Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Anti-Hero Mystique

by Marcus Sakey

I'm in love with a man.

His name is Jack Reacher.

Reacher, as I imagine most of you know, is the hero of Lee Child's wildly popular series, beginning with KILLING FLOOR and running through to the upcoming BAD LUCK AND TROUBLE. The character is a former military policeman turned wanderer, the archetypical cowboy who rides into town just in time to get caught up in the most tangled of situations.

There are a lot of interesting things at work in the books. For one thing, they successfully explore all kinds of genre territory, from mystery to thriller to adventure novel. And for my money, Lee doesn't get nearly enough credit for the calibre of his prose--he's a beautiful writer with an uncanny sense of rhythm, employing clipped Hemingway sentences and carefully chosen echoes to create a sense of velocity that's at least as compelling as his plots.

But I'm curious about something, and I hope you'll all chime in, because I'd really like to know.

Why do we like Reacher so much? And specifically, why do women like him?

I don't know sales figures, but judging by the women I've spoken to--and the estrogen comet tail following Lee at every public appearance--I'd say that there are at least as many female readers as male.

Which is surprising to me. Because though they are written with intelligence and grace, the Reacher novels feel like classic "boy books." There's a high body count and a lot of gun play. Frequent female jeopardy (though none of the 'helpless damsel' nonsense--he's way too good for that.) There's a hero who kills regularly and with little remorse. There's torture and prison and macho behavior of all sorts.

Understand, I'm not criticizing. I love these novels. I'm just curious. Is conventional wisdom wrong in stating that these elements deter women readers?

Or is just something in Reacher that overcomes those obstacles? And if so, what?

I've got my own theories, but I'd love to hear yours.

24 comments:

Anonymous said...
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Julia said...

My theory--arrived at over several drinks in an Irish pub in Milwaukee--is that Reacher's appeal to women lies in the fact that he is both 1)damaged and 2)supremely competent.

The damage is his essential lonely, friendless state, the chasm between his experiences and those of the rest of the Americans around him, and his emotional vulnerability (although this has lessened a lot from the earlier books, where the poor bastard was always falling for one woman or another and getting gently but firmly dumped by the end of the story.)

His supreme competence--well, what can't Jack Reacher do?

The combination allows women to indulge two very powerful but opposite fantasies. The first is saving a man from himself, from his past, from his injuries, emotional and physical. The second is being saved, protected by the man who stands in the doorway and says, "No one will get past me."

I should note that in talking about this, Tess Gerritsen disagreed with me. She said the fantasy that attracts women to male characters is that of the powerful Alpha male, tamed, as it were, through the love of a woman. That's certainly true for a large number of romances, but Lee Child's books aren't romances. We don't want to see Reacher domesticated.

I'll add as a side note: Reacher doesn't just fall for women or sleep with them. He likes women. He respects them and meets them as equals. Lee writes terrific female characters--strong and smart and competent--who are a match for the hero. Who can resist that? Not me.

Maryann Mercer said...

Jack Reacher is flawed in many ways, but his sense of justice is always visible to me. He involves himself in situations, sometimes willingly, sometimes not, but always with the idea that action has to be taken. Lee Child writes him, and the people around him, well and as you said with grace and intelligence. I like Eisler's John Rain for the same reasons, and I know several other women who read both authors. Maybe we just like a good story.

Bryon Quertermous said...

"estrogen comet tail"

That is a great line.

JT Ellison said...

Hi Marcus,
I like Julia's theory, and Maryann's. I can't disagree with either of them.

In my mind, Reacher operates under this strange, immoral kind of morality. He's one of those characters with a strong moral center -- call it ethics, justice, morality -- which guides their actions. As such, everything they do that is immoral -- murder, for instance -- is acceptable, even justified, because their code is unassailable. They don't waffle, they don't make excuses, they are who they are and that's the way life is.

We need men like this. The men who will defend a woman's honor at all cost. A man you can count on to keep you safe. A man who, when given the choice of running or standing to the fight, will stand and deliver.

Chivalry isn't dead. I could as easily imagine Reacher fighting a duel as I can him breaking a neck, with the same nonplussed reaction.

Eisler's John Rain is another good example. He's an assasin, yet we love him. He kills for a living, but he has a code -- no women, no children, the target are always evil men. Doesn't make what he does right, but acceptable to our sense of justice.

Jack Bauer is another example of this, though the writers have gotten him a little too vulnerable over the past couple of seasons. Think about the real men and women who work the fringes of society, who wouldn't think twice about giving their lives to achieve their mission. A heady thought, and pretty rare.

One last thing about Reacher. He never talks down to a woman, never treats them as fragile little kittens that must be tucked away and protected. They are his equal, and that's very attractive.

Blind Camel said...

I'm in love with Reacher, too. For guys, he's a kind of aspirational figure. If we were large enough, strong enough, principled enough, downright masculine enough...perhaps we'd become him.

As for Reacher's women...and Child's female fans...seems to me that at least part of the equation, as others have alluded, is that Child writes very strong, idealized female characters. They are tough and beautiful, physical and feminine, etc. I can't remember the last time Child had a women play a fop, a dolt, or some other no-account role. The women are almost always some sort of real-world Lara Croft, if memory serves. They look great in a little black dress, especially when they're kicking some ass.

Reacher, also, seems to embody what, in my estimation, the modern women wants: a man who is principled and yet dispassionate, who appreciates the feminine but is explicitly male, and who has the physical and mental power to create sanctuary amidst chaos.

Rae said...

Happy female Reacher Creature here...

There are three primary reasons why I love the Reacher books: the writing, the writing, and then there's the writing ;-) Seriously. Nobody writes like Lee. I think he can easily be compared to both Hemingway and Camus, with a little Knut Hamsun thrown in, if you're feeling literary (I prefer plots in my fiction, but different strokes, etc.)

As to the specific appeal Reacher holds for feminine readers, well, I have a few thoughts on that as well:

The bad guys are really bad, and Reacher is unapologetic about kicking their a**. Reading the books is a great, guilt-free, vicarious release of aggressive tension.

The common theme (dating back to ancient history) of the loner riding into town to save the day allows us all to mentally play Grace Kelly to Reacher's Gary Cooper. It goes a little bit to the idea that we'd like to be the one woman who can 'tame' him. (Which makes no sense, of course; a permanently tamed Reacher would be utterly boring.)

Reacher is not angst-ridden. He's confident, and at peace with the choices he's made in his life. Very appealing in this era of extreme navel-gazing.

And last, but not least, Reacher is hot (and don't talk to me about the hygiene issues and the infrequent clothing changes that some readers like to carp about - any smart woman would simply offer to wash his back ;-)

Blind Camel said...

One thing not yet mentioned --

Although I've not yet met Lee Child -- and I know many of you here have, so please chime in -- he appears to a relatively tall, handsome, virile guy. Plus, I expect he has that accent, the British one, that makes the ladies swoon, am I right?

And so, I contend that women, unlike their more noble male counterparts, are a sucker not only for Reacher, but also for the rich, fit, successful, and seemingly alpha scribe behind the mythical character. Which is to say if Dom Deluise wrote the Reacher series, there might be a few less Reacher Creatures. (Color me jaded.)

Anonymous said...

I think Blind Camel is on to something there. Not that it's the only reason. But if Lee were a little troll-looking guy, I bet Reacher would be less popular, especially with women.

D.A. Davenport said...

Blind Camel and Anonymous, I'm afraid you are off the mark with those theories.

I have had friends and family look at me as if I were insane because of attractions I have had for men they felt were not traditionally good-looking. I won't mention names because why hurt feelings, but yes, I guess some would find a few of them a bit trollish. I felt attracted, because of their talent and intellect.

A man with the ability to capture my imagination, whose ability to create good books, compelling artworks, an amazing charecter on screen and stage or make me laugh with total abandon has a much better chance at grabbing my libido's attention than a man who is simply a hunk.

The fact that Lee Childs is good-looking (and he is, no doubt about it)is not a reason I am a fan. It's because he is a brilliant writer.

Call me weird, call me crazy, but it takes a hell of a lot more than a gorgerous face and body to make this old girl get a tingle going.

Blind Camel said...

D.A., are you suggesting that, since my theory does not hold true for you...it's therefore rendered wholly untrue for the rest of womanity?

And, if so: Are you my wife?

:-)

- Scott

D.A. Davenport said...

No, I've never had the honor! But are you saying Mrs. Blind Camel thinks like me? You are a lucky man!

Nope, I am sure Lee has some fans out there that are attracted to his books because he is a handsome devil, but I am willing to bet the majority who are crushing, are probably crushing on Reacher! I know I am.

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