I was recently a bit bemused by an article in the TLS (OK, this happens a lot). Natasha Cooper, who is herself a crime writer, argues in ‘Girl, ill-treated’ [TLS, 31 July 2015, p.20, paywalled] that ‘The principal female characters of many engaging and well-written crime novels today are presented not only as victims but celebrated as such’. She uses four recent novels as examples – Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train, SJ Watson’s Second Life, AR Torre’s The Girl in 6E and Cara Hoffman’s Be Safe I Love You – but suggests that Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl was the instigator of this trend. Noting that these novels are usually by women, with Watson as the exception, she asks why women without agency are so popular (implicitly, with women readers): ‘What is making so many people want to write – and read – about heroines who wallow in their victimhood?’
The problem with Cooper’s claims begins with Gone Girl. Firstly, as someone on the internet recently commented (I can’t remember where I read this – please let me know if you recognise the thought and I will credit appropriately!), Gone Girl drew attention to this type of novel, rather than inventing the sub-genre. I’m not a big reader of crime fiction, but Nicci French’s novels were certainly playing with similar themes almost twenty years ago. Secondly, Amy in Gone Girl is an obvious deconstruction of the trope that Cooper views as so damaging, rather than a confirmation of it. She uses the trappings of victimhood to achieve her own ends, playing into images of wronged femininity to achieve agency. Nevertheless, a charitable reading of Cooper’s arguments might be to suggest that the novels that followed Gone Girl have tended to play this trope straight, depicting women as actual victims rather than manipulative agents.
I haven’t read three of the four novels that Cooper discusses, but her skewed reading of Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train doesn’t fill me with confidence. (I won’t give a mini-review of the novel here, but Victoria at Eve’s Alexandria has reviewed it, and I largely agree with her thoughtful discussion of its themes). Rachel, an unemployed alcoholic, is at the centre of The Girl on the Train; she is still in a desperate downward spiral after her divorce, and wishes she could be with her ex, Tom, again. Cooper claims that Rachel is primarily motivated by ‘revenge’; she wants to prove that the end of the relationship was her ex’s fault, so her responsibility for her behaviour when under the influence is ‘mitigated’ and ‘[h]er victimhood would become her victory’. But this is a profoundly distorted reading of the novel. Rachel certainly begins The Girl on the Train as a self-pitying victim, but far from being driven by vengeance, she blames herself, not her ex: ‘If I had to write down every transgression for which I should apologise to Tom, I could fill a book.’ She remembers the awful things she did during her alcoholic blackouts with intense shame, and while she is jealous of Tom’s new wife, Anna, she reflects that ‘I do care about making Tom unhappy. After everything he’s been through, he deserves to be happy. I will never begrudge him happiness, I only wish it could be with me.’
The twist in the tale of The Girl on the Train is Rachel’s realisation that Tom has been manipulating her all along, making her think she was responsible for things that she never did. While in one sense this does position Rachel as a victim, it is her recognition that she is not the useless drunk Tom portrayed her as that galvanises her into action. If there is a harmful trope in The Girl on the Train, it’s not indulgent victimhood but Woman in Refrigerator, where a female character is murdered, raped or otherwise victimised to motivate another character, usually a man. But the ‘girl in the fridge’ is not Rachel, but Megan, a woman whom Rachel does not know but whose life she idealises.
However, even if we want to critique the incessant deluge of dead and/or ‘fridged’ women in fiction, The Girl on the Train seems an odd place to start. Megan’s murder does not motivate the trajectory of a male character, but the rescue of one woman by another. Rachel’s determination to find Megan’s killer leads her not only to a new self-respect but to the formation of a fragile but effective alliance with the woman she previously hated, Anna. Indeed, given the number of female victims in crime novels, it seems a little disingenuous to single out novels like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, which are both written by women and leave plenty of room for female agency. Far from glorifying saintly victimhood, these narratives tend to undermine it.