Why do we enjoy reading about female detectives?

From The Independent:

One of the questions I am asked most frequently at literary events is this: why have you chosen to write about women? This question, I suspect, is a familiar one for male authors who choose to have female protagonists in their books, and no doubt the answers they give are varied. My own answer focuses on the nature of the conversation that my female detectives have.

If that small office in Gaborone were to be home to two male detectives rather than two female sleuths, I imagine that the conversation would be much less interesting. This is not to say that men – and male detectives – do not talk about things that matter; it is just that they would be less likely to make the same observations that Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi make. Their conversation, in effect, would be less personal, less subjective – and less emotionally engaging. Of course any generalisations about the behaviour of men and women will give rise to accusations of gender stereotyping, but why deny that, for one reason or another, there are differences in the perspective that men and women have on the world? Certainly it would be an unobservant detective who failed to notice these.

Why do we so enjoy reading about female detectives? Part of the enjoyment, I suspect, lies in the satisfaction that we derive from seeing women, who have suffered so much from male arrogance and condescension, either outwitting men or demonstrating that they are just as capable as men of doing something that may have been seen as a male preserve. We live today in a society in which gender equality has been, to a very large extent, realised. At the time at which The Female Detective was written, in 1864, of course, things were very different. The relegation of women to a subservient position within society – a position in which they were outsiders to the male-dominated worlds of work and affairs – meant that for women to be involved in the investigation of crime was a novel thing. Today one might expect that novelty to have faded, as women do all the jobs previously monopolised by men. Yet the idea of the female detective as being special or unusual still persists in literary and cinematic treatments of criminal investigation. Why do we still think that female detectives are in some way special and make, for that reason, good reading?

The explanation probably has to do with gender stereotypes. At the time at which The Female Detective was written, these stereotypes would have had the force of established truth. Andrew Forrester’s novel was the first to feature a professional female detective, Miss Gladden, in British fiction. Middle-class women did not engage in what were seen as ‘”unladylike activities”. They were protected from the harsh realities of life; they were thought to be in regular need of smelling salts; they were assumed to have no interest in sex; there were many jobs that a woman simply could not be expected to do because they were viewed as unsuitable for finer female sensibilities. The idea of a woman being involved in the murkiness of criminal detection must have been radical and adventurous in Victorian times: women simply did not do that sort of thing. 

Link to the rest at The Independent

1 thought on “Why do we enjoy reading about female detectives?”

  1. I always smiled at the idea that women would faint at the sight of blood.
    The people claiming that seemed to have no understanding of basic biology.

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