The Unusual Suspects: What heist narratives hold for women

This article appears in our Summer 2016 issue, Money. Subscribe today!

Think of a famous heist movie. You’ve got your Usual Suspects, your Dead Presidents, your Inside Man, your Ocean’s Elevens and Italian Jobs past and present, and even your Wolf of Wall Street. All these films initially hint at pesky ethical questions, but they soon fade as lush images of opulence and clever plot points seduce audiences into identifying with often narcissistic, amoral, and overindulgent characters. And in most heist narratives, men are stealing from other men, or from institutions coded as male—banks, racetracks, casinos, Nazis. The audience can root for the thieves because those they’re stealing from are even more narcissistic, amoral, and overindulgent.

Audiences are so conditioned to associate heists with having the balls to think big, plan big, and steal big that it’s no surprise to realize that women’s heist narratives are comparatively rare. In most heist stories, women appear generally as either tangential accomplices or just part of the spoils. Sex workers, gold diggers, and garden-variety hot girls are an integral part of the good life that stolen riches offer to men. But in the lack of women-led fictional heists, pop culture squanders a fertile storytelling opportunity. After all, heist fantasies are doubly meaningful for women: The big score isn’t just a way to be set for life, it also offers the possibility of being free from patriarchal control.

For most women, the path to the “good life” has historically been limited: You could be born rich, or you could marry rich. As women became a wage-earning class, more possibilities for success and wealth via entrepreneurship blossomed. Yet economic equality remains elusive for vast numbers of women, who do two-thirds of the world’s work, but get 10 percent of the world’s income and own 1 percent of the world’s wealth. And in both industrialized and nonindustrialized countries, gender inequality means that men are often granted financial control of women’s lives and choices.

This article appears in our Summer 2016 issue, Money. Subscribe today!

But what happens when women make like the heroes of our beloved big-screen capers and just take what they want? For women, the heist genre has revolutionary potential to imagine redress of the wage gap, wealth redistribution, and that still-feared quality, female ambition. Whether in the company of men, with a female crew, or alone, heist heroines are experts in their field, and it’s glorious to watch them work.

Up until the 1960s, social conventions and the belief that hard, honest work would be rewarded demanded that cops, not robbers, must be the heroes of a heist narrative. But in the past 50 years, increasing corruption—and the growing public awareness of it—as well as the legal looting of wealth from those who have followed all the rules, has changed the script. As criticism of uberrich individuals and corporations becomes more widespread, the thief can increasingly be understood as a Robin Hood archetype, a character of moral integrity who stands on the side of justice.

Most heist stories in pop culture wouldn’t pass the now-famous Bechdel test, a standard requiring that a story have two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man. Many heist stories don’t even have a single named female character to begin with. One 2015 list of the 10 best heist novels featured only male authors; only one of the books had a female protagonist. I recall being especially furious with Ocean’s Eleven: Eleven people in the crew and they couldn’t find one woman? Not even for the job of being small and flexible? The one role for which women are biologically superior and they still chose a man? Even when Julia Roberts made it an even dozen in Ocean’s Twelve, her role was typical of the way women are employed in most heist stories—the girlfriend, or the tagalong, or the bank teller “just doing her job” who stumbles into the plot or unwittingly falls in love with the thief.

Demi Moore filled this role in the 2007 diamond-heist film Flawless, alongside Michael Caine. In the film, which is set in the 1960s, Moore is a diamond-company employee disgruntled by overt gender discrimination who teams up with Caine’s equally undervalued janitor to boost a fortune in ice. As the Daily Dot put it: “There’s a great feminist undercurrent driving the film…but it’s undercut severely by the fact that—even as her unfortunate circumstances are caused by misogyny—all of her breaks in fortune come from men too.”

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In general the compulsory narrative for women is that we should be good and attractive and amiable and this will pay off for us. But every day we see real-life stories of these strategies failing. Predatory men are notorious for seizing upon our conditioning to be agreeable and manipulating it to their advantage. Women often stake their happiness on being considered sexually attractive, only to find themselves devalued as they age. Women work for a lifetime, being dependable and helpful and generous, only to find that those who get ahead are self-centered and cutthroat and above all male (in attitude, if not in actual gender). The good-girl path is a sham. Flawless hints at a realm of possibility fueled by female outrage: Unruly crews of women who have run out of patience, who have the greatest incentive to stop waiting for a reward that never comes.

My own female-focused heist fiction evolved from a desire to write in a genre that would appeal to a broad audience of younger women. We see radical political innovation taking place in the genres of science fiction and fantasy, but I wanted to tell stories that advocated for social justice in our present world. When I first sat down to write, I was unaware of many of my female-heist predecessors, particularly those in film, but research for my books led me to many great stories in which female characters are increasingly emboldened to steal without remorse—and are allowed to get away with it. These stories bloom at the intersection where the antihero has become the hero and pop culture’s women are both more complex and more central to narratives of morally dubious action.

But the mere presence of women as protagonists in heist stories does nothing to guarantee that the content won’t be steeped in implicitly sexist tropes that have long erased or sidelined them. If the Bechdel test is the most bare-bones baseline, I’d suggest a feminist-heist test that builds on it. The criminal mastermind needs to be a woman, and the crew needs to be all, or at least majority, women. The connections between the women need to be as strong as or stronger than any connections between those women and the men in their lives. The women need to have a grievance with the system, rather than stealing to finance material things; bonus points for Robin Hood schemes hatched to help the disenfranchised or less fortunate. And finally, the women need to win. It makes narrative sense for a crew to suffer losses or face some consequences for their choices. But the majority of the crew needs to wind up alive and not incarcerated.

The truly satisfying TNT series Leverage fit this bill. The show, which ran from 2008 to 2012, had an opening voiceover—“The rich and powerful, they take what they want. We steal it back for you. Sometimes bad guys make the best good guys”—that left no question that this was a show about redressing the balance of power. Of the five members in a male-led crew, two are women—and they arguably make the show. Nathan Ford, their leader, may be the designated brains of the operation, but it’s the women—one a grifter, the other a thief—who are able to cover his blind spots as they shake up viewers’ expectations. Sophie, the con woman, is an ethnically ambiguous fiftysomething; Parker, the thief, is a daredevil sociopath in her 20s. The older brunette is the sexpot; the young blond is decidedly not sexualized, unless it’s part of a con.

On the big screen, the first heist movie to approach the feminist-heist standard is the 1980 comedy How to Beat the High Cost of Living. But the three single, suburban white women at its center are laughably incompetent, and the film sacrifices most of its economic critiques to chauvinist slapstick. Nearly three decades later, 2008’s thematically similar Mad Money featured Diane Keaton as an upper-middle-class wife who takes a job as a Federal Reserve Bank custodian when her husband is downsized and they spiral into debt. She plots the heist and recruits two other women (Queen Latifah and Katie Holmes) to pull it off. Mad Money differs from High Cost of Living mainly because classism, rather than flailing  female incompetence, is the butt of the joke. And a more diverse cast means that laughing at the bumbling, white-lady antics of Keaton’s character is laughter at the culture of the white middle class, rather than at the individual woman.

The 2001 teen bank-job movie Sugar & Spice also subtly conceals political critique in its broad humor, typified by a pair of scenes set in school bathrooms that goose double standards about sex and pregnancy. The cheerleading captain’s teammates view her pregnancy as a life-rocking emergency and promptly debate the options. The football captain spills the news to teammates who high-five him and continue peeing. Her need to wise up while he has the privilege of remaining oblivious makes her the perfect mastermind for the resulting plan to rob a supermarket bank. Likewise, three of her five teammates, because of their class position, have crucially unmet economic needs. Both as a story of women having each others’ backs and a political commentary on the lack of a safety net for young families, Sugar & Spice is effective.  

But while heist comedies like these are both funny and gently political, they lack the intense character arc of the standalone “big score” heist narrative in which each participant emerges forever changed, ending up either rich, in jail, or dead. The two female heist films that define this genre are Set It Off and Bound, both of which came out in 1996, midway through a breakthrough decade for female heist narratives.

At the time Set It Off came out, I was taking a break from popular movies, in particular the popular and profoundly male-dominated “Hood films” of the era: Boyz N the Hood, New Jack City, Juice, Dead Presidents, and Menace II Society, just to name a few. I eventually watched Set It Off as part of my recent exploration of women’s heist stories, and while I wasn’t impressed by the acting (Jada Pinkett didn’t quite have the charisma or pathos to pull off the lead role) or the ending (which flunks the heist-film standard because the women fail to get away with their robbery of an armored car), the film itself was critical in marking the entrance of women of color as a force in the heist canon. They don’t ultimately win, but they fight hard—and at the time, that was a huge cinematic breakthrough.

As was the lesbian-love-story heist indie Bound, whose timeless film-noir sensibility combined glossy Hitchcockian tension with a feminist soul. Though the threat of discovery and punishment looms large in the plot, which involves the heist of laundered mob money and a male fall guy, it’s the transgressive romantic and sexual relationship between its two leads (Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly) that takes center stage. And while a sense of impending danger keeps the entire film taut and anxious, the ending is triumphant. It can all be summed up in the final exchange between the two women:  

Corky [the butch]: You know what the difference is between you and me, Violet?  

Violet [the femme fatale]: No.  

Corky: Me neither.

Heist narratives like those in Bound, in Leverage, and in Set It Off are subversive not just because they endow the criminals with moral authority against powers that have failed to fulfill their end of the social contract, but also because they highlight how women experience economic disempowerment in markedly different ways than men. (And women of color, obviously, in still different ways.) For women the fight for worldwide economic equity is long and grueling; I write feminist heist as a joyfully imagined set of shortcuts to us as women getting our due, and I look toward a pop culture world that makes use of the genre’s potential in the products it creates. A world where women don’t have to be polite, ask, beg, cajole, ego massage, fifty-year-strategize. A world where women just take what they need without a thank-you. In cash. And preferably at gunpoint.  

This article was published in Money Issue #71 | Summer 2016
by Aya de Leon
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Aya de Leon teaches creative writing at UC Berkeley. Her feminist heist series from Kensington Books, Justice Hustlers, consists of UPTOWN THIEF (2016), THE BOSS (2017), THE ACCIDENTAL MISTRESS (2018), and SIDE CHICK NATION in 2019 about the hurricane in Puerto Rico. She blogs and tweets at @ayadeleon & ayadeleon.com.

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2 Comments Have Been Posted

This is great, but two

This is great, but two glaring omissions: St Trinians and the sequel!

A Surprising Omission in Female Heist Characters

I'm very surprised not to see a mention of Peter O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise (film 1966). Granted, the film is not considered to be very good, but Modesty Blaise is a groundbreaking feminist character.

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