An Introduction to Framing Female Killers in Contemporary Film

An Introduction to Framing Female Killers in Contemporary Film
© Photograph by Mark Skeet

Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) kills Michael Meyers in ‘Halloween H20: 20 Years Later’. Xenia Anatop makes her name as an international terrorist by crushing men between her thighs in ‘Goldeneye’. Sidney (Neve Campbell) shoots one set of serial killers in ‘Scream’ and the second set in ‘Scream 2’. Claire pushes the evil nanny, Payton (Rebecca De Mornay), out a window in ‘The Hand That Rocks the Cradle’. Samantha/Charlie (Geena Davis) shoots, stabs, runs over, and blows up anti-government operatives in ‘Long Kiss Goodnight’. Also, Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Surrandon) execute a rapist in ‘Thelma and Louise’.

Eight films, nine women, more than a dozen deaths. However, fewer than 15% of arrestees for homicide in the United States of America are females (Goetting 1995) and fewer than 2% of the 3,400 people on death row are women (McGraw 1998). In other words, most “real-life” killers are men.

Female killers have fascinated Western society for as long as women have been killing. Women have been killing, and have been punished for killing, as far back as we have records. Records for infanticide (a traditionally female crime) can be found as long ago as the Black Plague (Dobash et al. 1995).

Jones (1994) notes that old English law contains rules for prosecuting the woman who kills her husband or lord. Jones (1980) and Mann (1996) review crumbling Puritan legal texts that graphically and disapprovingly describe women accused of killing their babies (usually conceived out of wedlock).

Birch notes that the first famous trial for female killers occurred in 1933: two sisters, servants in the same house, allegedly killed their mistress and her baby. Jacques Lacan, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir all wrote essays responding to this crime and unpacking notions of femininity in the face of such transgressions. Also, with a band and a gruesome elementary school chant (“Lizzie Borden grabbed an axe and gave her father forty whacks”) named in her honour, no one will forget Lizzie Borden, acquitted thou she was.

We see male killers, “bad guys,” kill in movies all the time. Why do we see so few female criminals kill on the screen? It does seem to be true that women in “real-life” kill less frequently than men. Is the small percentage of women killers in films designed to represent real life?

However, male criminal killers (“bad guys,” or people we would socially consider criminal) are not the only images of male killers in fIlm. Big-budget movies have portrayed male killers as heroes as often as they have portrayed male killers as criminals. Reflect on the hundreds of killings committed by Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwartznegger, Sylvester Stallone, and the various James Bonds in their serial action fIlms; they are “good guys” who kill hundreds of people per movie.

While the absence of real-life female killers may partially explain their absence in Hollywood, it only begins to shed light on the story. ‘Birch’ (1994) argues that despite the relative paucity of inspirational, “real-life” models, the rampaging female has become a Hollywood favourite in the 1990s.

Although fIlms may currently be more preoccupied with female killers than usual, the seventeen blockbusters (grossing $50 million or more) films of the 1990s that feature women killers compose a small portion of films and film revenues. When we ask why female criminal killers are ignored in fIlms, we must also ask where are the female, machine-gun-carrying action heroes?

In my research, I watched a number of action films which featured both male and female leads to find female killers, only to discover none. In these films (specifically, ‘X-Files’, ‘Eraser’, ‘Jackie Brown’, ‘Batman Forever’) the female leads, presented as the heroines, often defended themselves but, in the end, were unable to take the final, lethal step. The male leads, who were willing to kill, rescue them.

As a woman engaged with the social structure I am attempting to explain, I will begin my description of this project by defining my standpoint. My education in women’s issues generated my interest in this project. Every book I read, every lecture I attended, and every news program I viewed framed women as people under constant threat of victimisation. In the quote above, Mayne shows that feminist film critics have had similar experiences, finding that chronicling all examples of objectification, torture, disempowerment and killing of women in a film can be an endless and ultimately fruitless task. We become weighted down and lethargic when we focus only on the tragedy of women in film.

Dyer (1993) states this clearly in his analysis of homosexual images in film: “Much image analysis seems to demonstrate that everything is the same and it is awful”. Therefore, while I consider myself humanitarian, a part of me applauded when I watched ‘Goldeneye’ for the first time.

Xenia Anatop, the “bad girl” and Natalia, the “good girl,” were capable and even adept at killing people, with or without Bond’s participation. I conducted an analysis of James Bond films and found that “Bond girls,” although beautiful and often inert, could become violent and even lethal.

I found similar patterns in even the most misogynist of fIlms, with a little subversive reading. Led in part by Camille Paglia’s ‘Vamps and Tramps’ (1994) and ‘Sexual Personae’ (1990) and her search for powerful female models in history and pop culture, I began to appreciate the strength of women who could kill, especially those who kill for justice or retribution.

I began to read books on women’s history, searching for more records of lethal women. Where I found them, I found a vindication of every woman who ever lost a struggle. It seemed almost fair as if these women were saying, “So there!” to every victimiser whoever killed a woman.

In late 1997, I stumbled upon a small article in the Oregonian about Kathy Kiel, the Director of Outreach Services at the Marion County Jail. Ms Kiel, a specialist on and legal advocate for victims of domestic violence, was engineering the second clemency appeal for four women convicted of killing their batterers.

I researched the narratives of women convicted for killing batterers, usually husbands or lovers, and found that these women 1) had little or no criminal record, yet 2) were convicted more often than men who killed their partners, and 3) received longer sentences than men who were convicted (see also Radford 1994).

Wykes (1996) adds that there are also unsubstantiated rhetorical differences in the ways society, specifically the media, responds to male and female killers of intimate partners. Women get more bad press, they are often identified by sex-laden (the “murderers” or “the mother of three”) or negative terms, and they are more likely to be publicly castigated because of their gender than men.

Additionally, women with children who do not act to protect their children from the batterer can be arrested for neglect or abuse, but can also be arrested for assault or murder if they do act to protect their children and kill the batterer (Radford 1994).

Finally, Frigon (1996) notes that female convicts are fifteen times more likely to be sentenced to psychiatric treatment than male convicts, despite a lack of obvious psychological distinctions.

Jones (1996) notes that, in Iowa, a woman may be sentenced for more than five years for a crime for which a man receives a one-year sentence. She also notes that at least fourteen other states “provide indeterminate sentences for women which result in their being held longer than men convicted of the same offences. Several states provide by statute that women must be sentenced to the maximum term for their crimes while men may be given lighter sentences”.

I realised that the crime itself was not at issue here; these women were not legal outlaws — they were gender outlaws. This excessive management of female killers exposes contradictions in popular gender ideology.

Despite the best efforts of feminists, we continue to fetishise women’s gentleness, weakness, and tenderness. If these beliefs are fundamentally true, why do (and how could) women kill? And if these beliefs are socially or biologically false, why are women punished more severely and to more public acclaim than men? Is it the signified or the signifier that is incorrect?