Literary Gender Debate Do We Need More Crime Stories Without Female Victims?
- Women as victims in crime novels are used to serve the voyeurism of the readers, says detective expert Sonja Hartl. (picture alliance / dpa / SWR / Stephanie Schweigert)
The [British] writer Bridget Lawless has proclaimed a prize for crime thrillers who can do without the classic female victimhood. In fact, there is a problem with female victims, crime expert Sonja Hartl says: “We have too many of them, and too many horrible things are done to them.”
Andrea Gerk: Violence against women has been discussed in many and varied ways since the #MeToo debate. The film and theater industry decrees itself new codes of conduct and sets up complaint offices. Also the literature company reacts. For example, [British] author and scriptwriter Bridget Lawless has proclaimed a crime fiction prize to honor thrillers in which no women are beaten, stalked, raped or even murdered.
What questions such a prize raises, I would now like to talk to my colleague and film critic Sonja Hartl. Good morning, Mrs. Hartl!
Sonja Hartl: Good morning!
Gerk: How do you like the idea of Bridget Lawless? Is that actually a good idea to do something like that?
“There is a problem with female victims in crime thrillers”
Hartl: Well, I am very ambivalent about this whole idea, because on the one hand, she is of course right: There is a problem with female victims in crime thrillers. We have too many of them, and too many horrible things are done to them, but on the other hand, violence against women is a societal problem we have to take care of, and I believe that can or should be done in the literature do.
Gerk: Are they clearly more female victims than male ones?
Hartl: In crime literature yes.
Gerk: But not in reality.
Hartl: No, that’s a bit of a paradox. If you look at the crime statistics of Germany from the year 2016, then you realize that there are about twice as many male victims of murder, homicides and bodily harm. In the case of offenses against sexual self-determination, there are women in the vast majority. That’s over 93 percent, but for all the rest there are more men, and there is one big difference: almost 60 percent of all female victims know the offender. That does not necessarily mean that they were in a relationship with him, but they know who it was, they met him or something.
Gerk: How do you interpret that, so what does that say about our society or the crime novel that it is?
“This is used to make voyeurism accessible to readers”
Hartl: I believe that in the detective novel on the one hand, there is certainly this claim to draw attention, here, women are quite victims, but women as victims in the detective novel are often a simple plot-device. This is used to serve the voyeurism of the readers. When a woman becomes a victim of a crime that is also described in great detail, it immediately arouses feelings in the reader. Suddenly he is immediately involved.
What also plays a role in my opinion, which is always underestimated a bit, is that on the one hand are the female victims, but on the other hand, the male offenders who then investigate in these cases in which a woman beaten, murdered or raped, and with that, they can be so broken and have a broken private life or behave as bad as usual, but the moment they take care of the woman, her heroic role and also her masculinity becomes so bit reinforced.
Gerk: But there are quite a lot of tough female investigators in the meantime. I think I could think of Simone Buchholz with her Chastity Riley or if you go back a bit further, Doris Gercke with Bella Block, and that’s already a law, the motive too. Is not that the same?
Hartl: I think so. So I think it helps a bit if I have the female victim, but on the other hand also a female investigator, because it always means that the reason why there are so many female victims is that Women who mostly buy and read crime novels, then identify with it, and then I always think, yes, on the one hand, that is certainly true, one identifies with it, but that also says a lot about our society identify women with the victim role.
Here, literature can make such a counter offer, which is done with, for example, Chastity Riley, who is then just a tough woman, but also remains a full investigator, which is not just tough, and therefore set these strong investigators already a counterpoint. That, I think, yes.
Gerk: Can you think of an example of how this can be shown, how something works, if violence is used just as voyeuristically instrumentally?
“It’s all about sensationalism”
Hartl: Well, there are certainly many examples of this with many American thrillers on the bestseller list. Karin Slaughter, who has a great deal of violence, is well known, but she has also noticed such a small change in her. So two years ago, she had a novel, Pretty Girls, about the impact of a crime.
The crime itself is still portrayed horribly, but there is also this effort to show there are women who are indirectly affected by the crime, and they find a way out of it. These are the sisters of the victim and they have to live with the violence.
In the German-speaking area, one of the most negative examples I have unfortunately remembered is Veit Etzold, “Dark Web”. It’s actually about a spy story in the Dark Web, but there is also a doctor who makes sex dolls, which women from Eastern Europe or Africa are abducted and mutilated, so really broken, and then it’s only about the Sensationalism and creating the most perverted thrill.
Gerk: Are there any crime thrillers that really do that, too, this topic that we’re talking about, that women are more often the victims of violence in crime thrillers, in this kind of portrayal that does just that?
Hartl: Yes, there are. This is certainly very well known, Denise Mina or Monika Geier from the German-speaking area, and who I really find very exemplary, is Liza Cody, who created a character with “Lady Bag”, which is a homeless person on the London streets live.
And then you learn from her perspective, because it is portrayed from her point of view, that she used to be in an abusive relationship in which there was mental and physical violence, and that has made her so ready that she is now on the Street lives and of course as homeless people still experiences more violence.
This is such a treatment of the different types of violence. One should not forget that: there is not only the physical violence, there is also psychological and structural violence, in which, when you read this book, you really developed tremendous empathy for the situation of this woman.
Gerk: And there is not only violence in the criminal literature, but that’s a very old debate, how can you even represent violence literary, you can do that, how far can you go there. Would you say that in the crime novel again … What is actually different than when you think of “American Psycho” or something?
“Violence is much negotiated in the crime novel”
Hartl: I believe that there is disproportionate use of violence in crime literature. Violence is much talked about in the crime novel, and then comes violence against women. But you have to always see that it comes down to the how, so how do I handle that, and I think there are other limits in the crime story in the violence, that goes back a bit in the classics.
So if you look at what Jim Thompson has done or James Elroy or Derek Raymond, these are really very, very disturbing novels, and thus has established a bit of such a tough spelling, which also often in crime are writers who want to be in this tradition, and I think that’s a difference from crime fiction to other literature.
Gerk: But if that works the way you described it earlier in this positive example, crime fiction can do more than read a report on violence against women or a feminist manifesto, right?
Hartl: Yes, I think so too, and that’s my main problem with this detective novel. Yes, she has a point and she has her goal – Bridget Lawless …
Gerk: With the prize.
Hartl: Exactly. Bridget Lawless has certainly achieved her goal of rekindling the debate, but I believe that in the end, when one talks about things and writes about things, one reaches more and more, as if to keep them quiet, and theoretically that would be the price It is also possible to submit books in which there are simply no women at all, and that is still the case in crime fiction.
Gerk: Well meant, but maybe a bit too simple, this prize.
Hartl: Yes, yes!
Gerk: Sonja Hartl, thank you very much for this interview!