The violence of women fascinates and unsettles us. We are used to seeing, in art and in life, the violence of men: police procedurals teach us that the serial killer must be a white male in his 30s; mass shootings and terrorist attacks are invariably perpetrated by men; men are generally six or seven times more likely to kill than women. 1 Women who commit acts of violence are often labelled ‘unnatural’, supposing that the ‘natural’ state for a woman is to be caring, nurturing, and non-violent. As Goetting notes, we are far more ready to ‘accommodate the woman as a victim’ than as a perpetrator of violent acts.2 When women do commit violence, psychologists have often seen their actions to be a result of ‘their alleged sickness, weakness, frailty, and vulnerability’, versus their male counterparts who have economic aims or are inadequately socialised. 3 Studies have shown interesting differences in the modes and motives of women’s violent acts.4 We feel the need to explain away women’s violence as a result of madness or extreme stress, as in a situation of domestic violence, because we find it difficult to accept that women could naturally be anything other than kind, protective caretakers.
As a result, the depiction of women’s violence in the arts can make us uncomfortable. When I attended the Old Vic’s production of Electra in 2014, the audience responded to Electra’s blood-curdling screams for violent revenge with nervous laughter. And yet, portrayals of violent women can be particularly compelling: perhaps because of its scarcity, we are drawn to women’s violence as something that needs further explanation. It is particularly interesting to note that, while psychological studies have begun to accept that women’s propensity for violence may be greater and more varied than previously thought, 5 a number of stereotypes seem to persist in artistic representations. Here, I want to explore these and other representations of violent women in the arts, to see what is so compelling about this particular horror, to discover where certain stereotypical portrayals seem to persist, and to ask what we can gain and learn from telling the stories of violent women.
In artistic portrayals of violent women, the women do not exist in isolation; we, the audience, are expected to have a reaction to them, and other characters within the work may have their own reactions. Violent women are almost always viewed negatively. We rarely see female heroes who kill, in the mode of the hundreds of male action stars like James Bond and Jason Bourne who violent acts are seen as their victories. Even less frequent are female characters in the vein of American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, A Clockwork Orange’s Alex, or the Joker from Christopher Nolan’s film The Dark Knight, male characters who are extreme and prolific in their violent acts, and yet in spite of their clear lack of morality or positive motive, become fan favourites and pop culture icons. We do not expect to root for violent female characters, but nevertheless a few do appear, at least in popular culture, whose actions feel vindicating. Most recently, Game of Thrones’ Arya Stark’s list of revenge kills has satisfied audiences wearied by the onslaught of bad things happening to good people. Elsewhere, Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill documents a very clear female revenge fantasy, as does Death Proof, which provides both crisis and catharsis, portraying a male serial killer violently murdering a group of young women, and then a second group of young women taking their equally brutal revenge. The latter film is often called Tarantino’s worst, and yet it fits neatly with his oeuvre: while Inglourious Basterds sees Jewish people take their violent revenge on the Nazis, and Django Unchained affords black slaves in the American South the same opportunity to avenge themselves on their former owners and abusers, so Death Proof exhibits the fantasy of the young women of ‘exploitation’ films turning on their male tormenters and killers.
Elsewhere, though, violent women are very clearly reviled. Carol Ann Duffy’s volume of poetry, The World’s Wife, is populated with all kinds of women, including several who tend to violence. The poems imagine the women left out of history and myth, the wives of men whose names we know already. Mrs Herod orders the slaughter of all baby boys, in order to protect her own infant daughter from the future heartbreak prophesied by three wise queens. Little Red-Cap sees the fairy tale heroine hack to death the wolf who was her first lover. One of the most potent poems in the collection, though, gives a voice to a more recent, historical violent woman: The Devil’s Wife, telling the story of Myra Hindley.
From 1963 to 1965, Hindley and her boyfriend Ian Brady carried out the rapes and murders of five children and buried them on Saddleworth Moor in Greater Manchester, leading to the crimes being called the Moors Murders. Hindley may be the most visually recognisable murderer in British history. Her mugshot was reproduced over and over in the media at the time, and has become iconic in its way: Helen Birch has called the image ‘synonymous with the idea of feminine evil’. 6 Hindley became possibly more reviled than Brady. Brady made it clear he wanted to die in prison, while Hindley repeatedly appealed for release and told multiple different narratives of her role in the crimes to the police.
Surely, however, her gender also played a part in the visceral hatred which she received from the public. In Duffy’s poem, Hindley notes this: ‘The Devil was evil, mad, but I was the Devil’s wife/which made me worse.’ Duffy’s Hindley believes that she went along with what Brady wanted, that she did what she was told and nothing more (‘he told me to bury a doll’, ‘Can’t remember no idea it was him it was him’). The representation speaks to the need to explain more urgently the female murderer’s actions than those of her male counterpart. Hindley’s 2002 obituary spoke of her father’s violence and called her ‘a perfectly normal girl’ before she met Brady; the judge at her trial said that he could not believe her to be without hope of redemption ‘once she is removed from [Brady’s] influence.’ 7 For her part, Hindley called herself ‘wicked and evil’.
Why can we not accept an evil woman? We can accept, if not actually support, a damaged woman, or one who has been driven to extremes, or perhaps especially one who will do anything for the love of a man. These last two categories bring us to Medea, the murderous ‘witch’ who kills her own children and others in revenge for her treatment at the hands of Jason, or perhaps to show him how hurt she is. Medea’s action is never presented as a simple rejection of a previous life, though considering that the ending of Euripides play has Medea ride off in the chariot of the sun-god Helios, an attitude that there is nothing left here for her seems plausible. In popular understanding, though, Medea’s actions must be interpreted as a reaction to her treatment, albeit an unreasonable one: she is generally interpreted as a scorned woman whose anger and shame make her go too far.
Women like Medea who kill their own children appear particularly heinous in popular belief, because these children are the central focus of women’s purported caring and nurturing nature. We will much more readily accept that a woman will kill for her child, as in Duffy’s Mrs Herod, than that she will kill that child. So Medea becomes the epitome of the mad, sad, unnatural woman of myth, driven to murder her own children to punish the man who rejected her. The Bacchae’s Agave, too, kills her own child, although he is a grown man when the murder is carried out. In this story there is no explicit revenge or betrayal to ‘cause’ the killing; instead, Agave is almost literally out of her mind, taking part in frantic, primal rituals led by the god Dionysus to punish the city for its failure to give him his dues as a deity. Agave is portrayed as being unaware of her actions when she kills Pentheus, believing him to be a sacrificial animal. Even when they are not her own, the same expectation of motherly instinct causes shock at a woman killing children; Duffy’s Hindley identifies herself as ‘Nobody’s Mam,’ a fact which appears shameful.
The fact that the victims in portrayals of female violence are often children may speak to a tendency to require that a victim of violence be ‘weaker’ that a perpetrator, perhaps to make the act more ‘believable’. Thus, a pattern emerges: men kill women, women kill children, and it is no coincidence that we often perceive a child’s violence towards animals as an indicator of violent acts towards human subjects in the future. There are, of course, women who stand out from this admittedly simple model, predominantly women who kill their husbands, such as Clytemnestra, or their abusers, such as the protagonists in Death Proof. In those cases where the victims of women’s violence are not ‘weaker’, the woman’s motive is more likely to be revenge for a past wrong.
When not killing for revenge or through madness, we do sometimes see women commit acts of violence for their own personal gain. This can be seen in the eponymous character in By Jove Theatre Company’s recent production Margaret of Anjou: Margaret kills her enemy in order to secure her husband’s reign, and therefore her own position. In George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (and the television adaptation Game of Thrones), too, Cersei Lannister may not necessarily commit acts of violence by her own hand, but her ruthless and aggressive encouragement of such acts is focused almost solely on her own advancement and that of her family. These portrayals often reflect a wider theme of the difficulties of being a woman in a ‘man’s world’, and in their way they play into the idea that men are typically violent and women are typically not, by suggesting that in order to achieve status equal to that of a man, a woman must act like a man, in these cases by committing acts of violence which are perceived as against her nature as a woman.
What do these portrayals of violent women tell us? Foremost, we see that women’s violence in the arts must be explicable: we hardly ever see a woman commit violence without being driven to it. The forces driving such acts fall into several categories. Most predominantly, we see women who commit violence as a direct reaction to a real or perceived wrong, either through self-defence or the desire for revenge. We also encounter women whose responsibility for their actions is diminished in some way, through insanity or external influence, such as that of a controlling man. Occasionally, we are also shown women who are ruthless in their quest for personal advancement. This latter category of women are the most likely to be described as ‘unnatural’ or even ‘masculine’ in their actions. Less predictable are the modes of killing or wounding employed by female perpetrators in these representations. Traditionally, women have been considered to use less bloody methods of killing, or those which require less physical strength and contact with the victim; the epitome of this model is poison. Once again, women who stand out from this model may appear to be the most shocking perpetrators of violence, such as Clytemnestra, who hacks Agamemnon to death with an axe, or Agave, who beheads her son Pentheus believing him to be an animal.
These portrayals, although varied, remain reasonably narrow. There are, of course, outliers that break the mould of expectation of how violent women can and should behave and be perceived in artistic works. There is ample room, though, for exploration of new modes of portrayal and interpretation of these characters. Some of these will be explored over the remainder of By Jove Theatre Company’s season, and, as the demand grows for a wider variety of female protagonists, particularly in film, we may begin to see a greater variety of female characters committing violent acts in the mainstream. Until then, the rest of this series of articles will explore a variety of different ways of looking at women’s violence in the arts, with the hope of illuminating the factors that make it such a compelling subject both for By Jove and more widely.
Next month on SPARAGMOS: David Bullen on violence and feminist receptions of Euripides’ Bacchae.
Christine Plastow (@chrissieplastow) holds a PhD in Classics from University College London, and is By Jove Theatre Company’s research and education co-ordinator. She teaches ancient Greek and academic writing skills at UCL, and conducts research on ancient Athenian law and oratory.
1 Frei et al, 2006, 167.
2 Goetting, 1988, 3.
3 Goetting, 1988, 4.
4 See e.g. Keeney and Heide, 1994; Yourstone, Lindholm, and Kristiansson, 2008.
5 See e.g. Holmes, Hickey, and Holmes, 1991; Farrell, Keppel, and Titterington, 2011.
6 Birch, 1994, 32.
7 BBC, 2002.
BBC. 2002. ‘Obituary: Myra Hindley’ Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/452614.stm
Birch, Helen. (ed.) 1994. Moving Targets: Women, Murder, and Representation. University of California Press.
Farrell, Amanda L., Robert D. Keppel and Victoria B. Titterington. 2007. ‘Lethal Ladies: Revisiting What We Know About Female Serial Murderers.’ Homicide Studies. 15. 3. 228-252.
Frei, Andreas et al. 2006. ‘Female serial killing: review and case report.’ Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health. 16. 167-176.
Goetting, Ann. 1988. ‘Patterns of Homicide Among Women.’ Journal of Interpersonal Violence. 3. 1. 3-20.
Holmes, Stephen T., Eric Hickey, and Ronald M. Holmes. 1991. ‘Female Serial Murderesses: Constructing Differentiating Typologies.’ Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice. 7. 4. 245-256.
Keeney, Belea T. and Kathleen M. Heide. 1994. ‘Gender Differences in Serial Murderers: A Preliminary Analysis.’ Journal of Interpersonal Violence. 9. 3. 383-398.
Yourstone, Jenny, Torun Lindholm, and Marianne Kristiansson. 2008. ‘Women who kill: A comparison of the psychosocial background of female and male perpetrators.’ International Journal of Law and Psychiatry. 31. 374-383.