A few weeks ago I found myself trying to explain to a group of feminists how come my series protagonists are male. The occasion was a reception at a conference on activism in academia that also celebrated the fortieth anniversary of the Barnard Center for Research on Women. I was there with a friend. The official conference T-shirt said, “Dare to say the F word—Feminist.” Suzanne Vega, who’s a Barnard grad, sang a set, including her hit song about domestic violence. And the topic came up.
This issue is not new. Plenty of writers and other publishing-biz folks have wondered why I don’t write about a strong female protagonist, since it’s obvious that I’m a woman who dares to say the F word all the time. The writer answer is that it happened by accident. In my first manuscript, I had two protagonists: recovering alcoholic Bruce and world-class codependent Barbara alternated first-person chapters. Many revisions and rejections later, a big-press editor, male, encouraged me to rewrite it with Bruce as protagonist and Barbara as sidekick, and a legendary editor, female, at the same press accepted it. My friend at the conference, who’s a kick-ass activist academic as well as a writer who loves my work, says, “Barbara’s a strong female character.” She is, in spite of her occasional ditsiness and chronic backsliding into codependency. I’ve even given her a more-than-equal share in the mayhem that ensues when she and Bruce confront the murderer in each book in the series. But she’s still just a sidekick.
As I discovered in this conversation with the feminists, there’s another layer of explanation for my willingness to champion a guy in print. And my inner therapist has figured out that it comes not from the writer-wanna-get-published side of me, but from my personal history and psychological truth. The men I know best—my father, my husband, and my adult son—do not and never have brawled, cheated, or smacked women around. Nor are they relentlessly seductive, and neither are most of the men I’ve known. So to me, men are not the enemy. I’ve had male friends my whole life—well, from age 11 in junior high, some of whom are still my friends today—through high school (where I didn’t know any mean girls either) to my various professional lives—mystery writer, mental health professional, poet, singer/songwriter—who have been just that: friends.
So in a sense I’m baffled by the hardboiled PI who’s quick with his fists and can take out a bad guy with a karate kick. They don’t match my experience. I don’t even get the suburban divorcee who’s kissing the detective on the case before they’ve figured out whodunit. I’ve met, even worked with quite a few cops, and not one of them has so much as patted my fanny. Okay, I get it. If fiction were more like life, it would be boring. There are certain conventions, and suspending disbelief to accommodate them is part of our contract as readers. We don’t have to have met any murderers to enjoy reading mysteries, much less killed anyone ourselves. But it’s important to acknowledge that the world is full of guys who have never given another guy a bloody nose, are comfortable being faithful to their wives or partners, and wouldn’t hit a woman in a million years.