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Challenging Stereotypes: Adele Parks on how women are portrayed in thrillers

October 30, 2018

About The Author:

Adele Parks was born in Teesside, England. Since graduating from Leicester University, where she studied English Language and Literature, Adele has worked in advertising and as a management consultant. One of the most-loved and biggest-selling women’s fiction writers in the UK, she has sold over 3 million copies of her bestselling titles in the UK alone and her books have been translated into over twenty-five languages. Her novels have all been top ten bestsellers in The Times (UK).

Adele is a judge for the Costa Book Awards and The British Book Awards. During her career she’s lived in Italy, Botswana and London. Adele now lives happily in Guildford, Surrey with her husband, teenage son and cat.

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For at least a half century, women in thrillers were often portrayed as one of two stereotypes: femme fatales that lead decent, trusting men into danger situations or even to their deaths; or victims, who were violently and/or sexually assaulted then murdered. Thinking about it, even the femme fatales were not safe, they too could also end up dead. Dead women, obviously, can’t say or do much. Dead woman are the ultimate in passivity and hopelessness. Before they met their deaths, these female characters in thrillers were nearly always portrayed as emotionally dysfunctional or damaged: obsessive, neurotic, unstable or delusional (or a mix of the above). Basically, emotionally unstable women were presented as the norm and as such they wreaked havoc or warranted harm.

In the past, the male characters in psychological thrillers were also forced into two main stereotypes. It’s just that these stereotypes were so much more attractive and empowering. They were the hero that would solve the crime, save the day, rescue the woman (or at the very least find her body) or they were the villain. Villain is a nice way of saying murderer because even if the male protagonist was an antagonist, a murderer, (call a spade a spade) he was still strong in some way. He held the gun (or knife, or penis). He was very rarely shown to be emotionally vulnerable or unstable. This defies logic when you think about it, because killing someone, taking life, is the ultimate desperate act of the emotionally unstable.

In more recent literary history (let’s say the last ten years or so), those stereotypes have been challenged and arguably they have been challenged because more women are writing physiological thrillers and even more women are reading them. Women writers know that women are not simply good or bad, whore or virgin, right or wrong. We are nuanced (so are men actually but for reasons that escape me, they don’t seem to want to own this emotional complexity, let alone celebrate it or develop it). The idea of a ‘crazy woman’ being the centre of all problems and her emotional instability causing chaos or deserving punishment is losing its hold. We (women) don’t believe we are responsible for all the death and destruction (see, erm, history in its entirety) and we are no longer willing to take the blame. I think we want our reading matter to reflect our realities a little more, even whilst we’re reading for escapism or entertainment, thrills or adrenalin hits.

Luckily, there are a large number of women thriller writers who are willing to bravely break down stereotypes. Women thriller writers don’t think sexually active women have to meet a horrible end because we’re not scared of or offended by female sexuality. So, wave goodbye to the concept that the only woman in a thriller is the femme fatale/prostitute/adulterer who dies violently. I’m not saying women thriller writers want to write ‘good girls’ far from it, we want to write nuanced women, because we are nuanced women. We’re not perfect, we might be emotional but we’re also rational, we might be capable of murders but we’re also certainly capable of solving them and few of us still believe a man will come along and fix everything. We’re capable of sorting out our own messes if we happen to find ourselves in one.

Women characters may still end up dead but in more recent thrillers, written by women, they might not end up dead at all (the victim might – shock, horror – be a man) but if the women do die, we don’t want all the detectives investigating the cases to be male. We don’t even want detectives; crimes can be solved by ordinary women – mothers, sisters, neighbours, friends – because we’ve got the smarts. Finally, we don’t believe all brutal crimes are physical, we know the power of mental cruelty too, so our thrillers might not even have an actual death in it: it might be a faked death, threatened or insinuated. We’re really good at mental torture, don’t underestimate how thrilling that can be in a book. The good news is, there’s a whole world of stereotype-busting-nuance in thrillers written by women that will leave you second guessing and turning pages.


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