Friday, May 25, 2012

Women and Murder

The discussion this week about serial killers reminded me of what happens when I teach my Crime and Mass Media course. I ask each student to choose a real life criminal and follow the media coverage of that case. Generally, at least four or five students in a class of twenty-five will opt to analyze the coverage of a serial killer case. One of the students will ask a question about how to do the media analysis for a serial killer (where coverage of the killings often begins before a suspect is identified). And we will get into a discussion about how serial killers are identified and that often-quoted description of the typical serial killer (white, male, in his 30s). At this point, I will find myself pointing out the problem with serial killer typologies -- hey, dude, where are the women?

In fairness to the male creators of those typologies, men as a sex are far deadlier than women. Whether killing individuals, serially, in mass, or in war, men are the champs. This is not to say that men are genetically-wired to be more violent than women. There is that argument, of course. But socialization also matters. And physical strength and being placed in situations where one must kill or be killed. And cultures is which manhood is described in terms of willingness to use violence to defend not only life and property, but “honor.”

But, getting back to where I was going with this. There are – always have been female serial killers. At first, there were no scholarly typologies describing female serial killers. This is less of an issue than it used to be. A number of scholars and some popular writers have come up with typologies – categories based on MOs – for female serial killers using colorful catch-phrases such as “angels of death” and “black widows.” These descriptions are helpful in thinking about how female serial killers function, but problematic in that such descriptions also reinforce stereotypes about women. Of course, men have a similar problem. How many “monsters,” “deranged predators,” or “bloody cannibals” have we encountered in news magazines segments or the covers of true crime books about male serial killers?

But when women are identified as killers, there is a tendency to focus on traditional roles, sexuality, and their physical appearance. When Aileen Wuornos attracted media’s attention she had followed a pattern that was recognizable as similar to male serial killers in that she had "preyed" on strangers. But media coverage also focused on the fact that she was a lesbian who worked as a prostitute, a "raging" woman who claimed she had killed her first victim because he raped her and the others in similar circumstances.

About a decade ago, a colleague and I started research on a book that we eventually titled Blood on Her Hands: The Social Construction of Women, Sexuality, and Murder (2004). The blood on her hands was a reference to the monologue by Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, a character we found fascinating. We were interested in the images of women and murder in real life and popular culture. We wanted to understand the stories that have been told about women and violence and how these narratives have shaped our responses to women who kill. We started with the ancient Greek physicians and what they believed about women and their sexual needs (e.g., the “wandering womb”). We looked at goddesses and witches, wicked women in the bible, wicked stepmothers in fairytales, warrior women, and women rulers. Medea, Medusa, Lilith, Eve, and Joan of Arc. We looked at the “moral panic” in the 19th century when there were a number of high profile cases in Europe and American involving women accused of poisoning husbands or lovers. And we looked at the work of male criminologists, such as late19th century criminal anthropologist Cesare Lombroso, who described female criminals as more masculine in appearance and more depraved than their feminine and passive sisters who obeyed the law. And then there was Otto Pollak, who in his book, The Criminality of Women (1950), asserted that women engage in hidden criminality and avoid detection of their crimes. When we got to the 20th century, we looked at women -- most of them not serial killers but all the subject of significant media coverage -- such as Barbara Graham, Velma Barfield, Karla Faye Tucker, Susan Smith, and Andrea Yates. We also looked at popular culture images in ads, on television, and in true crime book. We gave some thought to the women in films who use violence – from breakout female action heroine Pam Grier back in the ‘70s to those deadly damsels in Kill Bill, from Thelma and Louise to the wild-eyed women with sharp objects in Fatal Attraction and Single, White Female.

What did we conclude about women who kill and how they’re perceived? Probably the most important conclusion was that if you’re a woman who kills, you often end up being stereotyped in ways that men who kill are not. Women are expected, always have been expected to be good wives and mothers. Women who violate role expectations are often punished – think about those "witch" trials in Europe and Salem, Massachusetts. Women are often described in popular culture, including news media, and in courtrooms in terms of their roles, with references to their sexuality and appearance. Ruth Snyder, of the Double Indemnity Murders, tried to present herself as a good mother who took a lover because she was married to a cold, unloving, abusive man. She was presented in the press and in the courtroom as a “brassy blonde” and a “venomous” killer.” Barbara Graham, who was charged with male accomplices with murder, was described as the “tiger woman” (after holding up a stuffed toy) and as a “party girl.”

Of course, we are now in the 21st century, but when it comes to women and murder, old stereotypes still shape our perceptions, old themes get played out. So, if you are a beautiful blonde accused of murder, being photogenic may land you a few high-profile interviews and allow you to tell your story, but if you kill your husband and you had a lover, the media attention may not save you. Especially if your husband had an insurance policy.

I'm still thinking about all this in terms of the characters I create. The fascinating part is how easy it is to draw on the stereotypes because they are so recognizable to readers. For example, one of my personal favorites, the femme fatale (i.e., deadly woman)


Vicki Delany said...

Nice piece, Frankie. I enjoyed it.

Tom Curran said...

Interesting piece. I can suggest another reference - Patricia Pearson's book: When She Was Bad: How and Why Women Get Away with Murder (1998) Viking USA, Virago UK, Random House Canada

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