Fatal Females: Setting the Record 'Straight'
originally appeared as a featured review in Social Pathology v 3 #2,
1997. The version here corrects some formatting errors and restores additional material.
It is not part of the Class, Race Gender & Crime book, but
is included here because of its relevance to understanding the topic.
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Printable .txt file
of this review
Mann, Coramae Richey. When Women Kill. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996. $19.95.
Hart, Lynda. Fatal Women: Lesbian Sexuality and the Mark of Aggression. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994. $16.95.
The topic of violent women is simultaneously ignored and sensationalized. Within criminology, women tend to be invisible (Belknap 1996); within our culture, the femme fatal and the dangerous damsel are staple characters. Indeed, the 'woman out of control' is a popular theme that aims to keep women under control, in their place and thus invisible (Faith 1993). Researchers can help erase the invisibility of (real) female offenders through an empirical study that reviews the accumulated knowledge. They can also study the cultural fantasies -- the (mis)re-presentations -- of female killers and decode the distortion, just as statisticians read the distribution of an error term. The images of killer women are not likely to be the result of random error, but reveal the contours of systematic forces like racism and sexism. And heterosexism.
The empirical description of female murderers in the United States is covered in Coramae Richey Mann's When Women Kill. Part of the task of analyzing images is done by Lynda Hart in
Fatal Women: Lesbian Sexuality and the Mark of Aggression. Mann uses over 45 tables and figures to present the findings of an exploratory study that describes ecological conditions, victim relationships, and the treatment of offenders by the justice system. Hart uses a structural reading of Freud to explore the 'spectral hauntings' present in popular representations to describe the workings of heterosexism and patriarchy (heteropatriarchy).
Mann uses as data 296 homicides from 1979 and 1983 occurring in the cities of Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Houston, New York City and Los Angeles. She examines the applicability of 'subculture of violence theories' to African American and Southern women. She questions the relevance of economic theories of crime; the role of ecological factors, drugs, alcohol, and victim precipitation are lines of inquiry, as are the determinants of punitiveness visited on female killers. Hart uses as data two 19th century plays, female 'buddy' movies (Thelma and Louise), the work of performance artist Karen Finley, popular Hollywood 'killer women' movies (Basic Instinct), and the case of Aileen Wuornos (dubbed the first female serial killer). Her interest is in how the "shadow of the lesbian is laminated to the representation of women's violence" so that women are "constructed as both inherently violent and incapable of aggression" (1994:x). She is interested in tracking the invention, circulation and function of this paradox; she asks about the points at which women's fidelity to each other become criminalized, the whiteness of cultural representations, and the nature of homophobia.
These books separately and together fill important gaps in the literature but are not definitive works. Mann's book is easily accessible to a wide audience and has good chapter summaries, but contains some problematic analysis. Hart's book assumes some background and/or willingness to struggle with Lacanian analysis, which makes it difficult to appreciate her answers to some intriguing questions. Both books are interesting and informative; they are, however, recommended with (substantial) reservation to readers whose eyes glaze over at too many numbers or who are not in the habit of exploring ruptures in the phallocratic symbolic and fetishes in the scopophilic economy.
Describing & Constructing
Mann's work comes out of a longstanding interest in the topic (1984, 1993) and combines a thorough literature review with original empirical work based on police records. Numerous chi square tables provide a descriptive, rather than phenomenological, knowledge and combines with a tone that by no means sensationalizes the topic -- a style that applies to pages of discussion of differences that do not achieve statistical significance.
The first chapters explain the data selection process, along with background on each city and a review of previous homicide research. Noticeably absent is some discussion of the limitations and biases of using police records as the sole data source. In fact, Mann is generally quite clear about what she does, but frequently does not explain why and how. For example, she notes victim precipitation is a controversial concept (1996:4) but writes nothing about the dimensions of the controversy [Dressler (1995) discusses what a 'reasonable'/ 'heterosexual' man considers provocation]. Only in the last chapter does she even mention there were problems with the definition and its application to events described in police reports. Further, the reader is not given examples to help see whether precipitation includes, say, spitting food at one's partner -- or asking for a divorce and a younger woman.
Mann's general perspective on violence blends insights from evolutionary psychology with a social-structural viewpoint. Lethal "violence is a human and not a gender issue" (1996:9) because "all of us have the same evolutionary past, the same killer instinct, and the same lack of instinctual inhibition against killing" (1996:37). Ultimately, "if the right buttons are pushed, anyone is capable of committing murder, particularly in our historically violent nation" (1996:38). Support for this easily missed 'theme' of gender neutrality comes from a piece of 1950s research and comparisons of women who kill women with those who kill men. Such a conclusion would be better supported by comparisons with men, who accounted for 85% of the arrests for violent crime in 1995 (UCR 1995:208). Her view also needs to be reconciled with research on masculinity and crime (Messerchmidt 1993; Miedzian 1991; Gibson 1994) and the distinctly male nature of sexual violence (Scully 1990; Thorne-Finch 1992). Problems with this underlying perspective are ultimately irrelevant for appraising her book because it does not yield theory or hypotheses that can be tested with the data she has. Apparently, no previous research produced models that could be tested with her data, so the book is an exploratory study built around a series of research questions (noted above) that guide and were guided by her data.
Ecology: When, Where, How, & How Sober?
The patterns surrounding homicide by women are more homogenous but resemble the circumstances of homicide by males (Ogle, Maier-Katkin and Bernard 1995:173). Mann finds the typical murder is committed in a residence belonging to the victim and/or perpetrator (1996:46). Victims usually meet their demise in a 'social area' (living or family room) -- which she notes frequently contained weapons such as knives -- or the bedroom. Murders were slightly more likely to happen in spring (27.5%), but there is less seasonal variation than for male homicide. Killing for both sexes tends to be an evening and weekend activity (1996:49).
Southern and nonsouthern cities reported comparable numbers of female killers, with Southern women (especially African Americans) more likely to use firearms -- particularly rifles or shotguns (1996:52). Nonsouthern women are more likely to inflict multiple wounds and have violent arrest histories; their offenses more frequently involve knives, beating/ stomping, drowning or suffocating more frequently, perhaps because a higher proportion of their victims were children (ibid). Southern women and their victims were more likely to have been drinking prior to the homicide, while nonsoutherners more frequently used drugs.
Overall, 35.6% of female offenders had been drinking, compared to 46.7% of the victims, 17% of whom were defined as legally drunk. The use of drugs by the offender was less common yet significant at 12.6% (1996:56). These findings support a large body of research associating violence with alcohol, though the link has less to do with pharmacology than social learning. Alcohol not only influenced offenders directly, but also "victim precipitation occurred more frequently among victims who used alcohol prior to their murders (55.9 percent) than it did among nondrinking victims (44.1 percent)" (1996:60). Not surprisingly, "women who used alcohol themselves encountered victim precipitation from alcohol-using victims significantly more frequently" (1996:169).
Ultimately, the "social situation is highly compromised" by drug and alcohol use and "who the instigator of the lethal violence really was becomes blurred" (1996:61). The problem no doubt starts with trying to figure out 'the instigator' in cases where violence is the result of a transaction, which by definition includes strong interaction effects. Making a determination about instigation in an inebriated argument from police records is even more difficult, as evidenced by Mann's findings that "only 8.4 percent of victims who used drugs instigated their deaths, while 19.4 percent of victim drug users did not" (1996:60).
She tries to make sense of the situation through Luckenbill's theory that violence is a situated transaction involving an attempt to 'save face'. She ultimately concludes that it does "not appear to be very influential" (1996:62) because most females were alone with their victims, so there was little face-saving that involved humiliation in front of others. Bystanders who were present did not seem to 'egg on' the female offender, reports Mann.
This rejection is not followed by any attempt to specify, or even investigate, the mechanisms leading to violence and whether the 'buttons' that need to be pushed are the same for men and women. A good departure point for future research is Katz's work, which examines the transformation of emotions immediately preceding violence (1988). He does consider social structure and gender, but starts with the premise that background factors are constant and thus cannot explain the transformation from nonviolence to violence. The theory of 'righteous slaughter' posits the (eventual) offender feeling humiliation that calls for a last stand in defense of respectability and some version of the Good. Self-righteousness combined with a belief that there is no escape from the humiliation transforms it into rage, and the violent act becomes a sacrificial slaughter (1988:18-19).
The theory is not meant to justify or excuse violence but point out how killers see their actions as "efforts to defend what they, often idiosyncratically, take to be eternal, collectively shared values" (1988:45). Many seemingly trivial altercations involve perceived issues of autonomy, control, respect or being disrespected
('dissed') (Butterfield 1995; see also Braithwait 1992). Bystanders may increase the intensity of the felt humiliation by bearing witness to the encounter, but they are ultimately not necessary for the transformation to rage and violence.
Katz would argue that homicides happen during the weekend because of the accumulation of degradations from the week at work coupled with consumption of alcohol, and perhaps tensions over dividing up the paycheck. People who find work "intolerably degrading" can "fantasize about respect and sensual pleasure at home" (1988:46). Confrontations at home may provoke last stands, though men have more cultural support for retreating from the domestic sphere into the public space of bars -- where trivial incidents fuel inebriated aggression because there is no further retreat possible. The lower rate of female homicide could relate to gender differences that impact on the transformation of humiliation to rage, including self-blame, the meaning of suffering, the devaluation of femaleness, and support for expressing anger (Ogle et al 1995; Dressler 1995:736; see especially Brown and Bohn 1989).
Intimates As Victims: Hurting the one You Love
Most of the slayings in Mann's sample were intimates, including 47.6% domestic relationships, 10.6% children of the offender (mostly under age 6), and 7.9% relatives or in-laws (1996:69). Overall, 60% of filicide victims were female (1996:73), and the typical offender used her hands or feet to kill the infant Sunday morning at 11am in the bathroom or bedroom (1996:77). Almost all the offenders were unemployed (92%), suggesting that stress from economic deprivation plays a role (1996:76; Currie 1985).
This hypothesis is supported by Mann's finding that single women who kill children (55.4%) are similar to female offenders from two parent homes (1996:75) and by research she cites correlating gender inequality to child homicide. With the inclusion of racial inequality, it is not surprising that black women more frequently kill their children than whites (52% to 28%), though Hispanic women also experience discrimination and had the lowest rate of filicide (20%) (1996:73).
The domestic homicides are largely intersexual and intraracial, with three quarters of the victims being blacks (15.5% white and 10.1% Hispanic). These numbers "support the frequent finding that African American males are at higher risk as both marital homicide victims and general homicide victims than any other racial/gender configuration" (1996:82; see also Mann 1990). Domestic homicides tend to be done by unemployed women with low education who act without an accomplice; the typical place was a social room. The final part of the section on intimates covers lesbian couples. Mann is to be commended for not perpetuating the invisibility of lesbians, but the discussion is problematic when the total number of cases is five -- especially without a strong caution that generalization is basically impossible.
In general, the killing of females by other women is rare, counting for 9% to 10% of homicides for the years of Mann's study. To help make sense of these incidents, Mann differentiates female adults from infants. Of the 57 cases of female on female homicide she finds that 30.4% were daughters, 39.3% acquaintances, 10.7% friends and 8.9% lovers (1996:100). Mann finds that single women were more likely to kill another female than women once married (1996:103). Katz believes that the relative rarity of women killing other women supports his theory because "women seem so exclusively to place their self-esteem on their relations with men that only their mates, or occasionally a female rival, can press them to a last moral stand" (1988:49; Ogle et al 1995:180).
Mann also examines the killings of friends and acquaintances of both sexes. She tries to iron out problems created by grouping friends and acquaintances together in one category, but does note how difficult this distinction is to make in our own personal lives. Police judgements in the wake of a homicide are not necessarily better, so one wonders if Mann's process results in a net advantage. Generally, though, nonsouthern women were more likely to kill a stranger. When women of either region killed a stranger, it was a man (1996:111), and they were both more likely to have an accomplice and use a gun (1996:112). When women's propensity for violence is measured by the proportion of homicides involving strangers, there is little evidence that women became more violent from 1979 to 1983 (1996:120).
Processing the Female Killer
Mann next examines judicial processing to gauge the overall toughness of the system and examine the determinants of punitiveness. Overall, 93% of women were initially charged with murder, which only accounted for 26% of the final charges; 44% of cases had a final disposition with the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter (1996:128). Almost half (43%) of the sentences involved prison (mostly sentences of 1-10 years) and 15% involved probation (mostly 1-5 years) (1996:128).
A comparison of the offenders' prior criminal histories by geographical regions returns no statistically significant findings, so Mann concludes that "a 'southern culture of violence' among women is questionable" (1996:134). She does find significant processing differences, with women in the south receiving harsher dispositions. "Perhaps southern tradition and the purported 'idolization' of women", Mann suggests "played a part in the setting of lower bonds after arrests for murder, but once it was established that a woman had committed the crime, she appeared to receive the full brunt of the system" (1996:137).
A comparison of offenders by the sex of their victim revealed no significant differences, a finding which held even when data were reanalyzed when controlling for the effect of victimized children (1996:138-9). After finding that the race/ethnicity of the offender leads to statistically significant differences in the initial and final charges but not in disposition (1996:140-141), Mann examines if the race of the victim matters. This question relates to 'devaluation theory', which suggests that offenders who kill non-whites receive more lenient sentences that both reflect and recreate the devaluation of non-whites. The only statistically significant difference is the severity of the final charge, suggesting "that Hispanic victims were more representative of the devaluation thesis than African American victims" (1996:146).
Future research on these issues needs to look at offender/ victim interaction effects, which are most likely to show evidence of bias. Radalet, for example, found that out of 16,000 executions in the U.S. from 1608 to the late 1980s in only 26 cases (representing 30 defendants) had whites been put to death for killing blacks (1989:532). Inquiry about bias and devaluation also needs separate the circumstances in which paternalism may cause leniency from those where other forms of sexism might generate punitiveness. Future research may also want to include male comparison groups, which Mann notes are necessary to address the question of whether women are getting away with murder (1996:159-160). The lack of significant differences based on the gender of the victim suggests that women are not getting away with the murder of men.
One of the final chapters revisits her research questions to provide a summary of her findings on that point. With respect to battered woman syndrome, Mann finds "no indications" of "learned helplessness" (1996:170). Most of the women were single or in a common law marriage, so "if they were being maltreated, presumably they could have left the abuser" (ibid). Further, 30% of the domestic homicide offenders had a previous arrest for violent crime, which "belies a suggestion that they were either helpless or afraid of their victims" (1996:171).
Certainly, though, police reports of a violent incident would not be likely to contain information about whether the structured relationship between the parties involved learned helplessness. Her comment about leaving the abuser suggests an odd view of marriage; it also seems problematic in light of her findings that women who perpetrated domestic homicides were unemployed and of low education. A lack of alternatives, perhaps coupled with an abuser's threat to hunt her down if she left, could easily create the need for a last stand that Katz describes.
Indeed, the righteous attitude may not coincide with a life-threatening attack -- in one case he mentions it involved the burning of books for a college business class -- and the slaughter may happen at a point where the abuser is most vulnerable, such as asleep or inebriated. Given what Ogle, et al, (1995:181) suggest about the overcontrolled personality and eruptions of violence, even women who had arrests for violence may not be able to equalize a situation involving a stronger man who perhaps has the ability for more instrumental displays of aggression.
Even while some of Mann's analysis is problematic, a clear picture of female killers emerges, and it is not one of monsters or psychos. Indeed,
Contrary to the negative and exotic images of the female homicide offender given to us through the media's eyes, these women did not appear to be anything except ordinary women. Even the circumstances appeared ordinary; that is, homicides occurred in homes, were committed against known persons (family or friends), usually happened as the result of some type of quarrel, and were most frequently carried out by means of knives or firearms, readily available to most people (quoted on 164).
Interrogations and Deconstructions
Fatal Women examines cultural constructions of female killers. Hart argues that the woman-as-criminal has an equivalence with the lesbian, and her project is to understand the ideological functions of associating aggressive females with (white) 'sexual deviants'. A background in women's theater and feminist performance (Hart 1989; Hart and Phelan 1993) may not seem 'serious' to some, but Hart has extensive footnotes to scholarship in many fields and her theoretical approach is sophisticated to the point of being incomprehensible at times.
Her framework is based on Lacan, whose writings the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy notes "are of legendary difficulty, offering idiosyncratic networks of allusion, word play and paradox, which some find rich and stimulating and others irresponsibly obscure" (Audi 1995:415). Fatal Women likewise is rich and thoughtful when it is not irresponsibly obscure, and this review is both less rich and (much) less obscure.
Hart's book is not an introduction to Lacan, whose social thought is a structural reading of Freudian theory. The structuralist aspect suggests that people cannot directly apprehend reality, but do so through structures such as language, signs, and categories. From Freud -- to whom "we no doubt owe much of our confusion and many of our insights" about family life (Newman 1978:14) -- comes the full array of psychoanalytic concepts. Lacan notes "the unconscious is structured like a language," which Zizek says is "an effort to unmask imaginary fascination and reveal the symbolic law that governs it" (1991:viii).
Hart looks at the projection of desires and symbolically structured reality to advance queer theory, whose aim is to denaturalize heterosexism and reveal its exercise of power. Ultimately, says Hart, "it is not the 'reality' of the narcissistic woman that requires analysis, but rather the effects of this historical lamination" (1994:59). The largely abstract discussion quite frequently is of the symbolic order, ruled by the law of the father. Hart is interested in how categories such as 'woman', 'lesbian', and 'criminal' serve to recreate the phallocratic symbolic.
Between the thickly used jargon are some interesting ideas generated by applying this conceptual arsenal to plays, movies, and performance art. Such popular representations are "a vehicle for some of the most powerful fantasies and desires of the time" (1994:30-31). "We can," says Hart "read a patent critique of heterosexual patriarchy by developing the virtual image of these texts' unconscious" (ibid, emphasis original).
"It is not, then, the woman criminal as deviant that fascinates; rather, it is the inevitability of femininity collapsing into criminality" (Hart 1994:43, emphasis original).
The first chapters of Hart's book investigate the origins of the association between lesbians and criminals. This lamination occurred within the paradox of science constructing women as passive or weak (thus not aggressive) and as having "a basic instinct that made them into predators, destroyers, witches -- evil sisters" (Dijkstra 1996:3). Hart suggests the category 'woman' was reserved for white, upper class and heterosexual females. This categorization served a disciplinary function, patrolling the bounds of 'normal' femininity by creating an 'othered' (not woman) category onto which women's deviance could be displaced. Thus, "the ultimate violation of the social instinct, murder, and the perversion of the sexual instinct, same-sex desire, were linked as limits that marked the boundaries of femininity" (1994:30).
Lesbians and killers (and women of color) resided together in the 'not woman' category, and became further linked through the sexology of Ellis, psychoanalysis, and the criminology of Lombroso. Havelock Ellis (1859 - 1939) wrote extensively on the psychology of sex, including the female 'invert'. This figure, while not necessarily a lesbian, is associated with her because of the aggressive, 'active' ('masculine') form her desire took. This construction affirms desire as masculine, and creates a problematic gender issue. Hart notes:
if the 'normal' woman was man's opposite, the invert as the opposite of the normal woman became man's double. Imagining the female invert as inhabiting his sexual subject position effected a rupture in sexual difference that also established her as a powerful threat to his exclusive claim to masculinity (1994:8).
Another key for Hart is Freudian theory, under which people progress from autoeroticism to narcissism to homosexuality to heterosexual object-love. Yet the 'purest and truest' women were narcissistic, which meant they "drew away from man's civilizing influence" (1994:27). The concept of narcissism problematized women's proximity to each other, undergirds 'problems' of boundaries and identity, and provided the slippery slope on which a 'woman' could slide into an aggressive 'not woman' lesbian.
Narcissism, combined with the assumption that the female sex was less differentiated than the male, lead sexology to conclude that female masturbation lead to lesbianism. The relinquishment of masturbation was necessary for women to 'achieve' heterosexuality, so Hart suggests that lesbian characters are haunting figures representing "that pleasure which women have no reason to renounce" (1994:61). Also, the conflation of lesbianism with autoeroticism and narcissism "produced the constant fear of a desire that exceeded the visual (and thus 'knowable') economy" (1994:49). This concern (paranoia?) that lesbians could be anywhere -- interesting in light of the 'we are everywhere' affirmative slogan -- spurred the search for readable signs that could distinguish the 'good girls' from the 'bad girls'.
Enter Lombroso and his work The Female Criminal, about which Hart knows more than almost all of the dozen criminology texts on my shelf (none of which mentioned his writing on race ). Lombroso studied female offenders to save his theory that criminals were physically anomalous, but his extensive measurements of women were also "part of the project to render the female offender visible, and thus containable" (1994:12). The lack of physiological differences resulted from the lack of external differentiation in women, though he still manages to conclude that the female born offender is closer to a normal man than woman. But,
unlike the 'semi-masculine, tyrannical and selfish' born criminal who wants only to satisfy her own passions, the occasional offender puts trust in her male protectors and regains confidence in men -- especially her lawyer, and in some cases that Lombroso is fond of relating, her executioner (Hart 1994:23).
Female killers are thus naturalized as being 'not women', and Hart examines how "the residue of this history has continued to inform representations of female offenders" (1994:28). She further develops her critique by examining a play by Braddon called Lady Audley's Secret and Wedekind's Pandora's Box (the Lulu plays). On one level, Lady Audley's secrets include bigamy, attempted murders and her mother's insanity, but Hart suggests what is revealed is the "homosocial and homoerotic bond between men, as secret" (1994:34). The main character's "real secret is, semiotically, the holding open of the se-creted space of the homosocial" (ibid).
The analysis builds on "Irigaray's argument that patriarchal heterosexuality is grounded in a disavowal of 'hom(m)o-sexuality'" and suggests that heterosexuality can "be read as a paranoid discourse" (1994:42). Here, "the woman-as-criminal solves the problem of masculine paranoid desire" by standing in for the 'beloved as persecutor' (ibid). To be clear, it is not literal homosexual desire but "the discourse of compulsory patriarchal heterosexuality and its ever-present twin -- homophobia -- that at once prescribes homosocial and proscribes homosexual bonding between men" (ibid).
Wedekind's character Countess Gescwitz is the first representation of a lesbian/invert on stage, and Hart reads her as the 'shadow' of Lulu, the insatiable, narcissistic prostitute [who represents "femininity as essence" (1994:51)]. The invert and narcissist are thus an eternal couple "representing two halves of a psychical splitting that reflect the masculine imaginary" (1994:54). Significantly, "Like Lady Audley's, Lulu's femininity is not aberrant" says Hart: "what is an aberration is femininity as essence. When this impossible-real is manifested, it is inexorably murderous" (1994:56, emphasis original).
Hart writes that Lady Audley simultaneously represents the purest and truest type of woman and a "defective copy of an idealized femininity" -- an "'other' to the feminine (absolute alterity)" (1994:36):
It is thus in the figure of the irremediable woman-as-criminal that the essence of femininity meets the alterity of the feminine. And they turn out to be the same thing. Purified femininity becomes its own antithesis; zero meets zero and what is left is a functionary cipher with infinite capacity for multiplication (1994:36, emphasis original).
In this proliferation of fictional villainesses, the "masculine imaginary's 'reality'" (1994:58) is upheld, but the equation of woman, narcissist and destroyer is rendered to an excess. Hart contends that the "pathological repetition of a profoundly paranoid culture that ironically displays what it suppresses" reveals the workings and violence of the social order (1994:46).
"When the two women in the representation work with rather than against each other, their aggression almost unavoidably connotes lesbianism" (Hart 1994:76).
Hart spends a chapter on a specific subset of the 'killer women' genre -- the female 'buddy' film. Both Thelma and Louise and Mortal Thoughts test the ability of heterosexism to make sense of emotional bonds between women and its use of lesbianism to maintain rivalry between women. They also test the boundaries past which women's fidelity to each other becomes criminalized (though Hart seems to enjoy theorizing about the canyon into which Thelma and Louise drive at the movie's conclusion ).
These movies destabilize the masculine/feminine dichotomy by having a woman occupying the place of the traditional male hero by rescuing another woman (from a sexual assault, no less). Further, one reviewer of Thelma and Louise notes that the characters are "free to behave like -- well, men" (1994:73); and the discussion of "women who are really men" conjures up "the specter of the invert" (1994:74). Unlike Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, this movie generated "cultural hysteria" about the sexuality of those involved, including a Time cover story quoting feminist scholars "to restore cultural confidence in real women's passivity" (1994:73, emphasis original). Other reports reassured readers that the real women involved in making the film were heterosexual and did not hate men.
Neither movie explicitly suggests that the characters are lesbians as much as there is a haunting 'absent presence' or an "unspeakable sign" (1994:74). Indeed, this specter can be more clearly seen in how Thelma and Louise "works overtime to disavow it" (1994:75), such as Thelma's improbable one night stand with a male hitch-hiker one night after being sexually assaulted. The disavowal of lesbianism impeded heterosexism's ability to 'make sense' of the women's actions and relationship, claims Hart.
The same is true of Mortal Thoughts, a 'whodunit' about two women and the killing of their husbands. Hart notes that when a woman is accused of murder, "the boundaries between hysteric and criminal blur and the professional detective finds himself positioned as amateur analyst" (1994:82). In this movie, the detective wants to know "what she did; but as analyst, he needs to know what she wanted" (1994:83). The detective's attempt to 'make sense' of the crime is hindered by heterosexuality's inability to appreciate that bonds between women can be primary (and even trump matrimony). The various versions of the story are a test of intelligibility to heterosexism, and Hart notes how in the retelling the women become 'we': "Blurring of the boundaries between self and other" is typically a 'feminine' problem that "abets both their violence and their deception" (1994:87).
The possibility of same sex desire serves to titillate viewers, but Thelma and Louise "recuperates that desire by introducing male lovers in heightened moments. Structurally, this matches the convention used in pornographic films" (1994:77). In mainstream cinema, women's desire is shown by "hacking each other to death" (1994:173 n 40) or as (lesbian) outlaws if they are cooperating against the patriarchal order. Ultimately, "Thelma and Louise are not criminals because they shoot a rapist, rob a store or blow up a truck. They are criminals because they are together, seeking escape from a masculine circuit of desire" (1994:79, emphasis original).
"'[R]efuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands...Such wastes drop so that I might live'. Abjection is not about a lack of cleanliness or health; rather it is an act that 'disturbs identity, system, order... what does not respect borders, positions, rules'" (Hart 1994:98, quoting Kristeva).
Karen Finley was the only heterosexual of four performance artists denied funding by the National Endowment for the Arts, and her presence made the charge of homophobia more problematic. Hart suggests, though, that Finley can perform 'lesbian' acts by showing how heterosexism is constructed. In fact, Finley exposes the construction of many oppressions and problematizes the naturalized categories of the dominant culture, so she reveals the instability of the heterosexual identity and elicits a homophobic reaction.
Just as ethnomethodology exposes social rules by breaking them, performance art (and street theater) can expose the rules of a social or political system. Finley reveals constructions of womanhood by performing in a way that merges mother and whore. Elsewhere, she is the Freudian mother, but "self consciously performed rather than unwittingly inhabited"; she takes on a "body that assaults the model from which she was constructed" (1994:102). In another act, Finley is on stage in panties, breaks eggs contained in a plastic bag, smears it over herself with a stuffed Easter bunny, then adds layer of glitter. The "palimpsestic body that is both seductive and repellant" (1994:99) reveals that the reproductive body is what lies behind the allure of the sexually seductive woman.
Finley's performances have titles like We Keep Our Victims Ready and can include skits about a "girl whose gang rapists throw her under the wheels of a train when they discover she was born without a vagina" (1994:97). Such 'aggressive' performances point to the haunting presence of lesbianism. But Hart is more interested in using Finley to explore the 'sameness' or 'difference' of a wide range of oppressions resulting from binary oppositional categories. By starting one performance by talking about Jesse Helms' attacks on the NEA and ending with an AIDS vigil, Finley connects the
desire to censor with the fear that the 'black sheep' will unite in an understanding of their shared oppressions, that the discreetness of constructions of subjects conceals constitutive indiscretions, that the sexual subjugation of women, gays, and lesbians depends on the prioritizing and naturalization of gender (1994:103).
Hart wonders why Finley's nudity is so disturbing in a society that makes nude female bodies so available "to be looked at, touched and penetrated by men" (1994:97). Her autoeroticism carries the historical conflation with lesbianism and threatens heterosexual contact. Hart also examines "Yams up My Granny's Ass", where Finley smears candied yams on her buttocks, and claims this act violated gender norms while the anal eroticism connotes gay (male) sexuality. She thus destabilizes categories of gender and attacks the foundation of a heterosexual identity through this display. Hart concludes that homophobia is complex and not just a fear of same or different, but related to "the visibility of sexualities that expose the fallaciousness of the sameness/ difference binary" and "points to the heterosexual/ homosexual binary as always already undone" (1994:103)
"If not quite entirely synonymous, the prostitute, the black woman, and the lesbian were nonetheless drawn together to form a triad onto which the white male patriarch's terror of sexuality was projected...all three, separately and therefore together, did not facilitate the reproduction of the white man" (Hart 1994:120).
In Single White
Female, Allison breaks up with unfaithful fiancee and places an advertisement to find a roommate to share her apartment. 'Seeking same' conjures up notions of narcissism and the new roommate -- who has a dark secret about the death of an identical twin -- kills Allie's fiancee and copies her identity. The message is "comically obvious" as a warning that women cannot "escape from dependency on men by turning to each other" (1994:115). But Hart wants to make sense of the whiteness of cultural representations that stands in stark contrast to the large number of African American women in Mann's sample. Racism exists in the movie industries but this analysis relates to the ideological function of "white sexual deviants" (1994:110, emphasis original).
One method for understanding whiteness is whether a substitution of black for white is unimaginable. A black Thelma and Louise would not work because they would "not appear as sympathetic or as nonthreatening" (1994:78) and Single Black Female is similarly problematic. Indeed, if
the fantasy that motivates these representations resides in uncovering, or dis-covering, the sexual rapaciousness and hence violence hidden 'within' these women's appearance, the fantasy can be sustained only if anything that would already mark the woman as 'deadly' is not disclosed as 'visible' (1994:109).
Further, from a conversation Allie has expressing her desire to have 2.2 kids who look like her fiancee, Hart weaves an analysis suggesting the lesbian/invert was "constructed as a white in order to create a category that coerced white women to reproduce" (1994:116). Heterosexuality is thus "an economy that maintains white supremacy" (1994:117) and Hart suggests that the largely white male membership of anti-abortion groups like Operation Rescue are really "attempting to rescue themselves from the loss of control of reproductivity. The 'murdering mother' who appears in their imaginary is a figure they attempt to displace onto 'dykes,' 'whores,' and women of color" (1994:118).
The construction of 'lesbian' as white also serves to separate them from the black mother and the prostitute who inhabit the single woman category. Their proximity creates "the fear/fantasy of this mingling of white and black women's bodies -- 'single' bodies" that might come together or "perform together" (1994:112). Hart also discusses an article called "Boy Clinton's Big Mama" that "invokes a connection between Hillary's threatening self-assertion and the stereotype of the dominating African-American matriarch. It is only a small step from there to the 'presumptively degenerative man-hating insouciance' of the single woman" (1994:112).
"It is not 'Woman' who doesn't exist; it is
The Woman. Striking out the article that signifies her singularity, we an see how her relation to the 'something of the One' suggests that perhaps she is always already two: one to have the phallus (the one who threatens to take his place and is subsequently erased) and one to be the phallus, the one who reproduces him. Thus
Basic Instinct blatantly exposes what I have been arguing is usually unmarked in representations of violent women" (Hart 1994: 133-4, emphasis original).
The Woman' with the article struck out for the entire book, Hart finally gives the reader this explanation in chapter seven. The interest here is in separating the (white, glamorous, heterosexual-looking) good girl from the bad girl. This movie is a thriller and, unlike the whodunit, generates suspense through the possibility the detective may not solve the crime or even reach the end of the story alive.
Hart links this discussion of the detective as 'subject-supposed-to know' with Lacan's understanding of 'love/transference' and hate. The two appear not as opposites, but doubles -- and the thriller is about their proximity. The final scene thus has Catherine deciding whether to love the detective or hate him, whether to make love to him or kill him with the ice pick under the bed. She resolves the ambivalence and "achieves 'true' object-love. That is, she accedes to the order of heterosexuality" (1994:132). The movie is thus "an allegory for the 'becoming of woman' according to the teleology of the instincts that begins with autoeroticism and ends with 'genital organization,' that is heterosexuality" (ibid).
Many of the bisexual or lesbian characters are involved in murders. They often physically resemble each other, thus reinscribing the conflation of lesbianism and narcissism. The two women who are primary suspects were lovers in college and each tell the detective a story of how the other copied their identity. In spite of the ice pick under Catherine's bed in the final scene, the movie does not really answer who did it, and possibly they were working together (1994:133). Ultimately, "the women did it" which is to say
The Woman" with the article struck out did it.
"She killed serially; serial killers repeat: she is a serial killer. The law will undoubtedly prefer witnessing her wounds opening, closing, reopening, reclosing -- the beat, beat, beating of her personal, tragic trauma -- to recognizing a cultural, collective trauma, a systematic, normative violence in which straight, white, middle-aged 'everyman' repetitively assume their right of access to women's bodies. Wuornos knows this: 'I say it's the principle,' she says, 'they say it's the number. Self-defense is self-defense, I don't care how many times it is" (Hart 1994:153).
Aileen Wuornos is a lesbian, a prostitute, the killer of seven men, and the woman to whom Fatal Women is dedicated. She has been dubbed the 'first female serial killer', and Hart argues the label is not accurate. The 'femme fatal' of patriarchal unconscious represents male fears about feminism and was created to control women. It is a fantasy that works to preclude its own actualization, but Wuornos is the impossible-real -- the metaphor realized who disrupts the symbolic order.
The FBI agent who coined the term serial killer says it is based on suspense fantasies and serial adventure movies he remembers from his boyhood. Serial killers are "obsessed with a fantasy, and they have what we must call nonfulfilled experiences that become part of a fantasy and push them on toward the next killing" (in Hart 1994:140). Patriarchy 'naturally' produces 'unnatural' male serial killers and would like to depict Wuornos as a woman who "stalked her victims, lured them with promises of sexual favors, and was compelled to repeat the crime because of a lust for domination" (1994:137; see Hickey 1997:210).
Her story, though, is one of a hitch-hiking prostitute who encountered "as many as a quarter of a million men" (1994:142). Some of those men sexually assaulted her -- they raped her -- so she defended herself by killing them. Hart mentions a discussion of this point on Geraldo's television talk show by the president of a support group for ex-prostitutes:
'Close to 2,000 men a year... used her in prostitution. So to say three to six a day, that seven of them may have assaulted her fits with the stats that are in there.' Rivera has to take a break. He does not return to this subject after the commercials (1994:142).
Wuornos revealed the traffic in women and how prostitutes are necessary but dispensable; she "turned the brutality of this exchange back onto the primary player" (1994:145). People do not understand how a prostitute can be raped, so Wuornos gives them graphic details (that the media censors to protect viewers’ sensibilities). People suggest she was out of control, so she tells them: "Those men are out of control. I'm sick and tired of those men out there thinking they can control us do whatever they damn well please with our bodies and think they can get away with it" (in Hart 1994:141-2).
Wuornos is attempting to occupy an impossible position within the sociosymbolic order, says Hart, for she refuses to be a 'symptom' of man . She makes the homosocial visible, so she will be sacrificed as a femme fatal to that order. Wuornos sits on Florida's death row and her appeal proceeds on the basis of extensive abuse she suffered as a child. It does not "purse the question 'What would it mean if women started to defend themselves?'" (1994:151). Invoking traumas of the past "will even more powerfully assert that Wuornos's perceptions of a 'clear and present danger' was not real" (1994:153).
Further Straightening the Kinks
Two of the life sentences given to female killers in Mann's book were lesbians who tied up their victim and tortured him (1996:158). This reality accounts for two of 296 cases, which is significantly less than one would expect by looking at cultural representations. Mann helps point out the ordinariness of women who kill and Hart explains the ideological forces present in the distorted image. Both books, though, represent two steps forward and one step back. Both take neglected topics and generate useful insights yet reintroduce confusion that seems unnecessary.
When Women Kill will no doubt become a classic text, as much because of the dearth of other research as any intrinsic excellence. The faults -- many mentioned in the review -- result from a lack of methodological rigor and are not related to the exploratory nature of Mann's study. Still, it will be an invaluable reference to others creating theory and is a solid basis from which to add findings about rural women.
Fatal Women may become known not for its content but the striking cover art of a trim nude brunette with pert breasts who is holding a clenched dagger just above her exposed pubic hair. The cover may sell books, but the dense jargon will keep queer studies marginalized. Hart is obviously a brilliant woman and rigorous scholar who wants to challenge power (and save Wuornos), but if the critique is comprehensible to a small minority of the educated elite then power is not effectively challenged.
Unlike other post-comprehensible, discursive deconstructionist mumbo jumbo, I wish I understood more of this book. But after several complete readings and several additional partial readings, I still do not understand parts of this book. A glossary would help, as would an introductory chapter on Freud and Lacan -- especially if Hart could explain why using the tools of obscure European white men was the best way to take down the master's house. But frankly, getting 'spat out of reality into negative semantic space' gives me a headache. Even with a glossary and aspirin, few people want to do division whose result is a functionary cipher related to a placeholder for a non-existent obstacle necessary to maintain an economy of non-satisfaction within which "sexual relation is impossible".
Both books point to women's anger as an important topic for further research. Rage is associated with violence, so an understanding of the transformation of emotions leading to rage could advance our understanding of the immediate mechanisms responsible for violence. The last stand described by Katz may be a male construction, but seems consistent with phenomenological activity necessary to trigger a 'fight' or 'flight'/retreat reaction. Further, the production of rage in women is affected by lack of cultural support for their expressing anger and mechanisms that transform humiliation into hurt, guilt and depression. The expression of anger is met by epithets that can include any or all components of man-hating-lesbian-(dyke)-feminist-bitch. A sexual politics of women's anger -- that was able to theorize race and heterosexism -- seems like a useful next step.
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