Thursday, September 9, 2010

Strong and Dangerous Women

by Ashley Lister

I like strong and dangerous women. In fiction. In real life. Strong women are wonderful. They can open their own jars. They can make my decisions for me. They can go on top if they want to do the hard work. I genuinely believe in equality.

My only grievance with Hollywood’s interpretation of strong and dangerous women is that so many are beautiful to the point of being anodyne.

My son and I are currently working our way through the Resident Evil movies. As I may have mentioned before: I’m a zombie fan. The Resident Evil movies are, essentially, zombie films. And, whilst they’re entertaining pieces of popcorn-flavour eye-candy, Alice, the central character, pisses me off because she’s attractive to the point of ridiculousness.

Alice is, first and foremost, a strong woman. She can kick the teeth out of a zombie’s head; operate machine guns and back flip from a moving motorcycle. But Alice is Hollywood-beautiful – unrealistically attractive – and, to my jaded eye, that facet of her appearance involves a greater suspension of disbelief than the concept of a world being over-run by zombies.

Played by the actress, supermodel and fashion designer Milla Jovovich, Alice is so painfully thin that her clothes were more fully filled out when they were still on the hanger. There’s a scene in the first movie (and it’s repeated in the second) where Alice is naked save for a very thin paper towel. It’s the first time I’ve seen an attractive unclothed woman on film and my initial thought has been, “Quick! Someone put some food inside her!”

(Admittedly, I’ve thought similar things when looking at other images of some near-naked women, but carrots and cucumbers aren’t really food: they’re nature’s edible dildoes).

It sounds like a ridiculous thing to whine about: the women in these films are too attractive! But the truth is that it sets unreal expectations of society as a whole. Yes, women are allowed to be heroic and strong, but only if they’re thin to the point of emaciation, or have faces that would not look out of place advertising make-up, eyeliner or lingerie. Ugly fat women can be as strong and resourceful as they like but no one is ever going to look at them so they might as well not bother.

(It should be noted here that men can get away with being ugly in films. The phrase ‘ruggedly handsome’ was invented as a euphemism for the words, “Yes, we know he’s got a face like an arse, but he’s still the hero in this film.”)

However, instead of whining about the disparity of a patriarchal hegemony, I’ll introduce you to a strong and dangerous woman from my latest title: Death by Fiction. This is a scene where Annabel (a writer and a surprisingly strong woman) is encountering White: a publisher.


Wearing fishnets, stilettos and a silky red dress, she had felt as obvious as a sex toy in the Vatican. Her blonde hair shone from fresh conditioning. Her trench-coat was cinched tight. It emphasized the slenderness of her waist and the fullness of her breasts inside their Wonderbra. When she had seen White leave the bar and head toward the smokers’ cage attached to the side of the building, she eagerly followed.

A cool wind from the nearby Manchester streets tugged at her hair. Flecks of rain spattered from a starless sky of night and rain clouds. She shivered lightly in the chill and stooped to light her smoke.

“Excuse me?” White began politely, “Do you have a light?”

She recognized him from the author’s photograph at the back of her copy of The Writer. The years had been kind to him. Or the original photograph had been cruel and unflattering. Either way, his appearance didn’t present the unappealing prospect for the evening she initially envisioned.

His eyes shone with curiosity. Potential devilment.

She could see him appraising the shine of the L’Oreal grape gloss on her lips. His obvious approval suggested her plans had a good chance of success.

She handed him her Zippo.

After lighting his cigarette he studied the design on the lighter’s casing. “A death’s head? You come with a warning label?”

“I’m a killer. The memento mori is a reminder, should I ever forget.”

He raised an eyebrow. “A killer? Surely not. If anything, I’d have labeled you a thief.”

She had no idea where the conversation was going but, as long as White was talking to her, it gave her the chance to negotiate things to her advantage.

“A thief? Why?”

“Because those big blue eyes of yours have just stolen my heart.”

In all her years of trying to write mystery stories, she had pondered many curious puzzles. She understood some of the devices needed to create a satisfying locked-room mystery. She had studied writers who foregrounded clues, yet who could still surprise the reader. She had read the violent and bloody biographies of history’s worst serial killers, as well as the police investigations that led to eventual arrests. But she would never understand the mystery of how a writer with M R White’s esteemed reputation could produce such a shitty chat-up line.

She blushed, embarrassed for him.


  1. Hi, Ash,

    This is 100% wonderful. I can't wait for this book (although it seems that Annabel is just as gorgeous as the film femmes that you bemoan a few paragraphs before).

    I personally love a story where the strong women _isn't_ particularly beautiful. Where's she appears to be ordinary until the chips are down.

    But you know, at the moment I can't think of one.


  2. Ash - *claps* I'm so looking forward to reading this.

    I like the English idea of almost real looking people on shows, like Gwen on Torchwood, and Shaun of the Dead - to get back to zombies.

  3. Hi Lisabet,

    Yes: Annabel is attractive, particularly in the eyes of one character in the novel. I suppose there's no getting away from the stereotype of desirable women. I suppose I shall just have to live with that reality ;-)

    Kathy Bates put in a stellar performance as a remarkable woman with a conventional appearance in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. However, I'm not sure if this counts as heroic in the usual sense of the word. Still, it's a brilliant film.


  4. Kathleen,

    I hope you enjoy the read. I've certainly had fun with it.

    And you've now got me wanting to watch Shaun of the Dead again. That ranks as my favourite Zombie movie of all time.



  5. Glad to be of help. *brainzzzzz* Where do you stand on The Serpent and the Rainbow?

  6. I hadn't heard of the Serpent and the Rainbow before. How unreal - a Wes Craven zombie movie that I've not watched.

    I'm going to have to check it out and get back to you :-)

  7. Hi Ashley

    Actually I thought that was a cool pickup line, especially the crack about the warning label. That might have worked for me in high school where some of the girls I liked were Grateful Dead fans. Too late now.

    Anodyne? You've been waiting for a chance to use that word.


  8. Garce,

    It's actually a variation on a line from La Boheme - which works in an opera but sounds kinda cheesey in real life.

    And yes, now that I've ticked 'anodyne' from my words to use list, I've got to find a way of using 'distaff' 'odoriferous' and 'contumely.'



  9. I love the Resident Evil movies & Alice. Her thinness actually makes me categorize her as NOT particularly attractive. Despite the Holywoodness, her thinness makes sense in the barren world and her powers make sense from the gadgetry that was done to her.

    I heard so much about Serpent and Rainbow and was disappointed! Great movie until the end...a cop out in my opinion to a real thriller that had you unsure what was real and what was imagined.

    As for strong women...Kathy Bates is awesome. Strength of character, of passion, of body. I love strong women and their strength makes them attractive. My fantasy novel Darklaw is about what constitutes strength and no one is Hollywood attractive, esp not the protagonist.

  10. Hi Teresa,

    That's a good rationalisation about Alice's slender figure. However, the cynic inside me believes, if Hollywood didn't consider her attractive, they wouldn't have had her naked for so much of the film ;-)

    But I can't argue with your comments on Kathy Bates. I think she's superb. I could never tire of watching her.

    Darklaw looks like an exciting title. Thanks for sharing the link.



  11. Ash, I hope you'll indulge me while I sit here and quote back some of the knockout lines that had me roaring like a TV laugh-track audience!

    The phrase ‘ruggedly handsome’ was invented as a euphemism for the words, “Yes, we know he’s got a face like an arse, but he’s still the hero in this film.”

    The years had been kind to him. Or the original photograph had been cruel and unflattering.

    But she would never understand the mystery of how a writer with M R White’s esteemed reputation could produce such a shitty chat-up line.

    : )

  12. Jeremy,

    I'm glad the lines are working properly. Thanks for reading and enjoying.




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