The Ann Cleeves character, Vera Stanhope, wears thick walking sandals, no makeup, and is generally unafraid to take up space. A British police inspector from a shady working class background — her father was a sort of thief — Vera has no husband, no children, and no lover. She eschews aerobics and yoga and “fitness types,” though, at her physician’s urging, she temporarily concedes to sporadically swim laps. As a professional, Vera is a raging success, solving crimes through startling insight and sheer doggedness, despite, or perhaps partly because of, her failure to properly perform femininity.
In this era of renewed, righteous feminist anger, as a serial rapist demagogue smugly barks out misogynistic tweets from the White House, it may seem seem trivial to focus on the style and personality of a fictional female character. But if you don’t mind, I’ll take my feminist heroes where I can get them: in Vera’s casual exploitation of men’s constant tendency to underestimate her, and in her refusal to bat her eyes, slide into grandmotherly invisibility, or be modest about her ambition or prowess as a police detective.
Vera’s clothing style is utilitarian and hurried. Unlike other contemporary mystery heroines, think Kinsey Milhone and V.I. Warshowski, we rarely learn about Vera’s appearance from her own description. This alone is radical. While it is unusual for fictional male detectives to be depicted selecting their clothes — the dandy Poirot is a notable outlier — we are frequently reminded of women detectives’ awareness of how they look to others, especially to men. Further, we are usually assured of their attractiveness to men. The whole effect is to soften and sanitize. She can duke it out with burly diamond smugglers, yes, but she still has sexual, or at least, grandmotherly, appeal.
Only occasionally do we find Vera judging her own appearance from an external point of view. Others’ silent judgements of her are constant, though: her dirty feet and ungainly shoes, her cellulite, her wrinkled skirt. Focused on solving puzzles and catching murderers, Vera is occasionally self-conscious, but largely unaffected, by how others see her. Significantly, it isn’t that she’s unaware of the impression she makes on coworkers, lying witnesses, and poncy higher ups, but it’s pragmatic rather than self-flagellating. She relies heavily on the fact that she will be overlooked, underestimated, and disdained. In fact, Vera’s capacity for objective self-reflection — both about how she looks and her motives — is one of her most attractive and astonishing qualities.
Vera’s sensual world, too, is practical rather than decorative. It is one of bacon sandwiches, strong tea with chocolate biscuits, and whiskey. But she has opinions about others’ aesthetic choices — including posh ladies of leisure — and she expresses them silently to amuse herself. If she is a feminist superhero for some of us, maybe it is because she pushes on assertively, knowing she is great at her work, without obsessing over her supposed shortcomings: her weight, her tendency to drink too much, her workaholism. Rumpled and out of breath, Vera is an accomplished middle-aged woman who doesn’t give two figs what we think about how she looks. Frankly, she isn’t asking for others’ opinions about whether or not she’s stylish or “sexy for her age.” Nor, I bet, are you.