by Oluremi Akin-Olugbade
The advocating of equal opportunities and treatment for men and women in the labor force is a cause many have continuously fought for over the past decades. The literature society has also played a significant part in this fight for equal opportunities. Female authors Sara Paretsky and Beverly Jenkins have taken feminist stands by creating strong independent female characters that serve as examples of the ability women possess to be successful and influential in male dominated fields. These female characters are placed in professions where their ability to succeed is being questioned based on their gender. In order to tackle these obstacles, authors like Paretsky in her masculine hard-boiled detective genre and Jenkins in her more feminine romance genre have created characters possessing the “intense masculinity” (Reddy 3), common to their career paths. They do this whilst still holding onto some of the femininity of their characters, which in most cases is perceived as a threat to female success. As a criminal detective writer, Sara Paretsky makes the choice of creating a female character in a masculine world, in which she must compromise between her newly acquired masculinity and natural femininity. On the other end, Beverly Jenkins is already set in a familiar genre being a romance writer; however, she creates a character who assumes a male-dominated career in a male-dominated world who wrestles with what she is told to do as a woman and what she believes she deserves as a person.
Jenkins and Paretsky create strength and resilience in their characters that they believe the modern woman must possess to excel in a male-dominated world. Both authors present strong female characters engaged in worlds where they must make compromises between their commitments to their jobs and engaging in interactions where the traditionally feminine elements of emotion and love determine their actions and choices. However, by establishing this situation of compromise between masculinity and femininity, Paretsky and Jenkins create a gap where the denial of one part for the other becomes detrimental to the entire individual.
Sara Paretsky is one of many authors who have adopted the hardboiled detective genre as an avenue to express their grievances on the issue of gender discrimination in male-dominated professions. With V.I. Warshawski, Paretsky creates a woman exhibiting the same ability as a man in the same field, in both the professional and personal realm. However, V.I. still appears to be an imitation of her male counterparts, “the hard-boiled male detective, who is emotionally and financially independent, a loner, divorced without a family” (Johnson 97). While portraying this male model, Paretsky still retains some traits of femininity in V.I., which together with her masculinity, creates some contradiction in her ideals of anti-commitment and independence, also at times putting her in the face of greater danger.
In Indemnity Only, V.I. begins her case looking to uncover the disappearance of Anita McGraw, but ends up uncovering the murder of Peter Thayer, Anita’s boyfriend in an insurance fraud scheme. A common problem V.I. encounters in her line of work, which was no different in this case, is the questioning of her ability to do her job as a woman. We share this experience with V.I. when her client Mr. Thayer (Andrew McGraw) doubts her ability to find his daughter being that she is doing a job not meant “for a girl to take on alone” (Paretsky 16). V.I., immediately trying to hold down all anger, defends herself saying she is “a woman […] and I can look out for myself” (16). Not only does her credibility get questioned, but she also faces the risk of being physically assaulted for snooping around in men’s business. V.I. becomes a job for Earl Smeissen, notorious Chicago hit man, when Yardley Masters, the insurance broker leading the fraudulent scam, hires him to take Warshawski out and get her to stop investigating into the case. Earl seems to be more offended with V.I.’s snooping, especially because he sees her as a “goddamn broad” who he promises to mark so good if she doesn’t stay out of the case (67, 68).
With all this “masculine” activity going on, Paretsky tries to create some feminine balance in V.I. by involving her in a romantic relationship with Ralph, Yardley’s assistant at Ajax Insurance. However, V.I. refuses to commit to him because she sees the commitment of a relationship as a distraction to her work (212), but still wishes she “was doing the middle-class family thing,” which she has come to believe is only a “myth” and not suitable to the life she has chosen (157).
Romance author Beverly Jenkins has also used her work as a medium to advocate for gender equality of the sexes. Setting her characters in historical periods of racial and gender segregation, Jenkins creates independent female characters that stand up for themselves in male-dominated worlds while still allowing themselves the luxury of love and affection from the opposite sex. Jenkins gives her female characters significant roles, which pose as “threats to black male positions in the community” (Carden, Paniccia and Strehle 188). Naturally, to succeed at such roles women must be brave and strong, ready to face obstacles head on whilst retaining their femininity to prove that they can be successful both in their professional and private lives. However, in Something Like Love Jenkins leaves her readers questioning if she really does believe that women can remain feminine in male roles, and if she does, does she do a good job of representing that idea in Olivia?
In Something Like Love, Beverly Jenkins creates the story Of Olivia Sterling, a young black woman who owns a seamstress shop in 19th Century Chicago. As a result of being a young black woman, Olivia has to run away from home to escape the role of a submissive dependent wife, which her family and society expect her to assume. Her flight from Chicago to a small all-black town called Henry Adams leads her into the arms of Neil July a well know train robber. Soon enough Olivia’s father discovers where she is, and threatens to come and retrieve her to go on with her marriage to Horatio Butler. In order to stop this from happening and retain her independence and rights, Olivia arranges a marriage of convenience with Neil and is able to convince her father that Neil and her independent life is what she wants and deserves as a woman.
Following the death of the Henry Adams mayor, Olivia becomes a town favorite and is elected as the town’s new leader. This time she is faced with two barriers, Armstead Malloy and Neil July’s role in society. Malloy, who ran against her for mayor, occasionally belittles her independence and ambition saying to her women should only aspire to things like “committee work, […] or running a seamstress shop, […] politics is men’s work” (Jenkins 126). On the other hand, Neil’s role as an outlaw compromises Olivia’s political office and leaves her with the choice of going after love or choosing her career. Olivia picks love and is stripped of her duties as Mayor, allowing her feminine nature to overcome the situation.
Paretsky and Jenkins do a great job creating these strong independent women who have found a means of surviving and succeeding in male-dominated roles whilst being criticized and discriminated against for their gender. However, they take different routes, which determine how these women handle their “male positions” in their worlds. These routes however seem to be the extremes of this pole of gender identity, which leaves these women almost at a disadvantage of imbalance in their personalities and careers.
V.I. belongs to the extreme pole of masculinity. With V.I., Paretsky creates her character by “combining the hard-boiled detective novel with feminist fiction” (Johnson 98). In Indemnity Only, we see V.I. emulate more of the alpha male detective perspective than embrace her feminine perspective when her qualifications are challenged. In conversations where she feels as though others are questioning her for not being the typical woman and having the orthodox female life, she admits that she gets angry and “bites their heads off” (Paretsky 157). Her anger is evident in her response, as Ralph has to ask her to “take it easy” when she reacts to him asking if she missed the family life (155). A reason for this aggression could well be the fact that V.I. is in a world where certain things are expected of her and this extreme masculine personality she has on conflicts with that norm. This personality expects her to be focused on her career and not things like family life. However, her feminine side still desires “ three kids getting under her feet” and the soaps (155, 157). Both personalities then rub against each other and create this friction in V.I. that causes her to lash out when she feels threatened.
Olivia, on the other hand, exists on the opposite pole of femininity, where she appears to be a strong woman taking on male roles and defying society’s expectations of her whilst still holding on very strongly to her femininity. However, this combination fails to pose her as the brave assertive woman we would expect. When Olivia is faced with defending her right to be her own woman, she chooses to run away or hide under the institution of marriage rather than be the strong woman Jenkins portrays her to be and stand up to her father. Olivia herself admits that she “would have married the town drunk” if it would ensure she did not have to marry Horatio Butler (326). Being the brave woman Jenkins portrays her to be, one would think she would be brave enough to explain her grievances to her father in the first place rather than run away and arrange a marriage just so she will not have to deal with her problems head on. These women fail to respond to the challenges, which prove the consequences of an imbalance in gender identity.
The imbalance in the gender identity of female characters is also seen in situations where they have to choose between career lives or love and family. Warshawski’s femininity creates “an occasion for parody” (Paradis 86), when she constantly says she is focused on her job and cannot be distracted with the thought of her partner “stewing” (Paretsky 158) because she is not back home. However, her feminine edge at the same time dreams about having the family life with a husband and children. The conflict in her gender identity creates a scenario of self-denial that makes her appear to be unsure of herself and what it is she really wants out of life. V.I. gives mixed signals saying she is satisfied with her career and satisfied with her life whilst at the same feeling that maybe she is not doing the best thing with her life (Paretsky 157).
A balance in her personality where she is both focused on her career whilst still enjoying the community of family which she longs for is an idea Paretsky portrays as a “myth” (157), but in the real world is actually possible. Paretsky’s technique creates room for questioning with regards to her inclination to feminist ideas. This imbalance Paretsky creates is a great resemblance to Raymond Chandler’s, Phillip Marlowe, who lives under this “self-imposed isolation,” which is believed to help him investigate effectively without any form of attachment that could alter his credibility or full attention on a case (Paradis 88). Does Paretsky mean to say women must act just as men in order to be successful in their careers, especially in male-dominated professions?
Paretsky puts V.I. on the career extreme of the career versus family argument whilst Jenkins places Olivia on the love/family extreme. Jenkins choosing to create a storyline where Olivia has to lose her job as a result of her relationship with Neil is evidence of an imbalance in the gender identity of Olivia. The idea of a woman having to sacrifice a career life for marriage or family appears to be a recurring theme in Jenkins’s Something Like Love. Olivia and Cara Lee Jefferson are two women in Jenkins’s story who have to sacrifice their careers to fulfill their feminine desires for love and affection. This theme puts forth the idea that for a woman to have a private life she must sacrifice her professional life, which again is not always the case. These two extremes that Paretsky and Jenkins establish give way to a great imbalance in identity where women are either acting against their desires for love and family or a career.
Sometimes these strong women do get into relationships. They could be purely physical, or both physical and emotional, and it happens to be with the wrong person. These relationships, like other bad relationships, leave them wounded, but because of the masculine personalities they believe they should have, they do not allow themselves to grieve and recover from the heartbreak. These repressions of their emotions eventually rub against each other and start to manifest in unexpected places (Johnson 195). This of course could be detrimental to the very career they are so determined to sustain.
Warshawski’s almost disregard for her femininity seems to cause a lot of rift between her personal and private lives, especially in her ability to show emotion towards others, including herself at times. In matters of love and relationship, Warshawski claims to be gun-shy. After a failed marriage, V.I. sees romantic relationships as more of a physical activity needing no emotion or attachment rather than a partnership with someone else whom she can share her life with. To V.I. and many other female hard-boiled detectives, relationships beyond the physical are “always possible threats to their hard-worn autonomy and independence” (Reddy 8). This is the route we see her take with Ralph who promises her he does not need her to change and is attracted to her for who she is. In her last encounter with Ralph where they break up, we are unable to see how she truly feels about Ralph because she hides behind her masculine mask and makes excuses saying “it just wouldn’t work” and moving on (Paretsky 233). As hurt as we can see she is, V.I. denies herself this luxury that she so much desires, all to prove her point that she does not need a man.
It is no question that in the detective business violence is a rather recurring theme, and we see it evidently in Sara Paretsky’s Indemnity Only. In an interview with Cheryl Lavin from the Chicago Tribune, Paretsky says that women face violence in detective stories as a result of men lashing out because they feel threatened by these women who are playing active roles in their world (Lavin), which is very much the case between V.I. and Earl. It is safe to say that V.I. was excessively abused just because she emulates the idea of a tough masculine-type detective who can withstand any pain. Yes she may be able to withstand the pain, but being smart-mouthed and provoking her assaulters only put her in a worse off situation with men who already felt threatened and insulted by her gender.
Women all over the world are venturing into male-dominated worlds, and some are having the toughest times of their lives. To overcome these tough times some act exactly like their male counterparts, seeing their femininity as a point of weakness that could be used against them. In other cases, these women embrace their femininity so fully they are willing to give up careers they worked hard at to go after that emotion largely accustomed to women. The lack of a balance between these two extremes of masculinity and femininity in women like V.I. and Olivia creates gaps that are sometimes detrimental to their personal and private lives. Female authors who represent this theme in their novels put forth the idea that a balance in gender identity is almost impossible. The idea that in situations of love and career that something always has to give almost limits the ability of a woman to be multi-tasking and successful at it. Olivia and V.I.’s inability to respond to challenges effectively is something that could be avoided if they fully accepted who they are and the things they desire whilst still standing strong in their unorthodox gender roles. Doing so sends a message to other women like them who find it difficult to be who they are as women and still be respected in their work places. In a world that is evolving every day and gender discrimination is becoming less prominent, women should begin to embrace their femininity rather than see it as a disadvantage, as their femininity is what makes them unique and successful at challenges they encounter.
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Lavin, Cheryl. “Q&A: Sara Paretsky.” Chicago Tribune 23 Oct. 1988. Web. 2014
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