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May 19, 2008


Death in the city — a grave talent


In case you were worried, it’s still a man’s world.

In spite of Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the presidency, sexism is still alive and well in the United States. If anything, Clinton’s visibility on the stump has opened doors for sexist remarks that would probably have remained private a few years ago.

And women have noticed.

In February feminist writer Robin Morgan published a passionate protest against the sexist treatment of Hillary Clinton that said in part:

Goodbye to the HRC nutcracker with metal spikes between splayed thighs. If it was a tap-dancing blackface doll, we would be righteously outraged — and they would not be selling it in airports. Shame.

Goodbye to the most intimately violent T-shirts in election history, including one with the murderous slogan “If Only Hillary had married O.J. Instead!” Shame.

Goodbye to Comedy Central’s “Southpark” featuring a storyline in which terrorists secrete a bomb in HRC’s vagina. I refuse to wrench my brain down into the gutter far enough to find a race-based comparison. For shame.

Goodbye to the sick, malicious idea that this is funny.

In April Joan Walsh took up the thread by posting a video on her Salon blog:

I’d urge people who are minimizing the sexism Clinton faces, or who are trying to argue that racism against Obama has been just as public and disabling, to make a YouTube video that’s comparable to this, and that features media stars — not Clinton surrogates, not Obama critics, but guys paid by major news networks — using comparable slurs against Obama. Maybe it’s possible. I doubt it, but maybe.

Watching the video makes you see Tim Russert and Keith Olbermann in an entirely different light.

In the blogging world, the Washington Post noted, verbal attacks — and physical threats — aimed at women have become common:

A female freelance writer who blogged about the pornography industry was threatened with rape. A single mother who blogged about “the daily ins and outs of being a mom” was threatened by a cyber-stalker who claimed that she beat her son and that he had her under surveillance. Kathy Sierra, who won a large following by blogging about designing software that makes people happy, became a target of anonymous online attacks that included photos of her with a noose around her neck and a muzzle over her mouth.

As women gain visibility in the blogosphere, they are targets of sexual harassment and threats.

Yesterday the issue reached the pages of the New York Times. In the magazine section, Peggy Orenstein wondered how to talk about the election with her four-year-old daughter:

Contemplating the “Life’s a Bitch, Don’t Vote for One” T-shirts, the stainless-steel-thighed Hillary nutcrackers, the comparison to the bunny-boiling Alex Forrest of “Fatal Attraction,” I struggle over how, when — even whether — to talk to girls truthfully about women and power.

A news story was less dramatic but equally down-beat. Kate Zernike painted a composite picture of the kind of woman most likely to become president:

That woman will come from the South, or west of the Mississippi. She will be a Democrat who has won in a red state, or a Republican who has emerged from the private sector to run for governor. She will have executive experience, and have served in a job like attorney general, where she will have proven herself to be “a fighter” (a caring one, of course).

She will be young enough to qualify as postfeminist (in the way Senator Barack Obama has come off as postracial), unencumbered by the battles of the past. She will be married with children, but not young children. She will be emphasizing her experience, and wearing, yes, pantsuits.

Oh, and she may not exist.

It was in this context that I read Laurie R. King’s A Grave Talent (St. Martin’s Press, 1993) last week. The book is one of Eddie Muller’s “Noir Picks” of contemporary crime books set in the Bay Area. The gender of its main characters turns traditional crime novels — and even traditional literary novels — upside down.

The focus of the book is a painter known to the world as Eva Vaughn, who lives in a back-to-the-earth community in the Santa Cruz mountains. She’s not merely a good painter; she’s a great one. We learn

that her oeuvre of paintings and sketches represented the first real threat to the supremacy of Abstract Expressionism since it had conquered the art world beginning in the forties. That her approach to art, painstaking and painfully traditional, had already begun to make people think about the role of art and about “painterly” paintings…. That, most amazing of all, it was a woman who had swept in like a Vandal through Rome, a barbarian with power on her side against the civilized art establishment; a woman, an outsider, a source of absolutely maddening frustration.

The power of this female barbarian is also behind a series of cruel murders: four brown-haired little girls have been found nude, strangled. The crimes and the process of solving them are just as insistent as today’s political campaigns in raising questions of gender and power in contemporary American social relations.

One of the police officers assigned to the case is Inspector Kate Martinelli. Yes, a female homicide cop. She knows why she’s there:

She had been assigned to this specific case because she was relatively photogenic and a team player known for not making waves, that she was a political statement from the SFPD to critics from women’s groups, and worst of all, that her assignment reflected the incredibly out-dated absurd notion that women, even those without their own, were somehow “better with children.”

She’s a good cop. She’s also a lesbian. And she understands how the world works. At the end of the book, after the murders are solved and the murderer is safely behind bars, she’s assigned to another case. This one involves the slaying of

one of the country’s most outspoken, most eloquent, most militant, most worshipped, and most vilified radical feminist lesbians.

When Kate realizes what has happened, she dissolves into laughter. “Now,” she says,

“now I’m the department’s representative to the chains-and-leather dyke brigade.” She wiped her eyes and blew her nose, and suddenly the laughter disintegrated and she heaved a sigh. “Ah, well, as they say: only in San Francisco.”

On May 4, the Chronicle ran a piece by Eddie Muller on San Francisco mystery writers. This posting is the second in an occasional series on the authors that Muller discusse

Thanks for reading. I’m outta here till Friday.


        — Copyright Betsey Culp 2008