Help! Help! An Analysis of Female Victims in the Novels of Lois Duncan
As English teachers we are often in the position of selecting or recommending books for adolescent readers. In that role, we must be constantly aware of the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) images that are communicated through literature. Teachers, of course, should attempt to avoid books that contain characters that are stereotypically racist or sexist. But considering the sheer number of stereotypes one encounters in reading adolescent fiction, selecting appropriate novels can indeed be a difficult task.
Suspense novels have always been the favorite genre of my students. This genre above all others seems to harbor stereotypical characters -- both male and female. In suspense/horror film, television, and books of decades past, one could almost guarantee that any victim would be female, her assailant male, and that she would predictably have the gun taken from her, scream for help, twist her ankle in running away (probably because of her high heels), and invariably be rescued by a male (Lieber man, p. 391). Things haven't changed. In today's suspense movies, the victims are still overwhelmingly female. As the violence against them mounts, becomingly alarmingly more vicious, sexual, and graphic, they seem to do little to defend themselves.
This fact raises a question: In popular adolescent suspense fiction, how do victims fare? Are female characters presented as true victims -- helpless, stupid, and perhaps even responsible for or deserving of the treatment that they receive? I was particularly interested in looking at female victims in the suspense novels of Lois Duncan because these novels are widely read and regularly enjoyed by middle-school-aged students. Duncan's novels all contain a teenage female protagonist who is the victim of an antagonist's evil intent. It has been my experience as a seventh-grade English teacher that these novels are much more frequently read by female students than by males. Readers at this impressionable age are, perhaps at least subconsciously, seeking role models since they are just beginning to figure out how to be "girls" (Christian-Smith, p. 1). Will teenage girls find in these popular novels weak, silly, stereotypical, victimized girls who depend on a strong male to save them? Or will they find alternate role models -- girls who are strong, intelligent, and savvy enough to take care of themselves?
The ubiquitous stereotype of a female victim as a damsel-in-distress, passive and waiting for a prince to rescue her, has its roots in the centuries-old folk tales that dominated early oral tradition. These stories now in the form of children's books or Disney movies continue to set forth the idea that females (e.g., Cinderella, Snow White) are waiting for a strong man to rescue them. In today's horror movie/book genre, the typical female victim is often terrified and terrorized by one male and then eventually rescued by another. The pervasive stereotype of the female victim seems to encompass many of these standard traits. She is physically weak, hysterical, unable to make a decision, unable to anticipate the actions of the antagonist, unable to formulate or execute a plan to defend or free herself and unable to retaliate whenever the situation requires (Lieberman, p. 397). Does she sound familiar? You've probably heard her screaming once or twice.
In analyzing folk tales, Lieberman concludes that "the underlying associational pattern of these stories links the figures of the victimized girl and the interesting girl. What these stories convey is that women in distress are interesting" (pp. 389-390). This premise certainly holds true for Duncan's protagonists. There is nothing particularly special or noteworthy about any of these girls until they become somehow involved with the antagonist. All but one of the girls are sixteen- or seventeen-year-old high-school students.
Laurie Stratton (Stranger With My Face) is a bright, self-confident girl who breaks up with her handsome but chauvinistic and possessive boyfriend and dates a boy who has been horribly disfigured in an explosion. Kit Gordy (Down a Dark Hall) is a fourteen-year old who decides to make the best of a bad situation when she is forced to attend boarding school. Tracy Lloyd (The Twisted Window) is very intelligent, aloof, physically active, and rebellious enough to be goaded into doing things against her better judgment. The protagonist of Don't Look Behind You, April Corrigan, begins as as somewhat stereotypical character. She is a popular, pretty tennis star who dates the senior-class president and thinks of herself as a princess. She is self-centered and given to temper tantrums and sulking when things don't go her way. While her family is in the witness protection program, she contacts her boyfriend. Doing so almost costs her family their lives. Sue McConnell (Killing Mr. Griffin) is easily the most stereotypical character of the group. She is a quiet, studious girl who is constantly embarrassed by the men in her family. She allows herself to be pulled into a kidnapping plot simply because a cute boy, David, has asked her. She constantly turns to her father and other strong males when confronted with any problem. She is generally presented as weak, unstable, and often given to tears and hysteria in crisis.
The girls all seem to be perceptive enough to have a sense that something is wrong or that something menacing is going to happen. These perceptions usually take place very early in the story -- usually within the first twenty or thirty pages. The girls are often in the impossible position of not being able to tell someone because there is not actual proof of anything sinister. None trusts her own intuition or instinct.
None of Duncan's teenage protagonists has a model relationship with her family. April Corrigan (Don't Look Behind You) resents her father for having become involved in an FBI undercover operation because it later disrupts her life. Her mother begins to drink heavily under the strain of the situation. In The Twisted Window, Tracy Lloyd's mother has been murdered and herself-centered actor father hasn't time for Tracy. She goes to live with an older aunt and uncle who don't understand teenagers. In Down a Dark Hall, Kit Gordy's mother has recently married a man Kit dislikes. She is highly resentful when they deposit her in a boarding school so that they can goon a year-long European honeymoon. Only Laurie (in Stranger with My Face) and Sue (in Killing Mr. Griffin) have even remotely supportive parents. Sue's parents push her to date and are generally unaware of her real feelings, but they try to do what they think is best. Laurie's parents are easily the most "normal" and supportive. However, when Laurie finds out, at the age of seventeen, that she was adopted and subsequently shows interest in learning about her birth family, her mother is viciously resentful.
Lois Duncan gives us a spectacularly wide range of villains. Hers are not the crazed ax-murderers of the movies setting out to stalk the teenage girl in the old dark house. Sometimes as readers, we don't even know who the antagonist is until the book is half-finished. They are believable because they don't ooze evil. In fact, many of them are often quite pleasant, and all but one are known to the protagonists before their positions as antagonists are obvious. Perhaps surprisingly, the antagonists in two of these five novels are female. While it is relatively common for evil witches, queens, stepmothers, ogresses, and the like to prey on sweet innocent protagonists in folk tales(Lieberman, p. 391), it is not nearly as customary in today's popular media for antagonists to be female.
The male antagonists in these novels differ widely. Brad Johnson (The Twisted Window) is a handsome, charming boy who earnestly believes that in convincing Tracy to help snatch his sister that he is doing the right thing. There is a romantic interest between Brad and Tracy that allows her to be sucked into his plan. Mark Kinney (Killing Mr. Griffin) is somewhat menacing from the start -- a "dangerous" boy, ruthless and merciless, but a strong and competent leader when the plot to kidnap Mr. Griffin turns into murder. Even though Sue is interested in David, she feels drawn to Mark and finds him attractive. Mike Vamp (Don't Look Behind You) is actually a mob hit man who is coldly efficient and remorseless in his effort to destroy April Corrigan's family in order to keep Mr. Corrigan from testifying in a drug case. Of the three, only Mike Vamp easily fits into an existing villain stereotype, but he is a stereotype perhaps because we never get to know him. He is a flat, black-and-white character. He is always evil and always relentless, as predictable as a machine that consistently operates as we expect it to.
The female antagonists are a truly scary pair, powerful and willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish their goals. In Stranger With My Face, Laurie Stratton's identical twin sister, Lia, is the most evil of the antagonists. The sisters are separated and adopted at birth. Lia contacts Laurie through astral projection and does not hesitate to attempt to "steal"Laurie's life. Lia has physically attacked and almost killed several characters and outsmarts everyone until the very end. Madam Duret (Down a Dark Hall) is as much a capitalist as a villain. She has created Blackwood, a boarding school, for girls whom she has selected because of their sensitivity to the spirit world. Even knowing that it will cost the girls their sanity and perhaps their lives, she forces them to "channel" creative forces from the spirits of dead artists, writers, and musicians, then sells the works as long-lost originals.
In an interesting note, Lois Duncan says that her editor asked her to change some of the spirits that were to "possess" the girls to females. She had chosen the poet Alan Seeger to contact Sandy, but her editors were concerned that all the spirits were male and their victims female (the other spirits include painter Thomas Cole and composer Franz Schubert). She changed Seeger to the spirit of Emily Bronte (Donaldson and Nilsen, p. 152).
The Confrontation and Escape
The focal point of any suspense novel or movie is the inevitable confrontation of the protagonist and antagonist and the ensuing escape of the protagonist and/or destruction of the antagonist. Lois Duncan's novels are certainly no exception to this hard-and-fast rule. Sadly, in much of the suspense genre, it is at this point that the final and most brutal insult occurs. The hapless female protagonist has managed to get herself into a situation with the evil and intelligent antagonist and doesn't know what to do. At the last possible moment, the boyfriend, husband, father, or nearest available responsible male charges in and saves the day (Lieberman, p. 391). This male rescue communicates a not-so-subtle message to the female audiences-- you don't have to use your wits or your strength. Just endure long enough, and eventually someone -- probably a man -- will save you.
Taking Responsibility for One's Actions
In a publisher's interview, Lois Duncan says that she wants to communicate an underlying message to readers. She feels that it is important for teenagers to take responsibility for their actions ("A Conversation with Lois Duncan"). Presumably she includes being responsible for one's own self and not always relying on outside help. A study of the climatic scenes from Duncan's novels suggests her protagonists are indeed able to keep their wits about them and be responsible for themselves.
After spending much of Killing Mr. Griffin in near hysterics, Sue McConnell musters enough nerve at the story's climax to make a very stereotypically foolish decision. Throughout the novel she has whined and cried and wanted desperately to ask her father for help. When she realizes that Mark has committed murder, she foolishly confronts him to tell him that she's going to the police. He, of course, tries to kill her. She is saved only when the police arrive at the last minute and pull her out of the house that Mark has set on fire. Sue is an embarrassingly stereotypical victim through and through.
In Don't Look Behind You, April Corrigan begins the story as a stereotypical girl, from her lace-and-flowers bedroom to her temper tantrums, but she manages to pull away from the stereotype during the climax. When the mob hit man, Mike Vamp, locks April and her grandmother in the closet during his attempt to murder the rest of the family, April uses brains, brawn, and nerve to escape. She is able to outrun him and get to her car. When her car won't start, he holds her at gunpoint. April attacks him with a tennis racket, knocks him out, and actually kills him.
Laurie Stratton from Stranger With My Face must contend with her antagonist, Lia, on a spiritual plane. Both girls are able to project their spirits or souls from their bodies and travel instantaneously through space. Lia is extremely envious of Laurie's life. While Laurie is out of her body, Lia enters it. Laurie's help in regaining her body comes from her eight-year-old sister, Megan, who recognizes that something is not right. It is only when Megan confronts and disorients Lia that Laurie is able to reclaim her own body. While Laurie does indeed receive help in getting rid of her antagonist, there is little she could do to save herself in her spirit form; and what assistance she does receive comes from another female.
At the climax of Down a Dark Hall, Kit Gordy is both brave and smart. Trapped at the isolated boarding school, she confronts Madame Duret and convinces the other students to destroy the work they've done that Madame Duret was planning to sell. Kit convinces Madame Duret's son, Jules, to drive them into the nearest town. Kit's appeal to an older male has more to do with age than gender. Only fourteen, she is at the mercy of the antagonist more because of her age than her gender. She doesn't drive, and her parents have unsuspectingly entrusted her care to Madame Duret. Leaving Blackwood is, however, Kit's idea, and she alone secures the help that the girls need. In fact, when Blackwood is later set afire by a lightning storm, Kit bravely reenters the building to save a fellow student.
In The Twisted Window, Brad Johnson convinces Tracy Lloyd to help him snatch his baby sister away from his non-custodial stepfather. It is only after they have kidnapped the child in Texas and started back to Arizona that Tracy realizes that the girl is not Brad's sister. Tracy makes very clever decisions when she begins to suspect the truth. She is also ready to take responsibility for her part in the kidnapping regardless of how misinformed she had been. Help comes in the curious form of Jamie Hanson, Brad's best friend. Throughout the novel, Brad tells Tracy about Jamie, who was always taller and stronger than he was and who taught him to stick up for himself when they were younger. Brad also tells about Jamie's being able to work on any car. Here Duncan plays with our own tendency to stereotype, because given this information, we, like Tracy, assume that Jamie is a male. It is not until page 146 that we realize that Jamie is a female. Eventually, she and Tracy outsmart Brad. They successfully get the child away from him, even though he has a gun.
Only Sue McConnell (Killing Mr. Griffin) completely fits the pervasive stereotype of the female victim. She makes foolish decisions and then is rescued by a male. Only April Corrigan (Don't Look Behind You) is able to effect her escape with no help whatsoever. Not only does she not rely on anyone else, but she outsmarts and then physically overpowers a larger male. Even though April begins as a somewhat stereotypical character, she ends up being the farthest away from the stereotype of the female victim. The other protagonists fall somewhere in the middle, but most land closer to April than to Sue.
Laurie Stratton (Stranger With My Face) is helped by a young sister. Laurie is both brave and clever; ultimately she does as much as she can do alone -- which is not enough. Were it not for Megan, Laurie would not have survived. Megan is not prompted by her older sister to take the action that she does. By virtue of this, Laurie lands slightly toward the stereotypical victim side of the continuum.
Kit Gordy (Down a Dark Hall) is helped slight by a male, but it is her own courage, determination, and intelligence that sets the action into motion. Tracy Lloyd (The Twisted Window) depends on Jamie Hansen, not to save herself, but to rescue the kidnapped child. Tracy resembles Kit in that she is helped, this time by a female, but it is her bravery and ability to make quick decisions that set the plan into motion. Both Tracy and Kit, while relying on help from another party, actively seek their own escapes. They are the primary planners and decision-makers and the greatest effect on their chance of escape.
With the regrettable exception of Sue McConnell in Killing Mr. Griffin, Lois Duncan's female protagonists do not fall in sync with the pervasive stereotype of the female victim. Although they are not all able to effect their antagonist's defeat entirely alone, as April Corrigan does, these girls are hardly passive, meek, or foolish. In reading these novels, young women can find other young women to be proud of.
Christian-Smith, Linda K. "Love Makes the World Go `Round: Generating Gender in Adolescent Romance Fiction." In Using Multicultural Literature in the Classroom, Violet Harris, ed. Christopher Gordon Publishers, 1992.
Deborah Wilson Overstreet teaches in the Department of Language Education at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia.