Jeri Estes describes her début novel Stilettos and Steel (Wordsmith Productions) as a “thank you note to God for coming out of the Tenderloin alive, and to honor my fallen comrades who did not make it out.”

Based on her experiences as a runaway teenager in San Francisco during the 1960s, the book immerses readers in a world of butch/femme gangsters and sex workers trying to survive in the only place where they have the freedom to be queer.

The main character is a young butch named Jesse who ran away from her suburban California home to build a life amongst other queers in the Tenderloin. Starting out as a sex worker, with the help of a street savvy femme named Bunny, Jesse quickly rises to power as a top pimp, employing an army of butch bodyguards and femme escorts, strippers, and streetwalkers.

Becoming highly successful, Jesse and her crew begin to arouse the attention and anger of a high profile male pimp who resents the loss of business, and also resents seeing a woman be successful.  After two of the femmes are kidnapped an all-out-war ensues between the rival gangs, filled with violence, revenge, and plot twists.

There is no peace at home either, as there seems to be constant conflict between Jesse and her business partner Bunny. Not to mention the constant banter and battling between an inner circle of femme employees and Jesse’s long-term girlfriend Carmen who, to make things more complicated, is also an escort working for Jesse and Bunny.

I’m a sucker for any novel focused in on runaway queer teens, as well as butch/femme representation in books.   I expected to fall in love with this book, however my feeling by that final page was somewhat more ambivalent.

Stilettos and Steel is certainly not without merit.   Urban fiction, or street fiction as it is often called, is a growing genre, and I think Estes’ greatest strength lies in her crafting of a dyke-focused novel that captures violence, the construction of family, and the quest for survival on the streets.  That said, I became increasingly uncomfortable and concerned with the way that, for many of the femmes, race became the primary identifying characteristic, not to mention the regular sprinkling of racial slurs throught the text.

I found the overall portrayal of femmes in general within the book to be quite offensive.  They were mostly one-dimensional characters framed as shallow and manipulative.  With few exceptions, the femmes were little more than sex objects, and toys for the misogynistic butch characters.  Perhaps the most disturbing scene came as Jesse was angry that Carmen refused to see a particular client.  In order to “teach her a lesson” she publically raped her in front of several other femmes.  Later, she gave Carmen expensive earrings to smooth things over.

I don’t have to like the narrator in order to like the book.  I think some of the most compelling novels have complicated, and unlikable narrators. In that way, the fact that I didn’t like the character of Jesse didn’t bother me. What did become an ongoing issue for me was the glamorization of violence and misogyny.

The premise behind the story is a powerful one. There are not enough books written from the perspective of a young butch, let alone a young butch pre-Stonewall who is on her own.  Woven through the text are messages about the difficulties of being queer, and particularly visibly queer in the mid 1960s.  Embedded within the book are also important conversations about the power of community in the face of homophobic institutional powers.

Stilettos and Steel is certainly not what I was expecting, but breaks interesting ground through its queer historical fiction, urban fiction genre blending.
Stilettos and Steel
by Jeri Estes
Wordsmith Productions
Paperback, 9780984517305, 322pp
April 2010

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25 Responses to “‘Stilettos and Steel’ by Jeri Estes”

  1. […] Stilettos and Steel by Jeri Estes was reviewed at Lambda Literary. […]

  2. Linda 16 April 2011 at 8:07 PM #

    I read Stilettos and Steel, which I felt was a complete breakthrough due to the fact that queers could be flawed and uncharacteristically violent, instead of the cookie cutter, politically correct boy scouts’ consciousness we typically see in 2011. How refreshing that a queer character; a butch could be a bad girl, just like straight characters. I read the story with a mind of compassion for the gays who were brave enough to live openly gay, at a time when there were zero civil liberties. I found no racism whatsoever in the novel and the femmes were the brains of the organization. Also, Jesse’s behavior seemed to be a manifestation of the destructive power of drugs and the fear of appearing weak. Although aspects of the life were glamorous, the tragic undertone was far from glamorizing. I applaud Ms Estes for the courage to tell the truth.

  3. Javier 16 April 2011 at 8:41 PM #

    Looking at this book through a political point of view would be a misguiding. I saw it through a time piece. The 1960s were hard times in America. We had the Civil Rights movement, Chicano movement, and Feminist movement. There was a lot of tension and friction between races. Reading the dialogue, I knew the author had captured street talk and of course politically incorrect in today’s society. Yet, I knew I was in a world filled with vice and violence, which gravitated around Jesse. So to hear an authentic voice was refreshing. A rare glimpse of a time and place that no longer exists.

  4. Stephanie 16 April 2011 at 9:07 PM #

    I actually liked Jesse. I found her to be an interesting character. She was protective and compassionate, using every ounce of her wit and education to help her friends survive. It was fairly obvious that in this neighborhood, you were either a pimp or pimped. Jesse saved these young people from every race and walk of life, from being brutally exploited by violent male pimps. Aren’t all gangsters misogynist and doesn’t glamorizing such a demoralizing lifestyle make it palatable? Ms. Estes’ writing captured Jesse’s internal conflict with her moral demise which was heartbreaking. This novel could actually be a breakthrough story with the support of the gay community.

  5. Janet Davis 17 April 2011 at 5:56 AM #

    I wonder if we both read the same book. I found Stilettos and Steel very empowering towards women. The real power-brokers were the femmes: running a man business, being captain’s of the crew,plus keeping Jesse truly busy.
    It’s true that the colorful misfits in this book about pimps and whores,could of benefited from a sensitivity training class. Yet, I loved most of them,and was welling to gave these teenage runaways a brake. After-all they were forced to sell there bodies to live openly gay in a world that denied them any civil rights.
    The T.L was a gay ghetto and these defiant queers braved the ulgy streets, before Archie Bunker educated the world on the unkindness of racial Nick-names.
    My older friends tell me, that back in the day, one’s race included in a person’s”street handle”, was considered a source of pride amongst gangsters.
    The gritty dialogue to me dis not seem mean spirited, and it help reveal this hidden dark part of our queer history. Estes paints an intriguing world showing that mobsters gay or stright live in a very different reality.

  6. Tiffany 17 April 2011 at 5:50 PM #

    I disagree. Stilettos and Steel is very historical in every way. During this time in America women were the under dogs. You say that women are degraded in the novel, however if you look closely you see the variation between how men and Jesse treated women. Jesse shows how kind and loving she really is. Strong forceful men were the roll models of respect in the 60’s. Jesse hides her soft side in order to gain respect, but she does what she can to protect her girls. She tries to make the hard life they live as comfortable as it could be. And racial slurs? The novel is diverse. It shows how people on the streets really communicate with each other. I can see how from an outsiders view it can be misunderstood as racial or demeaning, but the slang of the streets is only understood by the ones who speak it. Also the protagonist, Jesse, is an anti-hero and very close to being a Byronic hero, she is not necessarily the “good guy”. So if you dislike Jesse, then the author did her job correctly. Overall, Stilettos and Steel is a cultural novel that teaches us about the hardships that all ages, races, and genders went through in America in the 1960’s.

  7. Faye-Marie 18 April 2011 at 12:58 AM #

    Stilettos and Steel was not what I was expecting either. It was so much more. It was honest and pure. Ms. Estes is actually telling it like it was back in the day. Another place and another time so far removed from today’s vanilla PC world that yes, I could understand how certain aspects may be misunderstood by a generation with no frame of reference as to what life was really like then.

    Back in the day, pre-Castro, the 1960’s baby, the majority of women were, in fact, one dimensional and could easily be manipulated because they did not have the abundance of choices as are enjoyed today. Whether they were queer or not had nothing to do with it.

    Reference to nationality and racial slurs did run abundant in early and mid-century America. It was just how we described neighborhoods and who you were referencing to in conversation. But in today’s world, sad to say we are rewriting the classics so as not to “offend” instead of teaching how to understanding the time and climate of the culture and how it has transitioned and changed due to the struggles of so many who blazed the trail. I have no doubt that Mark Twain is turning over with deep sadness.

    As for the actual story, take out the queers and Stilettos and Steel holds up as a solid gangster story with great plot turns and a strong romance. The fact that it is also historically correct introduced me to a part of the 1960’s that I did not even know existed. The T.L.

    I applaud Ms. Estes for her courage. And I thank her for such an authentic story.

  8. Antonio Gonzalez Cerna 18 April 2011 at 1:49 AM #

    Several of the comments above — attributed to different people — above are coming from the same two IP addresses. If we learn that the comments are from bogus accounts we will block those IP addresses from commenting further.

    • Tiffany 20 April 2011 at 5:20 PM #

      I don’t know what that is, but it would be nice if my comment were allowed. Just sayin

      • Antonio Gonzalez Cerna 20 April 2011 at 9:58 PM #

        Hi Tiffany — this means that many of these comments are coming from the same computer IP address — even though they all have separate names. It means that one person is making most of the comments under the guise that separate people are writing them.

  9. Paula barnette 18 April 2011 at 3:19 AM #

    I, too, wonder if we both read the same book – growing up in the ’60’s myself, it was ‘characters’ like Jesse that I would envy, being so courageous to live an authentic life.

    this book tells the story of the women who were brave enough to face the mean, cruel streets of the tenderloin when being gay or dressing like the opposite sex was considered criminal.

    as a femme myself, I was not once offended by the intense, passionate love affair between Jesse and carmen. it was a love like no other and I cried my eyes out at the end of the story. I felt as though ms. Estes took her readers on an exciting journey of power, strength, danger and survival!!

    kudos to her!! I can’t wait to see this transformed into a film.

  10. Max Edward 19 April 2011 at 11:08 PM #

    The writer was not writing about your everyday Fem. It’s not a story about Sally and Betty working a Macy’s. These girls were working Girls from the sixties. Everthing in the sixties was dysfunctional. A complete decade of being politically incorrect. Come to think about it, the whole sixties was offensive. It was not a nice little polite time especially in San Francisco. I think Estes painted a good true story.
    In short, I found Stilettos and Steel to be a fun, enjoyable fast read about a young, upper middle class girl being rocked into a world very few have ever seen. Full of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. An action packed gangster tale with a touch of romance, but this time the lead is a she

  11. Tiffany Ryan 20 April 2011 at 12:01 PM #

    Hmmmmmm… In this new, sterile, politically correct world where one can’t take a step right, take a step left or remain in the center without offending someone, I found this book to be refreshingly honest and true to the time-period. If that’s misogynistic then so be it. I’d rather have a gritty story to read, like Stilettos and Steel, than some watered down hyperbole.
    I commend Ms. Estes for putting this book out there in this time of hyper-sensitivity. That took some true grit. Perhaps there are others like myself that prefer honesty over weak wishy-washy story lines.

  12. Tiffany 20 April 2011 at 5:17 PM #

    Hmmmmmm… In this new, sterile, politically correct world where one can’t take a step right, take a step left or remain in the center without offending someone, I found this book to be refreshingly honest and true to the time-period. If that’s misogynistic then so be it. I’d rather have a gritty story to read, like Stilettos and Steel, than some watered down hyperbole.
    I commend Ms. Estes for putting this book out there in this time of hyper-sensitivity. That took some true grit. Perhaps there are others like myself that prefer honesty over weak wishy-washy story lines.
    All my best… Tiffany
    BTW – This is the 2nd time I’ve tried to post this comment

  13. Ivory 20 April 2011 at 5:32 PM #

    I disagree and don’t think the novel was offensive at all. It was real…the characters found unity with each other and accepted their differences and became a unique family that had each others back….it was not easy to be different from the norm in any way during the pre castro era….the “racial slurs” weren’t meant to offend, that’s just how they spoke on the streets. I actually thought the women were in a power position. Throughout the entire novel it was the women who had the men at their feet. It was refreshing to see honestly, realness and what they did to survive. This was an amazing novel and I recommend to anyone and everyone!

  14. Tiffany 20 April 2011 at 8:32 PM #

    Funny… I’ve tried to leave comments 3 separate times and they haven’t let them through. What’s up with that?

  15. Bobby Harvey 21 April 2011 at 1:02 AM #

    I guess it is difficult for young people today to understand what the world was like in the mid 60’s. While Ms. Estes was making history in the TL, I was being told at NASA that I was given a small pay raise because I wasn’t a man, I was racing my sports car against other sports cars because NASCAR didn’t allow women to race or even to get into the pits at Indy, I was not allowed to ride my stallion in public, when I got my divorce I lost all my credit standing even though it was perfect and always had been and my insurance was doubled because I was obviously “upset and unstable” even though I left him.
    If you were not living during that period, you cannot possibly be expected to understand that period. I think it was unfair to ask someone with no knowledge of the subject to write an accurate assessment of a novel written by a person who lived the story.
    At that time the best a woman with guts and courage could hope for was some small chance to be recognized as a human being rather than an appendage of her father, brother, husband or boss.
    Let’s hope Jesse has some more adventures soon.

    • Makes No Sense 22 April 2011 at 9:25 AM #

      “If you were not living during that period, you cannot possibly be expected to understand that period. I think it was unfair to ask someone with no knowledge of the subject to write an accurate assessment of a novel written by a person who lived the story.”

      This comment makes no sense. Do you really believe that? Does this mean that we cannot read Shakespeare or Dickens or Austen — and understand the author’s meaning and richness of language — because we weren’t alive when the author was alive?

      You’ve got to be kidding.

  16. Karen Hamza 21 April 2011 at 11:57 PM #

    I found this particular book to be interesting and definitely kept my attention-I could relate as, in my drinking and using days, I became a prostitute and had to become familiar with the street life from all angles-A must read-Jeri has a nice touch for being so wonderfully descriptive-I never had a difficult time feeling that I was not a part of Stilletos AND STEEL…I felt all kinds of feelings in the process of reading this book-fear, laughter, anger, you name it-Jeri told the story as it was happening in that era-I would suggest for anyone to read this book, as it sure as hell is entertaining -A good read-I give Stilletos AND STEEL a thumbs up-Karen Hamza

  17. Lovey Curry 23 April 2011 at 4:14 PM #

    I Am a black lesbian butch… in the 1960’s I was a Black lesbian Butch PIMP…well familiar with the era and times … I Am so grateful that the truth as to how it REALLY was during those times is depicted in this Novel… Ms. Estes did not find it necessary to lie in an attempt to bring the 1960’s into alinement with the consciousness of 2011. Some one with today’s social conciouness would have the wording changed… Thus it simply would not be the truth .. This in and of itself is to be respected to say the least … I met someone 3 days ago whose name would be considered a “racial” slur … the political correctness in racial “labeling”did not exists in 1960’s … Women and men named themselves what one would call today “racial slurs” .. We loved the names i.e. lil jap, Big jap Black Jap … china this china that , Asian this and that … The great white ___ … Big Black ___ ..i.e. ” do you mean Black- psycho or Mexican- psyco” and we called their entire names as written here … on down the line … That was one’s true name no one went around asking “Oh what’s your Real Name”? who cared … That was your Real name any other name or birth given name was discovered when you happen to cross paths in jail or prison and even then the only time you were called your birth name was by the wardens and even then some of them got into the swing of things, when we would not answer but to the (today’s so called racial slurred name) the cops that were “cool” and wanted to be accepted or “play the game” or feared for their own lives… called us by our true names the ones we had given ourselves … Nothing racial about this book it’s what and the way it was in its Honest totality …This is an era long forgotten and for many never known painted in this piece of valuable history especially for lesbians . Jesse and her contemporaries are truly the shoulders that are stood on today ….Stilettos and Steel is a piece of fine historical literature better yet it is Art at it best …

    quote from the rape scene. Chapter RED DEVILS
    page 168. jesses speaks,
    I bent down and whispered into Carmen’s ear, “What did you say?”
    Carmen repeated, “Watch closely, c..ts! This whore owns this daddy. Ladies, the real whore on the streets is the pimp!”
    I was slapped by the truth. Carmen intuitively knew that the power I possessed over her was just an illusion. Like any woman, a prostitute or not, she was the real power broker in our relationship. Carmen was the realtor of our emotional property and her femi­ninity owned the deed

    Are you sure we read the same book? It’s all in perception … isn’t it?

  18. Black Librarian 5 May 2011 at 5:19 AM #

    As a librarian, I have read numerous books, and this one is a winner! Jeri brought her characters to life so realiastically and with such dimension, that you feel as if you are an active participant in their lives, not just a passive observer. It’s difficult to believe that people are so quick to make an issue of the racial slurs and identities of the 60s, and lose sight of the dynamic interactions and unique roles that each character played in each others lives. The vernacular of the day need not be taken out of context. Jeri “tells it like it was”, and for that I applaud her for her honesty and for writing this magnificent story. Bravo!

  19. Silvia 10 May 2011 at 9:55 PM #

    What a ride! Jeri’s writing hooked me. It made me think of Charles Dickens and his incredible descriptive abilities. Somewhat dark, but always with humor, this book is an insight into a little-known time and place of American subculture. Different that any ordinary read. Some scenes had me laughing out loud and begged to be on the big screen. My only complaint is that I wasn’t ready for the book to end. It left me anticipating the next chapter in Jesse’s life. Try it, you’ll like it!

  20. Patricia 12 May 2011 at 9:44 PM #

    How wrong can you be!!! And that comes from someone who not only has read the book several times but is a true femme! I think that what you’ve totally missed is the multi-dimensional characters, such as Bunny, who straddled the 2 worlds of gay and straight, while always keeping her keen entreprenurial eye on the prize.

    Ms. Estes’ writing compelled me not only to read this with abandon but to come back and read it again and again.

    Perhaps you need to re-read Stilettos and Steel because your first read is a ‘MISS’.

  21. Slowslide 20 May 2011 at 8:59 PM #

    As others have noted the language and attitudes in this rich, colorful book need to be judged in the context of the 1960s and the milieu in which a person’s look — ethnicity, clothes, whatever — defined him or her. Hippie, soldier, war protestor, black, Latina, rich and white — it’s not correct now to label but was functional and how things went down at the time. A lot of this is tongue and cheek and the author’s treatment of everyone largely balances out in the end for those keeping score. It’s a remarkable novel.

  22. Loni Nagwani 3 June 2011 at 5:14 PM #

    Stilettos and steel is Gritty and Sexy, loaded with naughty intellective yummy humor. I loved all of the twists and turns of this well written charismatic novel. To say the characters are colorful is an understatement they are Kaleidoscopic. The author managed to bring the 60s San Francisco tenderloin to life. It was effortless to visualize the hookers and bad guys trough her meticulous descriptions. This is not your run of the mill detective novel. I was relieved the author didn’t choose to go the politically correct route. Given the times these bitches were trailblazers. Women’s liberation wasn’t even a planted seed in the 60’s. (Ha! try to tell that lead character) I wish there were more gangster novels with strong female characters. I can’t wait for more from this author!

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