Monday, May 27, 2013

Women Do It Better: Thoughts on a beloved Archetype

Before I kick off the new weekly (for now) feature Wednesday Women (fabulous authors and their heroines, including giveaways), I’d like to take you on a trip down memory lane. I’ll introduce you to some of my alltime favorite characters, and how they influenced my own writing.

Wedneday Women will start on June 5th with Nicky Well's character Sophie Penhalligan.

Once Upon A Time…

I’ve always wanted to read stories focusing on female characters. As a child, I was frustrated by books that dealt with a group of kids and often stuck to the following pattern: As soon as there was any danger, the girls would be told to stay at home. They got kidnapped sometimes. The girl who wanted to be a boy (not just a boy’s freedoms) was more accepted than the feminine character. The latter often cried too. Same old.

If The Hunger Games had come out all those years ago, Katniss Everdeen probably would have been my first fictional girl crush. Still in elementary school, I discovered the Jill Graham mysteries by Lesley Chase--those books made a difference. Here was a teenage girl who didn’t need any boy’s approval or help to solve cases. In the last book, she was eighteen and saved her best friend from a militant organization. I was in awe. And there was a whole genre of female detectives waiting for me in more adult literature.


We know from statistics that more women buy books, and they read widely, within or without the realm of their own experiences. I remained a huge fan of the detective genre, and female characters--I still prefer a female detective written by a male author over a male detective written by a female author. There’d be a few blog posts necessary to cover the fascination with this archetype, and books to write. Some authors already did, like Linda Mizejewski with Hardboiled & High Heeled: The Woman Detective in Popular Culture. In my twenties, I stumbled upon the local women’s archive, a small library containing a variety of literature by and related to women: History, art, film, fiction--everything you can imagine. A ton of lesbian mysteries. I had come out not that long ago, and the existence of these books was a complete revelation. For a while, I carried home a dozen or so each week, delving into the works of Val McDermid, J.M. Redmann, Ellen Hart, Katherine V. Forrest, Rose Beecham and Claire McNab. I had found a whole new world. I also knew that there was little chance to see any of those characters I loved on TV. As a twenty-something lesbian, you’re not a TV exec’s most coveted demographic, even now. Times are changing, but they are changing damn slowly when it comes to this subject.

Many of those books were so called “cozy mysteries”, and as much as I enjoyed the concept of the heroine in a relationship with another woman, I enjoy a dark and gritty thriller. James Patterson’s Women’s Murder Club series, Karin Slaughter’s Grant County universe and Tess Gerritsen’s Rizzoli & Isles were just a trip to the bookstore away. The latest jaw-dropping discovery, Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander. I love all of these women, gay or straight. They’ve been fascinating me as a reader, a feminist, a psychologist, a writer--and a woman who above all, appreciates the heroine of a book portrayed like this: Smart, capable, looking at other women as allies, not enemies. After following some of them for a decade or more, they feel like old friends.

“So they made a TV show from it--is it any good?”

I’ve been schooled. I used to be the kind of book nerd who claims that the book is always better. For the most part, I still believe this rule to be true. When I heard about Women’s Murder Club, the TV show, I was willing to give it a chance, unaware that it would shatter some of my long-held preconceived notions. From the first clips I saw, I felt like those characters had jumped off the pages of the books. Shame on ABC for letting go of this show so soon, but as mentioned before, grown women (gay or straight) are not most network’s favorite viewers. It’s sad that they’re all too often stuck on the stereotype that this group is not bringing in money for the advertisers--however, in this case, I am grateful we were granted those few episodes at least.

Angie Harmon

I wasn’t a big fan of movies or TV in the first place, or any actresses, for that matter. I knew about a show called Law & Order. I had no idea who Angie Harmon was, until she was Lindsay Boxer. To me, her portrayal was pitch perfect, bringing together everything I ever wanted to see in the archetypal female detective. The stars aligned--James Patterson’s concept of four women succeeding because of their professional network and friendship, the loving adaptation at the hands of showrunners Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain, and the talent the actresses brought to the table. Of course, Lindsay was never meant to be anything but straight (like Xena: Warrior Princess), but then there’s this little thing called subtext that we, the mostly ignored demographic, have been thriving on…for a long time, anyway. Angie Harmon gives a complexity to this character that's pleasant to watch, in a show that, unfortunately, wasn’t the game changer in the TV landscape it deserved to be.

The book nerd in me had another jaw-dropping moment when, in the fall of 2009, she was cast as Jane Rizzoli in the TV show based on the Tess Gerritsen novels. The pilot, in my opinion, did Gerritsen’s writing justice, definitely for thriller fans. Show creator Janet Tamaro went into a different, often lighter, direction later which found the appreciation of many viewers as well. Personally, I think Angie Harmon hasn’t yet been credited enough for the fabulous work she did on Women’s Murder Club, nor have her co-stars.

"Never has Angie Harmon owned a role like this one. Tough, sexy and in control, she is a woman other women want to be like and men want to me with." © Karen Woodward, July 23rd, 2007,

What’s to come:

I write what I want to read--in short, women who fall in love with other women, some of which solve crimes. When it comes to the latter, I like the showdown between the investigator and the serial killer, the ultimate good versus evil as in one woman against patriarchy. In my own universe, I don’t have to deal with a TV network wondering if it’s able to sell its advertisers’ products with shows aimed at women or even--gasp--lesbian women. About 80% of my audience, based on internet statistics, is female, the mean age a little higher than the networks like. I will always want to read and write about women, whatever the genre is. The idea of the “strong female character” is not exclusive to mystery.

My guests who will introduce their heroines in the following weeks, will bring proof. There’ll be romance, paranormal, historical, erotica. In this post, I showed you about my vision of this character--in the next few weeks, you’ll get to see theirs.

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