
Bodily strength is quantitative while sexual appeal is qualitative-it is a power that necessitates the validation of an observing audience (usually male) to qualify whether it exists. Whether a woman has sexual appeal and therefore access to sexual agency or not is purely objective and therefore does not necessarily hold the same weight that strength (the marker for male agency) does. Sara Parakeets female private detective V. L Warships in her 1 982 novel Indemnity Only embodies the characteristics of both ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’ and draws agency from this duality.
Parapets makes references through-out to V. L’s sexual agency through the response to her beauty by other characters, particularly Ralph who works at Ajax Insurance and who becomes smitten with her and subsequently helps her gain information about the company. Simultaneously, V] is seen to incapacitate grown men through her knowledge Of self-defense and use of violence particularly in the climactic final scene in which she defeats Eric Sentiments and Hardly Masters and in doing so wins her case and saves Jill and Ralph.
She proves to be equally strong, intelligent and witty as well as altruistic and maternal in her response to other characters. For example, in taking in Jill after the death of her father, Jill in turn helps V. L to find a document of her late father’s that ultimately wins V. I the case. Therefore her individual agency manifests in this roundedness of character hat makes her strong enough to hold her own in dangerous situations and simultaneously gives her a network of friends and associates that willingly aid her and in doing so offer collective agency for her to draw upon.
It is this representation of multi-faceted agency that makes her a feminist figure; she exists outside the parameters of the one-dimensional female stereotypes in crime fiction. It is arguably this that motivates Bethink Ogden to argue that V . 1 is ‘only superficially hard-boiled’. 9 Indeed, if we read the hard-boiled genre as a manifestation of hyper-masculine ideology, there appears to be little to o room for a feminist detective with agency.