Okay, really, this is the end (for now) I have been giving a lot of thought to women within noir stories, and there are two major camps. The one side claims that women are further objectified, relegated to sex objects when not pursuing criminal activities.
The other camp is firmly entrenched in the camp that says women are empowered by allowing them to have power over men and act as agents for themselves. A woman as a criminal has agency and pursues her own goals.
But the objectification side will claim that . . . nope, I’m not going to do that.
I’m not interested in refuting one side’s claims or the other’s. Instead I will attempt a different tactic.
First, the women. I went through and examined three characters from The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep as part of defining noir, and that’s a good place to start here, too. Brigid O’Shaugnessy, Carmen Sternwood, and Vivian Regan have many things in common, but they also are not identical, which gives us range in types.
And now the sexuality. Yes, it’s there. Brigid, Carmen, and Vivian all ply sexuality within their respective books. Brigid uses it first against Archer, then Sam in an attempt to manipulate them towards her goals. Carmen is more straightforward, merely looking for a good time and to show off her attributes. Vivian, too, attempts some manipulation of Marlowe, but the true motivation mitigates her from being a femme fatale. She never intended harm. In fact, she intended to spare her father, General Sternwood, the pain of the truth.
I believe these characters give a good cross-section of attitudes regarding sex that demonstrate that these women are not objects, but agents. They all have different motives, but choose their sexuality freely, to employ how it best suits them.
Criminal tendencies are also present for all three, again, with various motives central to their characters. Brigid doesn’t wish the truth about her revealed, Carmen is both out for fun and readily embraces the concept of revenge for (what are really imagined) slights against her. Vivian again is acting criminally for a moral purpose.
Then there are the two characters that people will view as exceptions: Effie Perine and Mona Mars. Effie is Sam’s secretary, and is an upright and moral person in this noir society. And the story points to a dependence on Sam, but I think this is less a function of attempting to recommend a specific role for women than it is a necessity. Effie is moral. She is a good person. As such she wouldn’t survive the noir world. And yet she has chosen the association with Sam, whether out of loyalty to him or necessity for a job is unknown (sadly we don’t have a book that tells us more about Effie). She is smart, aware, and caring. There’s little doubt that she could get a job as a secretary at a more respectable establishment, but there she is in The Maltese Falcon working for Sam and Miles. As a side note, I think she’s in danger of becoming integrated into the noir society. She doesn’t blink at getting someone to scratch Miles’s name off the doors and windows, and she performs a bit of detective work against Eva, Miles’s wife.
Mona Mars is very similar to Effie in that she is dependent on a man, but again it’s out of her own choice. She shares the same moral goodness that Effie has, though perhaps she is more naïve about her surroundings. Namely because she is married to the gangster Eddie Mars, and is fiercely loyal and loving towards him, even willing to shave her head as a disguise and go into hiding. She vehemently discounts Marlowe’s accusations regarding Eddie, yet still aids in Marlowe’s escape.
I think noir completely levels the playing field for the genders. In a world where every character is filled with various kinds of vice, where the upright and moral person isn’t present, everyone gets a fair shake. Even money is not a true determiner as the rich are as morally bankrupt as the beggar stealing candy from a baby. (The wealthy might be more likely to steal from the baby, in fact as an explanation for how they got their money.)
So there it is. Noir is the great equalizer of the genders, though not in the way we want. Instead of bringing everyone up to an enlightened level, noir tears everyone down to show the human frailties we all share. We are all capable of criminal acts; all take part in our deviant, sexual nature. Perhaps this is one more reason I find myself drawn to noir.