All About that Bass: ‘Feminist’ Songs and Crime Fiction?

Over the past few weeks, there’s been no avoiding the infectious, 50s inspired (musically speaking) song ‘I’m All About that Bass’, sung by the talented singer/songwriter Meghan Trainor. She has made chart history in the UK by being the first act to make the Top 40 based on her internet streaming presence alone. [Just as an aside: this twenty year old has been writing music since she was 11 and has released two albums already, plus worked as a songwriter and producer for others.] I love the witty anti-Barbie doll video and ‘any body is OK’ rhetoric, but it has given rise to some controversy, with some saying that the singer is either ‘thinny bashing’ or that she does not go far enough in her feminism. Anyway, here is the song itself, make up your own mind (but be warned, it is quite addictive, so you may find yourself singing it all day).

The song did get me wondering about whether there is such a thing as ‘feminist crime fiction’. This is a trend which perhaps dates back to Modesty Blaise and the first VI Warshawski novel, and was then continued with characters such as Kinsey Millhone, Lisbeth Salander and Zoe Sharp’s Charlie Fox. Most of these heroines are what is known in American circles as ‘kick-ass’, i.e. they usually pack a revolver and have advanced knowledge of at least one or two martial arts.

But what about those who are more ‘everywoman’ than ‘superwoman’? I’m thinking of women who excel at their jobs (policewomen, forensic pathologists, psychologists, whatever they are) but are also ordinary and vulnerable, one of us, in short: Kay Scarpetta, Ruth Galloway, Jane Rizzoli, Lacey Flint, Geraldine Steel, Kate Daniels. I’m sure you can think of many more from TV series. Has it almost become a cliché to feature the ‘strong female detective’ (or investigator with some links to the police) with a commitment problem and demons from the past constantly haunting her?

Two recently read books highlighted this similarity – and it goes beyond the English-speaking world. Kati Hiekkapelto’s The Hummingbird introduces Anna Fekete, member of the Hungarian minority in former Yugoslavia, whose family came as refugees to Finland when she was a child. She is embarking on her first non-uniform criminal investigation position in the north of Finland and has to contend not just with a violent and seemingly unsolvable case of serial killings, but also sexism, racism and tense relationships with members of her family. Meanwhile, back in London, Kate Rhodes introduces Alice Quentin, psychologist who sometimes works with the Metropolitan police, who has escaped an unhappy and abusive childhood and now seems to have a knack for stumbling upon murder victims. Both women receive threatening messages, both find release in running and both seem somewhat oblivious to personal danger.

I am always excited to encounter a new female investigator, and can even cope with the clichés of lonely single life, damaged childhoods and obsession with the job or case in hand. After all, some of us non-investigators are cat owners who come home to empty fridges on occasion. But it would be a shame if this became the ‘shorthand’ for strong women and, implicitly, of feminist crime fiction. Because these women are not strong – they are still vulnerable, even though they are resilient and have overcome their past (to a certain extent). Strength is also about being content, being happy, having nothing ‘missing’, but ‘all the right junk in all the right places’ and celebrating that! Which is why I am currently in love with Cathy Ace’s middle-aged gourmand no-nonsense Welsh heroine Cait Morgan.

9 thoughts on “All About that Bass: ‘Feminist’ Songs and Crime Fiction?”

  1. Marina Sofia – You have a really important and interesting point here. I think the best characters, male or female, are people first. They have their faults and strengths, their happy times and sadness and so on. I think it really can start to detract from the genres when it starts to seem that a character has something to prove as a symbol, if that makes any sense. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Yep, while I just about prefer today’s worndown-woman-with-a-past-battling-sexism-in-the-workplace heroine to yesterday’s kickass-and-generally-naked-at-least-once-in-every-book-male-fantasy heroine really I don’t recognise myself or my friends in either portrayal. How about professional-just-gets-on-with-the-job-and-then-goes-home-and-makes-dinner woman? Considered too dull, I suppose…though a few do seem to be appearing recently.

    1. Ha, ha! Yes, as if ordinary life isn’t challenging enough (and tricky to balance with an ongoing murder investigation). I suppose it’s like the problems I have with the flat, unrealistic male characters in romance novels. ‘But they’re not supposed to be fully rounded, complex and realistic!’ I get told: ‘It’s all about escapism, wish fulfillment!’ Still, this ‘damaged goods’ portrayal of female investigators does make me wonder if we are not subconsciously still setting them up to be ‘rescued’ by a knight in shining armour. But maybe I’m just over-sensitive or too feminist!

  3. I love Sara Paretsky’s books because VI seems really driven to fight all kinds of injustice. She is “kick ass” but she’s also sometimes wrong, and sometimes messes stuff up. I like that she seems content and happy with her relationships and she isn’t presented as faulty because they haven’t lasted. I think she’s my favourite female detective.

    1. VI and Nancy Drew are the two that got me into crime fiction! I love VI – and she really started that trend for feisty heroines. It’s just that she doesn’t seem attainable for us ordinary humans…

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