Female Violence in Genre Fiction

This post is linked to the next one on Life in Sci-Fi, a guest piece by novelist Jane Davis, whose new book At the Stroke of Nine O’Clock explores the motivations for female violence in the twentieth century. It’s interesting to compare how historical fiction and SF deal with this theme, because Jane’s story looks at how legal, social and gender pressures create situations in which women commit crimes that shock, not just with their violence but because the criminal is female.

Society has always been rigidly gendered, to the extent that the influences on female violence feel hard to gauge with any scientific objectivity. The patriarchy works so relentlessly, so insidiously and so overwhelmingly that half the world’s population has been brainwashed in early youth, before they have a chance to develop critical faculties. Femininity under this lifelong duress is defined by specific ideas about motherhood, beauty, and status.

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We know from Russian female snipers in World War 2 such as Lyudmila Pavlichenko (pictured) that women have the same skills as men at fighting. However, these warriors are less celebrated as their male counterparts, and there were fewer examples in the rest of the Allied Forces. Meanwhile, powerful female leaders from Elizabeth I and Catherine the Great to Margaret Thatcher not only took part in wars but started them. Were these decisions a reaction to the patriarchal power structures they found themselves in, or did they reflect a reality of the human condition, which is that given the opportunity people are equally violent regardless of gender?

While contemporary/historical fiction like At the Stroke of Nine O’Clock considers how existing systems of oppression create violence in people who are victims of violence – and male violence against women remains a horrific problem – science fiction can look at societies in which the usual gender norms have been lifted.

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That my new novel is called Beautiful Gun – a title that refers not to a specific weapon but to the female protagonist – sums up my understanding of the capacity in women for violence. Subtle distinctions exist within this general view, however. In my Diamond Roads stories, female violence is justified because Diamond City is a purely neo-liberal, or capitalist state. People and organisations, be they social or commercial, stand or fall by the market. This state is enabled by extreme technologies that make any kind of ‘government’ as we understand it impossible. As we know all too well, even when there is a rule of law other forms of oppression, such as misogyny, racism, class bias or intersections of all three, not only exist but thrive.

With no legal framework it is down to individuals, whether they are female or male, to defend themselves in whatever way they see fit. Inevitably, such decisions include violence, and sometimes this violence is extreme because weapons are easy to come by. While oppressive in its own way, this condition is also one of freedom – particularly of the social norms that constrain people now. Sometimes those constraints are useful, but when they result in systemic equality then clearly they are not, and it is a bracing experience to see what would happen in a fictional environment when a form of true equality is achieved.

The heroine of Beautiful Gun is called Ashel 5, a designer human created to be the ultimate bodyguard. Her antagonist, Ursula Freestone, is a warship captain and a gifted pilot. Ashel 5’s friend, the messianic Golden Princess, is a special forces soldier. Each of these identities is hard-earned, and was not the character’s original choice for her career, although Ashel 5 had less agency than the other two. They are this world’s version of the aristocracy, while Ashel 5 is marked as ‘other’ by her designer human status, and subject to racial abuse despite presenting as ‘white’ (see my earlier post on this theme).

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The reason Ursula becomes Ashel 5’s antagonist is partly rooted in this class conflict, but mainly because of something terrible and violent Ashel 5 did to Ursula in the first Diamond Roads novel, Sons of the Crystal Mind. Ashel 5 regrets her actions, but it is too late. The novel explores this dynamic through different levels of violence: Ursula’s retaliation, Ashel 5 having to subsequently take a job as a cage fighter to pay her medical bills, and the ongoing war in the background.

Neither Ashel 5 or Ursula are bullies, although Ursula’s actions at the beginning of the novel are hard to stomach. Neither are the characters psychopaths – another often inaccurate label applied to violent women. Ashel 5 is referred to as a psychopath more than once, but with her great mournful heart, she is anything but. Instead, she and Ursula are desperate people in the grip of events and emotions they cannot control. Their violence reflects the situation they find themselves in, rather than their gender. Aggression and fighting do not exist for the sake of it in this novel, and neither are they a means of enhancing status – indeed, both characters lose status rather than gain it.

There is always a risk when writing characters like these that they are mistaken for men with a few bits of female anatomy stuck on. They may well be mistaken as such. It is a tough creative job for a male writer to pull off, which is why I had a great female editor in F.D. Lee, and female beta readers. No novel is a solo effort, and I needed to ensure that the femaleness I felt deeply on behalf of my characters made it into the reader’s imagination without any snags. The violence, then, came from character, which is where all themes are birthed.

Perhaps this story shines a small light on an incredibly complex and troubling issue, or it may be just a book about two kick-ass women you wouldn’t mess with, not simply because they are tougher than you but because they come to know themselves over the course of a difficult journey. I’ll be happy either way.

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Jane’s excellent article will be posted on 30 June. At the Stroke of Nine O’Clock will be released on 13 July, but you can pre-order it now for the special price of £1.99p/£1.99 (Price on publication will be £4.99/$4.99).

To find out what Ashel 5 did that was so terrible, download Sons of the Crystal Mind for free here

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