‘There are many groups in society who are made uneasy by women who… do not embrace a femininity characterized by victimhood and passivity’ – Gwen Adshead.
Traditionally, behind every action of a character comes a motivation that leads them there. A traditional playwright’s job is to build and justify the actions of their characters from a series of contextual events, in the process creating a believable story arc. When dealing in fiction, these justifications can equally reflect reality and the stereotypes surrounding particular people and behaviours. Fictional women have committed acts of violence on (or off) stage since the birth of theatre in ancient Greece, but the justification for their actions has followed similar patterns all the way into the 21st century.
The lack of research into acts of violence by women or girls is often blamed on the lack of offending in comparison to men and boys. Crime statistics are famously unreliable, but the general consensus is that crime and especially violent crime are masculine fields (Heidensohn 6). The collection of data outside of the police force, often through self-report studies, has helped improve reliability and paint a picture of how and when women offend. Child homicide is the only violent crime dominated by women, in a shocking echo of Medea – the original, Greek, violent woman.
As a minority, violent women have characteristics projected onto them by a society which reduces their complex motivations for committing crime. Gwen Adshead in her 2011 article Same but Different: Constructions of Female Violence in Forensic Mental Health, evidences how violent women are viewed through a dichotomy of ‘insane or evil’. Their actions are justified either by insanity or a monstrous absence of humanity because violence is not, according to western culture, in their nature.
These perspectives are demonstrated perfectly in Henry Hitching’s review of the National Theatre production of Medea in 2014. Though he acknowledges the stigma of the ‘she-devil’, he also describes an ‘animal savagery’ and ‘irrational impulses’ which motivate her filicide. The language dehumanizes her and implies an unstable mind, but strangely we don’t encounter similar language in reviews of the Oresteia (Almeida 2016), where Agamemnon commits filicide. Paul Taylor of The Independent notes Agamemnon as a ‘conscience racked… devoted father’.
I would propose that cultural perception and understanding of violent women now falls into a trichotomy: insane, evil or the ‘prior-victim’. Lisa Pasko and Mida Chesney-Lind in The Female Offender highlight the well-documented links between childhood abuse of women and violent offending in adulthood. Violent women are more likely than men to have histories of abuse or domestic violence, and this trend has impacted the discourse around female offenders.
Though the reality is that prior-victimhood is common, Gwen Adshead observes that this fact is used to cover the actions of violent women that we want to return to the role of passive, feminine caregivers. Our desire to believe that women do not desire to harm others means we account for women’s violent actions with tales of mental instability, dehumanisation or being driven to act through desperation.
Whether we choose to paint a violent woman as mentally unstable, monstrously inhuman or driven to act by victimization, the result either way is diminished responsibility for the violent act. Our discomfort with female violence reveals itself in our attempts to complicate the autonomy of violent women. When our assumptions about women’s violent behaviour are adapted into narrative tropes in playwriting, their repetition fails to reflect the heterogeneity of female violence.
The following are examples of plays that all use the narrative tropes of pre-victimization or mental illness to somehow justify or explain the actions of violent female characters. This not only diminishes their agency, but complicates our view of the people they victimize. These are not badly written plays, and thus they demonstrate the conflict that can exist between needing motivated, complex characters and avoiding stereotypes. Playwrights often want audiences to sympathize and identify with their principle characters so they can achieve emotional impact. Characters need motivation to commit actions that drive a believable narrative forward, and these plays show pre-victimization being used as motivation for female violence.
Marie and Boo in Rebecca Prichard’s Yard Gal both commit acts of violence. Boo comes from a violent home, and talks about having to call ambulances when she was younger. She is treated for paranoid schizophrenia, and makes a blunt reference to father/daughter incest to an audience member. Marie has a physically abusive father. There are hints in the play of police officers accepting sexual favours, and of Nero, an older man, sleeping with them when they are underage and leading them into crime.
Shanice in Roy Williams’ Fallout is constantly reminded of her physical attractiveness. It is hinted that Dwayne took advantage of her when she was intoxicated, and in one scene Dwayne threatens that she will be raped by several boys they know. When Emile tells Shanice to give in and have sex with Dwayne, Shanice attacks her. Later in the play, Shanice assaults Miss Douglas: a teacher who got her in trouble at school for stealing.
The girls in Judy Upton’s Ashes and Sand all partake in violent muggings. Hayley and Lauren are both underage and in a relationship with the same older police officer – Daniel. Jo tries to mug a man who overpowers her, and later stabs him as he tries to rape her. When the girls have a large amount of money stolen from them, they brutally attack Daniel. It is implied that he may have stolen the money, which was the girls’ only chance of escape from their working-class backgrounds. Hayley is seen self-harming in the play, but a specific reason why is never revealed.
In Simon Stephens’ Morning, Stephanie and Cat carry out the brutal murder of Stephanie’s boyfriend Stephen. Cat has a horrible relationship with her father, and Stephanie’s mother is dying slowly and grotesquely. Stephanie is clearly traumatized, and seems desensitized, detached and blunt. There are subtle implications that Stephen is a controlling boyfriend, as he threatens to leave her if she spends too much time with her friends.
Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal tells the story of a young woman who murders her husband. She is put on the path of marriage and domesticity, which begins badly when her husband coerces her into sex on their honeymoon. He puts pressure on her, despite the fact that she is scared and crying. There are hints that she suffers from post-natal depression, but this may be an interpretation. She commits the murder after having an affair that shows her there is more to life than domesticity. She is portrayed as a victim of society, trapped in a life she did not ask for.
Marina Carr’s By the Bog of Cats is a modern adaptation of Medea, set in Ireland. Hester kills her daughter Josie, but she then kills herself as well. The original Medea kills her children as an act of revenge against her husband Jason, who leaves her for another woman. In Bog of Cats, Carthage and his new wife humiliate Hester, and threaten to take Josie from her. She is also threatened with eviction from her caravan home, so burns Carthage’s to the ground in retaliation. Hester was abandoned by her neglectful mother as a child, and is revealed to have killed her brother as well.
In Richard Cameron’s Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down, three women are involved in the murder of Royce. Ruby was in a relationship with Royce when she was eighteen. He degrades and gropes her in front of other men, and leaves her when he finds out she is pregnant. Some years later, he restarts their relationship and does not tell her he’s married. When Ruby tries to keep him away from their son, he harasses them and gives the boy a knife. Jodie, at the age of ten, is in a relationship with Al – a paedophile who Royce chases to his death with dogs. Jodie is roughed up by Royce on this occasion. In adulthood, Royce threatens Jodie and she resists him. The final perpetrator is Lynette, Royce’s wife, who is controlled, beaten and raped by him.
Shelagh Stephenson’s Five Kinds of Silence is about two sisters who murder their abusive father. Billy is extremely controlling, violent and sexually abuses both girls. The play shows them going through therapy, while revealing the abuse that Billy himself suffered as a child. After years of being terrorised by their father and watching their mother suffer, Susan and Janet shoot Billy.
Masterpieces by Sarah Daniels concludes with Rowena murdering a stranger on the London Underground. She works for social services, and witnesses horrific cases of domestic violence. She claims she is driven to murder by anger about society’s sexual objectification of women. She discovers her friend Ron, who emotionally abuses his wife, has raped another woman. Rowena’s husband defends Ron, and she is disgusted. She is not victimized herself until a man approaches her at a tube station to harass her, and she pushes him in front of a train.
Sharon Pollock’s Blood Relations is based on the true story of Lizzie Borden, but uses enough artistic licence to warrant a mention. Lizzie Borden was a woman who murdered her father and his wife (not her mother), and details of the murders are contested. In the play, her father tries to force her into a marriage. When she refuses he slaps her, pushes her over, kills her pet birds and denies her inheritance of the farm property. She commits the murders out of desperation.
I would like to use Rona Munro’s play Iron as an example of a work that highlights our assumptions about women’s motivation for violent behaviour, particularly in relation to pre-victimization. The play follows Josie, a young woman who has decided to visit her incarcerated mother, Fay. Fay is in jail for murdering Josie’s father and the reasons for this are deliberately left in doubt. Fay and Josie have been estranged for many years but it’s clear that Josie is now curious about her mother’s actions, but she’s also looking for information about who her father was.
The only other characters in the play are prison guards, one of whom has formed a troubled friendship with Fay over time. There are hints that Fay feels victimized by both guards. During a scene in the prison gardens, Guard 2 (never named) questions Fay inappropriately about her crimes and asks what her husband did to her – why didn’t she just leave instead of murdering him? Fay claims she is nothing but ‘play dough’ (Munro 44) for them, and she’s reduced to hysterics when they take her cigarettes from her cell.
During their first visit, Fay tells Josie about a woman in the neighbouring cell who killed herself. When under pressure, Fay begins trembling and having panic attacks, implying her mental state isn’t healthy. Fay highlights her own rarity, comparing women who kill to unicorns.
Over the course of several visits it is subtly implied that Josie’s father had a drinking problem and was violently abusive towards Fay. Fay says ‘he knew how to hurt me’ but doesn’t go into detail, planting the seed of an idea that her husband was abusive that both Josie and the audience take on board. She discusses her short temper, but insists the guards drive her to it (Munro 41) and she just can’t help herself. Josie confesses that she once burnt a collection of tailored suits owned by her ex-partner and asks Fay if she would do the same to her father. Fay responds that he would have ‘taken the back of his hand to me’ (Munro 41), but when Josie asks if her father hit her, she reconsiders her response and doesn’t clarify.
Later in the play, Josie states ‘I know he must have hurt you’ (Munro 72), but Fay does not confirm or deny this. Josie begins obsessing over Fay’s conviction, even suggesting they contact her lawyer and attempt an appeal. Josie’s reasoning is that her father was abusive, but Fay didn’t mention this during her trial. As Josie becomes increasingly invested in her mother’s case, Fay is forced to reveal that she was not at all a victim of domestic violence.
Fay admits that though they both drank heavily, she was the one with anger issues, and he was a caring father. She stabbed him in the back after an argument when she found she was unable to control her rage. Josie’s assumptions about what led Fay to murder come crashing down and she ends up in a fight with her. She doesn’t visit her mother in jail again.
Rona Munro carefully plants the ideas of pre-victimization and mental instability for her audience so that they, along with Josie, begin to make assumptions about what leads to Fay’s behaviour. Both the audience and Josie have these assumptions corrected simultaneously in an event that shows the audience their own biases. The truth is that Fay is an angry woman who simply lost control of herself – she was not driven to anything and takes full responsibility for her actions.
Iron is a much-needed style of play that challenges stereotypes about female violence instead of reinforcing them. It is clever enough to tell a believable, engaging, human story without relying on assumptions about motivation for women’s crime. If playwrights want to encourage more nuanced thinking about women and their behaviour, then we must make an example of plays that navigate around stereotypes to highlight their flaws.
Next month on SPARAGMOS: Christine Plastow on the rhetoric of women’s violence in the ancient Athenian law courts.
Wendy Haines is By Jove Theatre Company’s Production Co-ordinator and Literary Manager. She is also a playwright, as well as working on feminist science fiction.
Adshead, Gwen. ‘Same but Different: Constructions of Female Violence in Forensic
Mental Health’. International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics. Vol 4, Issue 1 (2011): pages 41-68.
Chesney-Lind, Meda; Pasko, Lisa. The Female Offender: Girls, Women and Crime,
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Hitchings, Henry. Rev. of Medea, National Theatre. London Evening Standard.
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Taylor, Paul. Rev. of Oresteia, Almeida Theatre. The Independent.
independent.co.uk. 08.06.2015. Web accessed 19.04.2017.
Cameron, Richard. Plays: 1. London: Methuen, 1998. Print.
Carr, Marina. By The Bog of Cats. London: Faber and Faber, 2004. Print.
Daniels, Sarah. Masterpieces. London: Methuen, 1986. Print.
Munro, Rona. Iron. London: Nick Hern Books, 2002. Print.
Prichard, Rebecca. Yard Gal. London: Faber and Faber, 1998. Print.
Stephenson, Shelagh. The Memory of Water & Five Kinds of Silence. London: Methuen,
Stephens, Simon. Morning. London: Methuen, 2012. Print.
Treadwell, Sophie. Machinal. London: Nick Hern Books, 1993. Print.
Upton, Judy. Plays: 1. London: Methuen, 2002. Print.
Williams, Roy. Fallout. London: Methuen, 2003. Print.