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Detecting Women: Gender and the Detective Genre in Literature and Film  

Mary Scott Many of us grew up reading tales of girl sleuth Nancy Drew, later moving on to Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple stories and perhaps to Sue Grafton’s tough detective, Kinsey Millhone and others. Meanwhile whether amateur or professional, detecting women were protagonists with agency at the center of the narrative in a surprising number of films from the silent era up to the present. This course will trace the roles of female detectives in both literature and film. -- how the representation of females in each has transformed over the decades and how societal changes affected these roles. Using excerpts from detective literature from various eras, we will trace the roles of female detectives in literature from the 1850’s through the dime novels of the 1919’s and 1920’s, on to the novels of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, and up to the present where female detectives predominate -- e.g. Kinsey Millhone (Sue Grafton), V.I. Warshawski (Sara Paretsky), Aimée Leduc (Cara Black), Precious Ramotswe (A.M. Smith). In all of these eras, from the 1910’s on, there have been films wherein women show their agency, using their intellect and intuition as well as their physical skills to solve mysteries. In the serials of the 1910’s such as The Perils of Pauline and The Exploits of Elaine, women ride horses, fly planes, and fire guns. In the depression years, we find Joan Crawford, Myrna Loy, and Claire Trevor playing reporters and detectives. Film Noir features several films with females as detectives including Deadline at Dawn and Phantom Lady. More recent crime-solving women include Angela Lansbury, Glenn Close, and Jodie Foster. Week One: The origins of female detectives in silent & 1930’s films Female gothics, early British detective novels Week Two: Strong women of 1930’s films, US and British novels, 1930’s Week Three: Women detectives in Film Noir, 1940’s Hard Boiled dicks - can they be female? 1940’s-1960’s Week Four: Post WWII, fewer Women Detectives 1950’s-1970’s, The rise of the female detective in literature Week Five: Strong women return, 1970’s – present, Dramatic increase in female detectives in literature, Summary, further studies of gender Mary Scott has enjoyed teaching Film History and Studies for over twenty years at both San Francisco State University and College of San Mateo (as well as in Florence, Italy and London.) She has also taught Film and Video Production for twenty years at SFSU. Her passion for film is said to be contagious so beware.