Ah, the beginning of September. One of my favourite times of the year because it means two things. Number one – winter is over. And number two – the Brisbane Writers Festival. This year, I attended a session called “Crime Fiction and #metoo” featuring a panel of women – poet and writer Meera Atkinson, professor, doctor and writer Caroline de Costa and writer M.J. Tjia (who also writes as Mirandi Riwoe), moderated by writer and academic, Meg Vann. The topic for discussion was whether crime fiction perpetuates a culture of violence against women because of certain tropes the genre typically uses. Can we therefore still morally read and write crime fiction?
Meg Vann referred to one particular trope as ‘fridging’, which comes from the Women in Refrigerators website developed by comic book writer, Gail Simone. The concept originated from the Green Lantern comic when the character Alexandra DeWitt (girlfriend of the main character, Kyle Rayner) was murdered and her body stowed inside a refrigerator. The meaning of ‘fridging’ has now widened to encompass violence against women as a plot device to motivate the (usually male) protagonist into action. It is a cliched type of storytelling with negative connotations because it’s seen as devaluing the life of that female character i.e. they are more plot device than person. An article on Vox states that tropes like these distort reality and our view of women: “They don’t exist in a vacuum, but in a context where they both reflect and perpetuate the idea that women don’t have any agency over their own lives in the real world.”
Calling out this trope has been a step forward in changing the way stories represent women. The negative connotations of tropes like ‘fridging’ or the ‘dead girl’ trope combined with the #metoo climate has crime fiction writers thinking twice when writing about violence against women.
Sarah Bailey, author of three bestselling novels featuring Detective Gemma Woodstock, wrote an article on Women’s Agenda about the challenge of writing crime fiction in the immediate aftermath of the #metoo movement. She found herself questioning how she depicted Gemma’s experience of sexual harassment, and whether she had a special responsibility as a writer to “present a certain kind of story” – one with an empowered ending, even though this wouldn’t necessarily ring true for the character she had created. And at a recent Meet the Author session with Melanie Myers, author of Meet Me At Lennon’s, she stated she purposefully tried to do something different with the ‘dead girl’ trope by making a statement about violence against women in the 1940s by comparing it to the present day and asking – has anything changed and what are we doing about it?
The Staunch Prize was created by author and screenwriter Bridget Lawless to encourage writers to come up with stories that don’t rely on sexual violence, awarding the prize “to the author of a novel in the thriller genre in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered”. Sophie Hannah, poet and novelist, argues in an article in The Guardian that while its admirable that the prize wants to take a stand against violence against women, it’s not violence on the receiving end of that stand, but readers and writers. Instead she suggests a prize for the work “that most powerfully or sensitively tackles the problem of violence against women and girls.”
Certainly there are writers who have published books that utilise these tropes without being exploitative and gratuitous. In my opinion one of the best is An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire. This novel focuses on the impact of a woman’s murder on her sister, and on community reactions to her death, as well as exploring the media’s obsession with ‘pretty dead girls’.
So, what did the panel of women at the Brisbane Writers Festival say when asked: “Can we still morally read and write crime fiction?” The answer: “Yes, but it’s tricky.” The takeaway message was that writers should create crime fiction that doesn’t use traditional tropes and that gives female characters a strong voice. Caroline de Costa stated that recent crime fiction features women as the solution and not as stereotypes. She believes that entertainment can bring messages of social justice. M.J. Tjia, whose Heloise Chancey mystery series features two strong female main characters, asked people to refocus on what they’re reading, and ask – who wrote it? Where did it come from? What is its truth?
As crime writers, or fans of reading the genre, should we feel like we are committing a moral crime for reading and writing about violence against women? I’m certainly no expert and I don’t have the answers. In fact, the more I research the subject, the more complex it becomes. My current work in progress uses the ‘dead girl’ trope. I only hope I can write it in such a way that it doesn’t perpetuate negative stereotypes. What are your thoughts on using these tropes in crime fiction? Please let me know in the comments below.