Why We Love Seeing Female Rage in Crime Fiction
People love Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. We can’t get away from it, not that we’d want to. It’s the comp title for everything.
Maris Kreizman says in her Esquire article, “Gone Girl kicked off a boom in the market for domestic suspense, a genre that focuses on interpersonal mysteries, often in the home, rather than police procedurals or detective novels.” She’s right, but one thing she didn’t directly address is that a favorite quality of this type of heroine and anti-heroine is their rage.
Daphne du Maurier and Patricia Highsmith popularized this form, according to Kreizman, and I’d like to add Shirley Jackson and Sylvia Plath as early influencers of this angry-girl quality, too. I mean, I’m hard-pressed to think of lines more full of rage than, “’I am going to put death in all their food and watch them die,” or even, “’It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they executed the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”
This female rage is not new, but its acknowledgment is, not to mention its celebration. In crime writing and depiction, it’s even refreshing. There’s a reason why Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh and Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood are cult favorites. There’s a reason why my first book focuses on female rage.
There’s a reason why, for example, the new thriller Emily the Criminal features a woman (Aubrey Plaza) who picks up an illegal side-hustle to pay down her exorbitant student loans. There’s a reason why Emily’s our protagonist and not the guy who runs the whole scam (Anthony Rossi), for example. The reason why we’re all in her corner while she commits credit card fraud, is because we love to watch her rage, rage, and fuckin’ rage; when guys try to rip her off, or when she gets robbed at gunpoint and then takes a taser to the robber’s neck to repossess her hard-stolen cash.
We identify with that angry girl. Whether you identify as a woman or not, nearly everyone has at some point identified with the underdog, wronged for some unspeakable reason. If not directly, than by the systems in place that lets tradition screw you while the people who throw up their hands in the “it’s tradition” defense do nothing to stop it.
And even if you don’t identify with the underdog, psychology acknowledges that we generally want to be a person who pulls for an underdog. Malcolm Gladwell says about his book David and Goliath, “We want to be on the winning side, and we also want to root for the underdog. I think it makes sense. I mean, if I can be in the position of power, I’d like to have that. If not, I’d like to be the underdog, you know? It’s a kind of fallback position that we have.”
Regarding a raging woman protagonist… it’s like someone finally recognized that the better avatar for an underdog was a woman, and that’s why female rage seems to be suddenly ubiquitous. And it seems like Gone Girl was the moment when people recognized that was what was happening.
One reason we love to see women rage, rage, and fuckin rage is because underdogs don’t get to rage IRL, or at least we don’t feel like we get too. There are too many repercussions for a person not in power. Seeing an underdog first rage and then set a wrong aright is sort of like seeing a grown man cry… it’s so uncommon and socially unacceptable that it sort of stops everyone dead in their tracks. Neither of them is really practiced at that emotion, either, or at least not publicly, so when they do it, it feels raw and real, and it looks the way I feel.
That is, if you’re the underdog, it looks the way you feel. If you’re on the other side of it, the receiving end of that rage, it can be really disorienting. Like Tina Fey says in Bossypants, “if you’re so mad you could just cry, then cry. It terrifies everyone.”
Still, most people want to either see themselves in the strong, angry female protagonist, or they want to see themselves as on her team… which is probably why female rage is now, well, all the rage.
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Mary Kay McBrayer is the author of America’s First Female Serial Killer: Jane Toppan and the Making of a Monster. You can find her short works at Oxford American, Narratively, Mental Floss, and FANGORIA, among other publications. She co-hosts Everything Trying to Kill You, the comedy podcast that analyzes your favorite horror movies from the perspectives of women of color. Follow Mary Kay McBrayer on Instagram and Twitter, or check out her author site here.