Historically, female killers have been framed as witches or weaklings—pathological or pathetic. Some argue that that anyone who commits a horrendous crime deserves to be vilified. While murder itself is never justifiable, mono-dimensional distortions of female criminals are often lacking in a necessary human complexity. Female criminals are generally assumed to either be hormonally imbalanced or abnormally deviant to the point of being otherworldly. The media, our society, and even criminal reports support these skewed perceptions of women. It is vital to be critical of our underlying assumptions of female criminals in order to deepen our understanding of the female capacity on the larger scale in general.
In 2007, Amanda Knox was charged for allegedly murdering her roommate while studying in Italy. Although she has recently been acquitted, articles, books, and even movies have been influenced by Knox’s story and the horrendous idea that an American coed could commit such a ghastly murder. Above all, the fact that she was a female further dramatized the story. Major news outlets referred to Knox as ‘sex crazed,’ as if her deviant sexuality somehow explained her alleged criminality. NPR news blogger Barbara J. King pointed out this flawed and overtly sexist reporting that skews female crime to be somehow worse than the male equivalent, asking the question: “What if Amanda Knox was Andrew Knox?”
An ‘abnormal sexuality’ is often attributed to female criminals. This concept of abnormality is conceived of socially accepted ideologies of femininity, which is generally seen as nurturing, loving, and motherly. These definitions create inaccurate portrayals of women, limiting them to narrow roles and rendering them entirely at the mercy of their biological bodily duties as child bearers. When a woman does not align with this accepted definition, she becomes unimaginable as a human being to those who adhere to the customs in place. Although many women are defying these norms today, much of our society remains transfixed on this conservative idea of femininity, and this is made clear in the way we label ‘bad’ women. This labeling leads to our dismissal of female complexity, and simplifies the criminal as being one-dimensional. Such simplifications do not afford these women our necessary curiosity as to the deeper, more intricate dynamics at play in their crimes.
If a criminal woman is not seen as ill, then she is seen as evil. Female crime breaks social norms, and this breach terrifies society as much as the crime itself.
In the 1960s, Myra Hindley and Ian Bradey murdered five children in the span of two years in the moors of Greater Manchester. Today Bradey is all but forgotten. Hindley, on the other hand, has been labeled as the “most evil woman in history.” Her face has symbolically transformed over the years from the image of a woman to that of a monster, embodying all that is cruel and inhuman. Historically, female criminals have been characterized as such exceptional anomalies—the “Angel of Death,” the “Witch of Buchenwald,” the “Bitch of Belson,” and the “Lesbian Vampire Killer,” are just a few labels ascribed to criminal women in the past.
Female criminals are seen as “doubly deviant” because they not only break social laws, but also social norms. Women’s roles are expanding in our society today, and with this shift it is necessary to confront the darker reality. As women are contributing greatly to the progress in the professional, artistic, athletic, and academic worlds, they are also capable of horrendous crime for reasons that are only beginning to be explored. In order to contribute to true progress in society, we must begin to see that gender is not static; women are not necessarily gentle and submissive creatures, just as men are not inherently violent and misogynistic. Our human tendency to oversimplify in order to more easily explain the world around us creates damaging constraints to healthy human interaction and understanding. Complexity is the reality we may not want to accept, but must. It is now time to integrate criminal women back into the realms of humanity.
Photo courtesy of http://talkmedianigeria.com