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Two of my friends took Marvel Romance Redux out of the library a few weeks ago, and we’ve been having a blast going through them. MRR is a collection of romance comics from the 50’s and 60’s that have had the dialogue replaced with a completely new story. Hilarity ensues. Now, while my inner cultural critic really wishes that the volume included the original (I mean, how cool would that be for gender critiques; you could look at what we laugh at, old vs. new romance norms,) some of the new text does a pretty good job of raising these questions itself. Check out this pic from “Too Smart to Date:”
Most of the new dialogue in the book is fairly self-referential, mocking the comic that it’s in and how silly it is. There’s very much a tone of “look at these silly vintage comics!” throughout, which is all in good fun. What’s interesting to me about this particular one is that while I think, considering the context, it’s intending to mock the romance conventions of its day, the satire is still relevant. There are still women who feel that they have to worry about intimidating the men around them if they want romance. So while this picture makes me laugh every time I see it, I think it’s also important to let it make us think.
Just in case you haven’t noticed, I have a bit of a thing for mysteries and hardboiled noir. I’m by no means an expert on either genre, admittedly, but it’s a hobby interest of mine. I just really love the way gender plays out in them: in the “Golden Age” detective novels, sleuths like Poirot, or, to go far back to the grandfather, Sherlock Holmes, were supposed to use their “manly” reason to solve problems. When a woman would step in, such as Harriet Vane in Dorothy L. Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey series, her detective work is, at least superficially, chalked up to her feminine intuition.
The American hardboiled genre takes this and turns it on its head; these sleuths think with their gut. The city landscapes of Noir are dark and corrupt—operating on logic within their irrational world would get you killed. And yet, we think of the hardboiled genre as being very “masculine.” Gendering genre still feels weird to me, because, of course, there’s nothing intrinsically male about any of the aspects I’ve listed and am about to list, but within the culture, these films (like many others of their time and now, admittedly) came from a distinctly male perspective. The cynical, money-hungry sleuths of the genre looked upon their cities as embodiments of the fallen American dream, and encountered villans who either didn’t play by the rules of the dream, or were amongst the groups not even allowed to play the game: women, homosexuals, and ethnic minorities. There’s a lot to say about the later two (and I’ll touch on a little bit of race later on in the post,) but I’m going to focus on women for now.
To hurry to the point, I’m going to simplify this a lot: In hardboiled fiction and film noir, writers portrayed women either as helpless and virginal, or scheming, sexy, and ambitious. The latter, of course, is the famous femme fatale, who would kiss and then kill to move up in the world, if need be. In films she is usually cold and selfish: sensuality without feeling. The former, well, her character usually seemed an afterthought to the femme fatale, there more to act as a last-minute love interest or foil to the femme fatale (who sometimes was even her step mother! Holy Brother’s Grimm, Batman!) than as a character in herself. In her introduction to Hell of a Woman: An Anthology of Female Noir, Val McDermid puts the problem quite nicely:
“I blame Raymond Chandler. I blame him for writing too well. Here’s the thing with Chandler. He had a problem with women. Vamps, victims, and vixens are the only roles he provided for us. And his perennial popularity has guaranteed his twisted view of women would remain the template whenever the hard-boiled boys hatched a new tale of the mean streets. For years, we’ve been stuck in this gruesome girlie groove because of one man’s screwed up sexuality.”
To be honest, I don’t know if it’s fair to blame it all on Chandler; I think a lot of screwed-up relationships with women contributed to this genre, and social mores contributed to this and other genres. But the point is that Noir is a very strict, template-reliant genre. We know the story: “It was dark in the city that never sleeps. She stepped into my office with hips like…” We’ve seen it parodied dozens of times. Given the format, how can you break down these gender roles and still write Noir?
Well, unsurprisingly, many of the people who find Noir fascinating are women and/or ethnic minorities. As logically follows this, many of these writers have started to take Noir back. I was introduced to woman-centric noir soon after I got out of college and had more time to read for pleasure. For my birthday last year, a friend got me Megan Abbott’s Queenpin and the aforementioned short story anthology Hell of a Woman, which Abbott edited. I later picked up another of Abbott’s novels, The Song is You.
At first, I was unimpressed; I think I had been expecting the stories to feel completely different, or at least feel more self-aware of the genre they were working in. They didn’t—Queenpin, The Song is You, and all of the stories I’ve read so far in Hell of a Woman play Noir straight through. The femme fatale still uses her sexuality to get her way. Money is still power. For the most part, no one gets a lesson about racism, classism, or sexism. So what’s the difference?
The difference is that when Noir is written from a woman’s perspective, we understand why the femme fatale is the way she is. She’s no longer the embodiment of anxiety. Whereas in typical Noir, the femme fatale is evil because she is selfish and ambitious, overstepping her gender role, in female noir (to use Hell of a Woman’s phrase,) in female noir, she is no more power or money hungry than the men she’s dealing with. The Noir world has very strict rules, as I’ve mentioned. If she does not want to be passive, if she wants to make her mark, she’s got to play by the rules of the world. And, if the world doesn’t expect brains and beauty to match, well, her brains become a hidden trump card in the game.
These women live in worlds where performing as the femme fatale is sometimes the key to being taken seriously, as in Abbott’s Queenpin. Here, a young woman learns the ropes from mobstress Gloria Denton, the queen of the underworld. Instead of suffering through a boring secretarial job where she finds herself subjected to sexual harassment, she suddenly finds herself controlling her sexuality—and making more money at that. Also interesting is Abbott’s inclusion of an Homme Fatale, a man we all know from the start will betray her in the end, but whose beauty is such that she can’t resist. Silly? Yes, but no more than the idea that a beautiful woman can destroy a man’s judgment.
“The Chirashi Covenant” by Naomi Hirahara takes on the “Femme fatale has the hapless hero kill her husband trope, as well as the exoticizing of Asian women in one stroke. I find this one fascinating precisely because I can imagine how different the story would be if the white male antagonist, Bob Burkard, had been the protagonist instead. Instead of being an alluring exotic woman who seduces him and begs him to kill her husband, Helen Miura is an intelligent, lonely Japanese-American woman struggling with the insular nature of her life after the WWII internment camps who has an affair with Bob. (In this story, she takes no part in her husband’s murder; it’s Bob’s impulse.) As often happens in fiction, her identity conflict becomes summed up in romantic questions, as if dating outside your culture is the ultimate way to betray it. Of course, things become even more deadly as the story takes a further turn into the Noir, and Helen is no angel in the midst of all that happens (I’m not talking about sexually either.)
Although most female noir works that I’ve read so far have female protagonists, Abbott’s The Song is You doesn’t have the gender-reversal perspective. After a brief prologue from the point of view of a murder victim’s sister, we’re introduced to the protagonist, Gil Hopkins, a studio publicist in 1950’s Hollywood, who takes us through the rest of the story. Hop, as he’s called, has privilege problems and cannot seem to connect with the women in his life–not so different from a archetypical Hardboiled hero. But as he tries at once to solve a two-year-old murder and keep others from solving it, he finds his ideas about women challenged. He starts to understand the nature of the game. He questions whether he should really blame women who have ventured into dangerous situations to help keep afloat in the dark side of Hollywood and found themselves victims (I know that one’s a no-brainer to most of us, but, as I said, Hop has privilage problems.). In one of the most poignant moments, of the novel, he realizes the full extent of what it meant to have abandoned Iolene, a black woman, at a sleazy club with known sexual predators. With horror, he realizes that if the men he left her with treated white women so inhumanely, he could not imagine how they would treat a black woman. No, guilt is not enough, but it’s these moments where he begins to understand the privilege behind the typical Noir judgments that we really see the subtle ways that Abbot is playing with the formula even without a woman’s perspective to guide us through.
I suppose it would be easy to argue how much these stories help really feminism or find many ways in which they are problematic (but, as we’ve been discussing, so is much fiction.). After all, Noir is a genre which glamorizes the dark underbelly of the city, to borrow its own phrase. Ultimately, even if it’s fun to see women level the playing field or have the upper-hand, despite them having to use their “feminine wiles” to do so, it’s still unfortunate and uncomfortable that these are the options they have in this world to be assertive and independent. But I think that part of the point of female noir is exposing these problems; this is, from a Noir perspective, the result of asserting independence and ambition when society only sees you as your body. Also, well, ideal or not, I’ve got to admit that I find them a lot of fun despite the dark subject matter. If you’re a fan of thrillers, they’re worth checking out. They raise a lot of interesting questions about gender, genre, and how to re-imagine a story that’s been told one-too-many times.
NOTE- I apologize in advance for any incoherence. It’s been over 100 degrees F here, which I’m not used to, and I’ve not gotten much sleep because of it. Still, I didn’t want to waste my guest blogging week, and so here you go.
(Cross posted to Feministe.)
(See the post below to catch up on what Femicon is.)
I’m embarrassed to say that I’m kicking off Femicon by breaking one of my own rules for it. I intended this series to be about female characters who are both iconic of their times and remain in our cultural imagination. Candy Matson enjoyed a short period of regional fame (her radio show only aired on the west coast of the United States) and then faded into obscurity. Still, I think she’s a fantastic example of how fiction both plays into and challenges the norms of its era, and, plus, classic radio shows are underrated. I had originally intended to include a segment in this post on Margo Lane, Lamont Cranston (The Shadow)’s savvy sidekick and love interest, but I found that she suffers from the good old “Every character on this show besides The Shadow is boring”-itus, and I discovered that I had way too much to say about Candy.
You see, I have a not-so-secret, not-quite-fully-explored love of old-time radio dramas. When I was twelve, my friend Lisa and I loved to listen to recordings of the classic 1930’s radio show, The Shadow, during sleepovers. Orson Welles’s haunting laugh would echo through the darkened room, where we huddled in her bunk bed, conflating the sounds of movement from the cassette tape, already out of date by then, with the nocturnal sounds of her cats running and the house settling. In many ways, I think The Shadow was my gateway drug to Noir.
When we think of the golden age of radio stories, many of us think of mysteries. The hard boiled detectives of Hammett’s novels and the popular “Films Noirs” (not that they were called that at the time. <–crazy trivia) also thrilled audiences every week on the radio, solving crimes, smoking cigars, and trying not to be too swayed by the charms of those ever-alluring femmes fatales. But not every woman in the crime-fighting genre was a damsel in distress or a deadly vixen: lost our cultural memory of the era is the archetype of the female detective.
Candy Matson, Yukon 2-8209 enjoyed a short but illustrious run on the San Francisco radio airwaves in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. By the time the last episode aired in 1951, it had been voted the most popular radio show in the city in a San Francisco Examiner poll (as announced on the episode “The Symphony of Death.” Also, for those of you who are familiar with SF newspapers, the Examiner, not the Chronicle was the paper du jour,) and several radio history websites I’ve encountered have called her the finest of the female detectives of radio’s golden age.
These same websites emphasize Matson’s resourcefulness, toughness, and her ability to speak with the same dry wit that we’ve come to expect from a hard boiled detective. She usually solves the case before her love interest, Lt. Mallard of the SF police, puts together the pieces, and rarely needs to be rescued. These, combined with the recommendation from a dear friend of mine who occasionally does research on old-time radio, prompted me to download a few episodes (they are fairly widely available on the net,) and have a listen. To my surprise, the framing of Candy’s first adventure didn’t reflect any of these qualities at all. In fact, I came close to completely dismissing her when I heard the announcer’s introduction to her first case:
“Do you have a little unsolved murder in your home? Got some blackmail you want to unload? Are you the victim of some vulgar extortionist? I know a girl you should meet. She may not be the greatest private eye in the world, and so what if it does cost you three or four hundred dollars; she sure is sweet.” (from “The Cable Car Case”)
Hearing that, I expected some sort of insufferable, incapable weakling. A girl (not woman) whom we should coddle and pretend does well at her job because she’s so sweet? What kind of adventures could she possible have that would be worth listening to? I thought maybe there was a reason why she retreated back into relative obscurity. Fortunately for me, Candy soon took the microphone and began to speak for herself. Though the beginning of her speech ostensibly confirmed my low expectations, as she continued, I was surprised to hear her slowly subvert her packaging.
“I get into the craziest routines. You see I used to be a model. I’d been told I had the proper displacement for such a career. But I found there wasn’t enough money in it, and a girl has to eat doesn’t she? And she has to maintain a nice apartment on Telegraph Hill [a nice San Francisco neighborhood], and buy enough clothes to highlight the displacement I mentioned, right? Sure. So I turned private eye. You meet a better class of people… mostly named rigor or mortis.” (from “The Cable Car Case”)
Candy herself does nothing explicitly to subvert the announcer’s portrayal of her, but she hints that there’s more to her than meets the eye. Her voice actress, Natalie Masters, speaks with confidence and a slight edge; she’s always completely on top of what she’s saying. While the introduction prepared us for a “sweet,” perhaps stereotypically ditzy woman, we find that Candy has brains and sass. Her comment about “rigor or mortis” gives us our first taste of her wit. And, though this may be my inability to suspend belief to make way for radio-show logic, I find it dubious that being a private eye would pay more than modeling. In any case, when you listen to Matson’s adventures, that you get the sense that she knows what you must think of her, and she’s not going to tell you out-right that you’re wrong, but she’ll use your underestimation to her advantage. She’s the femme fatale of justice.
Ah yes, that phrase “femme fatale.” I keep using it. Does it mean what I think it means?
Before I talk more about Matson and her role in American culture, let me talk a bit about the femme fatale, and women in the Noir genre. In her essay “Women in Film Noir,” lecturer and scholar Janey Place notes of the femme fatale, “independence is her goal, but her nature is fundamentally and irredeemably sexual” (Place in Women in Film Noir pg. 57). I’m probably attributing too much to this quote, but for those of you who A) haven’t read the essay and B) don’t have a secret love for the B movies of the 40’s and 50’s, what this essentially means is that the femme fatale uses her sexuality to maintain Independence (and power) in a male-dominated world. This being the Post-WWII era, this was not a good thing. The femme fatale inevitably lures the hero (be he detective, insurance salesman, or otherwise) into danger. In The Maltese Falcon, Brigid O’Shaughnessy gets Detective Sam Spade involved in a hunt for a legendary object that many would kill for (and gets his business partner killed in the process.). In Double Indemnity, Phyllis Dietrichson convinces salesman Walter Neff to kill her husband for insurance money (and sexual favors.).
Some films (DI, for example) gave the femme fatale a “good girl” counterpart who often served as a love interest for the main character at the end of the story (this doesn’t happen in DI, but I think it does in Murder, My Sweet. But I’m going off on a tangent.). This woman was usually dependent on the men in her life, be it her boyfriend or her father. She did not seek independence. She was not dangerous. And, well, to break my impartial façade, she’s boring in that 40’s, 50’s “perfect” woman sort of way.
Though the Post-WWII Era certainly did not invent the archetype of the dangerous spider woman, it did give us a series of visual cues and mannerisms to define her that still linger in our imagination. Cultural critics also tie the femme fatale so strongly to the Post-War Era because she represents anxieties that surfaced with changing culture. During the war, women took over the jobs of men who had left for the battle fields. Thus, upon their return, men found themselves displaced; women had more freedom and independence than ever before. The femme fatale is frightening precisely because she uses men to maintain her independence but never needs them. She aggressively maneuvers her way through the public sphere.
These cultural tropes are important to keep in mind when we think about why Candy Matson is such an interesting figure within her time period. For the remarkable thing about Candy is that even though she’s working within the Hard Boiled genre, she’s far more femme fatale than she is Noir “heroine.” On an obvious level, she uses her sensuality to her advantage. She’s not afraid to flirt to get what she wants. As she says in her personal introduction, she’s well aware of her “displacements” and is not afraid to use them.
But her ties to the femme fatale go beyond the sexual. As Payne points out, the femme fatale uses her sexuality not because she’s so interested in having sex (which perhaps would have left the hapless hero off easy) but because she wants independence. Candy herself says that she uses her detective gig to maintain her penthouse on Telegraph Hill (a rather fashionable SF neighborhood) and buy herself fancy clothes. Materialistic? Perhaps. But what’s interesting is that she doesn’t need Mallard to have them, and it’s never portrayed as being a negative. She has all the independence of the femme fatale but none of the malice
Furthermore, she doesn’t need Mallard to solve the case, or even to protect her from danger. In “The Movie Company,” she chases a suspect out onto the high ledges of a high-rise hotel building. In “The Valley of the Moon,” she hunts for evidence into a restricted area where she knows she’s liable to be shot at. For all Mallard’s panic over her safety, danger never seems to be too much of a match for her.
So if Candy acts like a femme fatale, how is it that her independence is celebrated instead of “punished?”
I think it’s important to consider Mallard’s relationship with Candy. Though they’re by no means portrayed to be on as equal footing as, say, Emma Peel and John Steed, they do have a similarly bantering, give-and-take kind of relationship. Candy’s not afraid to use her sexual power over him, such as in “The Movie Company,” where she encourages his jealousy when she runs into an old boyfriend because she thinks he’s being childish, she never uses it against him. At the end of the episode, after teasing him profusely, she offers him tickets to go and see his favorite cowboy movie with her. Other times she hides the fact that she’s working on the same case that he is (so that he won’t try to dissuade her from putting herself in danger,) but if they run into a clue when they’re out on a date, as in “Jack Frost” (it’s a radio detective story. It’s supposed to be improbable and illogical,) she’s willing to work with him to crack it. She may not need Mallard, but she enjoys his company. She looks to him as a partner, both in their personal and working relationships. Therefore, her independence isn’t threatening to Mallard, and when it is she’s quick to make nice and stroke his ego a bit.
Unfortunately, this sense of partnership gets undone in “Candy’s Last Case,” which ends with Mallard’s proposal to Matson. She accepts, and he proudly declares that she’ll never have to work as a detective again. In this sense, Matson’s independence is portrayed as a temporary thing, something that she enjoys as she waits for marriage. As soon as she has the opportunity to have someone else provide those needs, she relinquishes her independence (at least financially.). Do we really think Candy’s going to be able to stop sleuthing? Well, judging from her character, I’d think not, but the writers leave that up to our imaginations.
To me, Candy Matson represents an attempt to make peace with the so-called new woman. I think it’s telling that when we think about the women of the Noir/hard boiled genre/style, we remember the femme fatales instead of the heroines (and even at the time, the more famous actresses played the fatales.); they command the screen and our attentions. It makes sense (to me, at least) that writers would try and imagine a case where this same fantasy woman wouldn’t have to be destructive; because let’s face it, she’s really fun. I also love the fact that the series creator Monty Masters, created the role of Candy for his wife, Natalie Masters. I admittedly know nothing about either of them, so for all I know their marriage could have ended in a catastrophic divorce, but, at least at first glance, creating such an awesome role for his wife is a wonderful, romantic gesture.
So it’s a little odd that most people, myself included, had no idea that female hard boiled detectives even existed during the age of Noir. We tend to think of these years as being fairly backwards in terms of gender roles with the exception of radicals. I wouldn’t necessarily call Candy Matson a progressive show–its portrayal of ethnic minorities is certainly less than enlightened, and Candy’s best friend, Rembrandt Watson, a photographer, and perhaps the weakest (in terms of strength and courage) character of the series, likely was meant to be read as gay (that he was included is pretty cool. His job to whine, get called “Ducky” by Candy, and be comic relief for his effeminacy is less so.). Still, it’s neat to see that there were in fact cases in which gender roles were more fluid, where strong women were not portrayed as menaces to themselves and society. Candy Matson, in fact, benefits society, helping strangers and friends alike.
If you want to learn more about Candy or listen to some of her cases, check out these sites:
Welcome to The Snazz! For those of you who weren’t here last week (or just didn’t read about The Snazz,) The Snazz is my new Thursday tradition (it’s lasted for two whole weeks now. That makes it a tradition) where we gush/complain/etc. about the media we’ve been interacting with all week. There’s too much bad media out there, so let’s chat about what’s good, or what’s bad and you wouldn’t recommend anyone touching with a thrity-nine-and-a-half-foot pole. Print or digital, new or ancient–it’s all good.
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie- Still. I’m finding Rushdie to be a very slow read, partially because I just can’t connect with his intensely-symbolic characters.
I’m debating what novel/non-fiction book to read next: Norah Vincent’s Self Made Man, Margret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, or something entirely different, like the biography of Percy Shelley I’ve got lying around. hmmm…
If the my library hold had come through this week, I’d be reading Rose, which is the prequal to the graphic novel, Bone. I love Bone, it’s pure imagination with a sense of humor. Plus, Rose is the back story of Grandma Ben, one of my favorite characters in the series. She’s an old woman who races cows (as in, she runs with them.) and kicks ass.
Candy Matson, Yukon 28209 (downloadable here)- Back in the late 40’s and early 50’s, San Francisco had its own female hardboiled PI, Candy Matson, and it’s super fun to listen to. Yes, it’s very much a product of its time (She’s only a PI so that she can afford a penthouse appartment, is a former model, and relies on her male friends for help), but Candy herself is pretty smart most of the time. Her friend (who is implied to be gay), Rembrant, is a little more obnoxious of a stereotype though.
M.I.A.- Arular (careful, her website might cause seizures/give headaches)- I finally borrowed my friend’s copy of M.I.A.’s first album, and I’m dancing all over the kitchen to it.
Also, for those of you who’ve seen Coraline, any thoughts? What do you think of the addition of Wyborn? It’s been too long since I’ve read the book to compare, but I must admit that I was a little miffed by the old “let’s give a boy a larger role to make sure this movie will appeal to boys too (because we can’t have boys identifying with girls)” and I don’t remember Coraline’s mother being quite so obnoxious/fun-killing/lame. But maybe that’s just my memory.
So, what are your media crushes this week?
What’s more fun than Valentine’s chocolate? Femme fatales! Clearly.
I have a Noir-loving streak. Can’t help it–ever since I took a class in college on American Film Noir, I couldn’t help but gain a soft spot for the overly-gender-conscious, campy genre. And, of course, I love the concept of the femme fatale.
I suppose I could do a long, in-depth post about the femme fatale in the American cultural imagination and how she represents the anxieties (and dark fantasies) surrounding the sexually assertive woman. Maybe I will someday. But it’s Sunday, not someday, and I’m tired, so instead I’m going to leave you with some awesome videos to celebrate the archetype.
Rita Hayworth- Put the Blame on Mame (from Gilda)
People consider Gilda to be the quintessential femme fatale, which is kind of odd because she’s not actually a femme fatale at all. She gets blamed for promiscuity because of her overt sexuality, and in this number she intentionally plays on these fears. For those of you who haven’t seen the film, she’s not supposed to be singing at the nightclub at all, much less removing any articles of clothing. Also, I love the song to bits. Quinn Lemley also does a nice version of it. Just remember that most people can’t get away with referring to San Francisco as “Frisco.”
This next clip, though not a Noir video by any means, really gets to the heart of what a femme fatale is (at least, to me). The femme fatale can hold power over men precisely because of her sexual promiscuity.
I think this awesome Eartha Kitt video really sums it up. Note the direct link between promiscuity and other sorts of “evil.”
Eartha Kitt- I Want To Be Evil