This literature review aims to examine the literature regarding the ways in which women offenders, particularly those connected with notorious murder cases are represented by the media, one simply way that can help to understand the representation of women is to compare it with how men are portrayed (Gill, 2007, p. 17). At its most basic (Burton, 2010, p. 16), representation is the construction of ideas about a subject through some means of communication. The concern is that the representation constructs detrimental ideas about the difference of the subject from others (Burton, 2010, p. 16). Women who join their partners in killing have stood out as extraordinary and exceptional (Jewkes, 2004, p. 108), feminist commentators (Jewkes, 2004, Naylor, 2001) assert that the women attract more media attention creating an image of them that is more powerful than that of the male. The pervasive coverage has resulted in the construction of these women as ‘folk devils’ provoking a collective sense of horror from the public.
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Representation and the newspaper media
Newspapers exert an enormous amount of influence over public perception (Burton, 2010, p. 7), they are an influential and powerful tool within society, utilised to inform and exchange information and news to the public. Academics have questioned the role of newspapers in their reporting of serious crime suggesting that instead of representing reality, they instead provide media representations of reality (Peelo et al 2004, p. 261).
Reah (2002, p. 50) observes newspapers are not simply vehicles for delivering information; they present the reader with aspects of the news, and present it often in a way that intends to guide the ideological stance of the reader. Burton (2010, p. 7) explains that the familiarity of newspapers in our daily lives can divert attention from the fact that they are made objects. He asserts that newspapers are organised in various ways for various reasons and it would not be possible to argue that they are neutral deliverers of information with which the reader can do anything they please with. Burton (2010, p. 16) maintains that from a structuralist perspective there are features of a newspaper which present an order, a form, cues to the reader; all of these give shape to the representation of the subject. Newspapers order their material to produce a line of argument which is then imposed on the reader. Jewkes (2004, p.37) agrees with this view, stating that despite often being described as a window on the world or a mirror reflecting real life, newspapers might be more accurately described as a prism, subtly bending and distorting the representation of the subject it portrays. However, it must be pointed out that readers are not so lacking in the capacity for critical interpretation that newspaper makers can produce any kind of meaning or interpretation and impose it (Burton, 2010, p. 16).
Feminism, crime and the media
Research (Gill, 2007, Naylor 1995, 2001) has shown that the media coverage about women is generally presented differently to coverage about men. Dyer (1993, p. 21) and more recently Naylor (2001, p. 186) go further arguing that the same behaviour can evoke significantly different press coverage completely dependent on gender. In her study, Naylor (2001, p. 189) found that the female receives a higher volume of coverage and is constructed as more deviant, more anxiety producing and more transgressive than the male.
Feminist examinations of the media propose two reasons for this gender inequality. Firstly, as Gill (2007, p. 121) argues, there is a gender imbalance in terms of who produces the news, male dominance dictates media values, beliefs and norms, often unfairly. She continues that women are culturalised into the news business, into an occupation in which the majority of senior positions are still taken by men. Research by Dougary (1994, cited by Burton, 2010, p. 257) established that across 12 tabloid newspapers top editorial jobs were held by 64 men and 11 women. The ratio was worse in the case of broadsheets.
Although things are now changing (Gill 2007, p. 121; Burton, 2010, p.257) with a majority of females in journalism training, most do not end up in the mainstream press but rather in associated fields such as public relations and magazines. When women do enter the mainstream press (Gill, 2007, p. 122) there still appears to be discrimination and a gendered division between ‘hard’ news reporters, such as economics, politics and crime, who tend to be men and ‘features’ reporters, who are most likely to be women. There is evidence according to Burton (2010, p. 257), that it is nearly impossible for women to combine a mainstream investigative journalistic career with a family. Beasley (1992, p. 76) found that women journalists were less likely to be married or in a long term partnership than their male counterparts, they were also significantly less likely to have children. A simple increase in the numbers of women in journalism cannot be taken as straightforward evidence of greater equality, since for women, but not men, achieving this seems to involve major sacrifices in other parts of their lives (Gill, 2007, p. 122). Burton (2010, p. 257) puts it simply when he states that there is a gender imbalance in terms of who produces news, there is gender bias in terms of who gets to cover what kind of story, this influences the representations of gender in the news.
The second reason proposed by feminist criminologists for this inequality in representation is that women commit far fewer crimes, specifically murders than men do (Seal, 2010, p. 1). The stereotypical picture of the criminal, Marsh and Melville (2008, p. 76) argue is a male. Male violence (Naylor, 2001, p. 186) is normalised, existing on a continuum ranging from the non violent to the murderous, this results in it being viewed only in terms of degree. Jewkes (2004, p. 133) argues that violence is viewed as one of many possible behaviour patterns for men; it is not strikingly unusual, even when extreme. When a man kills, his crime will be imaginable and possibly even seen as human, this is not the case for women. After all, argues Morrissey (2003, p. 16), male crime in all forms is frequently articulated, debated, portrayed, glorified, even fantasised, female crime is not.
When women commit murder it is more disquieting and is accompanied by a sense of collective denial (Seal, 2010, p. 1). Women who commit murder are judged to have transgressed two sets of laws according to Jewkes (2004, p111); criminal law and the laws of nature, in Lloyd’s (1995) infamous words, such women are ‘doubly deviant and doubly damned’. Seal (2010, p. 1) explains, violence is an accepted attribute of most recognised masculinities, killing by women violates norms of femininity, such as nurturance, gentleness and social conformity. Marsh and Melville (2008, p. 76) state that there has always been and continues to be a widely held acceptance of common sense assumptions about female behaviour. They continue that the acceptable and stereotypical female norm is closely linked to women’s psychological makeup and biological purpose, and it is these essentialist assumptions that condemn women to differential treatment not only in the media but also within the criminal justice system.
Women who kill (Seal, 2010, p. 1) disturb culturally held notions not only of how women should behave but also of what woman is. Essentially women who kill trouble the masculine/feminine gender binary by transgressing its boundaries (Seal, 2010, p. 1). Jewkes (2004, p.133) asserts that in cases of women who kill vilification operates to displace them from society, to insist on their otherness, thereby avoiding the knowledge that she is produced by that society. Research by Chesney Lind (2006) supports this notion suggesting that gender stereotyping in criminality continues to permeate society with women who commit crimes, which violate gender stereotypes being given the most vicious journalistic treatment of all.
Exploring representation typologies
Previous research into media representations of women who commit murder indicate key stereotypical constructions that have limited the range of available representations to those which are disparaging and or disempowering (Seal, 2010, p. 6). Frigon (2006, cited by Seal 2010, p. 6) argues that there is an absence of language with which to articulate cases of women who kill. In particular, themes of sexuality, madness, and women as housewives and carers reoccur. Seal (2010, p 6) argues that this is unsurprising in the light of feminist criminology, which has explored how these discourse of womanhood are the ones that have governed the judgement, punishment and representation of criminal women.
Jewkes (2004) in her book Media and Crime identified seven standard stereotypical narratives typically used by the media to construct the image of women who commit serious crime. These will now be outlined below.
Sexuality and sexual deviance
Women who commit serious offences are already of news value by virtue of their relative rarity. Jewkes (2004, p. 113) notes that women offenders become even more newsworthy when they can be further marginalised by reference to their sexuality. Women’s sexual preference, their enjoyment of sex or their frigidity, have long been used to demonise them and justify their construction as ‘monsters’, even more so if the sexual preference of the woman in question is for other women.
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According to Jewkes (2004, p. 117) there is an inherent association between lesbianism and aggression that has led to the media attempting to explain violent female behaviour by way of lesbianism and attributes of masculinity. Seal (2010, p. 24) supports this argument stating that the tendency to masculinise women who kill is exacerbated in cases of women perceived as being lesbian or having lesbian tendencies.
Women who kill (Jewkes, 2004, p. 118) are subjected to intense scrutiny regarding their physical appearance and attractiveness, a fact that entirely reflects cultural attitudes towards women in everyday life. Wykes and Gunter (2004, p. 255) argue that aspects of femininity such as youth, slenderness, and decorativeness are much valued within society and the media, if the female offender does not conform to this tradition stereotype she is vilified by the media. However it appears that the female offender cannot win, as Jewkes (2004, p. 119) points out women who are conventionally attractive and therefore do conform to this stereotype are not spared vilification, often being presented as ‘femme fetales’ who are cold detached and morally vacuous. Gill (2007, p. 116) points out that unlike women, their male counterparts are rarely described or judged in terms of their physical appearance.
According to Jewkes (2004, p. 119) notions of femininity and domesticity are crucial factors in determining how to construct the image of women who kill. She argues that women offenders are frequently judged on their marital status, family background, and children. If it can be seen that women offenders are not conforming to Victorian inspired ideals of femininity and domesticity they are typically constructed as bad wives and mothers. By contrast, marital status, family background and children have little or no bearing on most cases involving male offenders whose conformity to conventional ideas of respectability rely on issues such as employment rather than factors such as marital status (Lloyd, 1995, p. 196).
Women who murder children represent only a tiny fraction of serious criminals, as a result of this rarity they frequently have a novelty value that guarantees media interest in them (Seal, 2010, p. 26). The bad mother narrative is so culturally pervasive that it is applied to virtually all cases of women who kill whether the woman responsible is an actual mother or not (Jewkes, 2004, p. 121). Marsh and Melville (2008, p. 184) argue that the culturally sanctioned code of femininity and womanhood is that women should nature and protect, not harm. It is a woman’s natural role as mother and carer that makes it difficult for society to accept that women can harm children. Men on the other hand (Jewkes, 2004, p. 132) are rarely described as bad fathers even when their victim is their own child.
Jewkes (2004, p. 123) argues that the representation of women who kill that prevails in the media originate from pagan mythology, Judaeo Christian theology and classical art and literature, these frequently invoke images of witches, evil temptress, harpies and fallen women to convey female wickedness. She argues that the representation of female offenders as mythical monsters serves only to depict them as less woman than monster. Monstrous images of women have become so firmly entrenched in popular consciousness that it has become almost impossible to view any woman who kills as a real woman. Men however, according to Seal (2010, p. 75), are rarely given the same mythical motifs as females even though their crimes and or even themselves may be described as monstrous.
Seal (2010, p. 50) suggests that the criminal justice system, the media and society generally find it hard to accept that a woman has committed violent or heinous offences unless she can be categorised as a deluded lunatic or unstable hysteric. She argues along with Jewkes (2004, p 126) that there is an historical tendency to describe women’s violence with explanations that rely on notions of female pathology, particularly in relation to faulty biology. This it is argued, (Seal 2010, p. 50, Jewkes, 2004 p. 126) serves to reduce the responsibility of the woman for the deviant act. Jewkes (2004, p. 127) argues that men meanwhile are regarded as rational agents, ruled by their heads not their biology and are therefore less likely to be described in terms of madness.
Women who collude with their partners in killing are problematic for the popular media who seek to communicate their actions to the rest of society (Jewkes, 2004, p. 128). The media’s solution to women who appear to be equal partners, or at least go along with the crime unquestioningly is to place the burden of guilt on their shoulders. Morrissey (2003, p. 152) argues that the women’s involvement in the crime will be exaggerated in the press causing the female to be vilified to a greater extent. She argues that the press relies on the notion that although the male may be a sadistic man capable of extreme cruelty he would never act without a submissive woman. It is only together that they become a ‘lethal pair’. Jewkes (2004, p. 128) argues that the female of the pair is deemed more culpable as she is instrumental in unleashing the violence and depravity that the male has thus far contained. It is the female who has let down the victim as she failed to stop the crime, she should have shown compassion (Jewkes, 2004, p. 128).
From the search of the literature pertaining to women’s violence and the ways in which women’s violence is represented it is becoming clear that the news media’s aim and role is not simply to inform and educate the public (Burton, 2010, p. 8). The news media and society at large are not ready to confront the reality that women can be cruel, sadistic, and violent. The simple truth that men are more aggressive than women encourages a widespread cultural ignorance of the fact that women have the potential for violence and that women can kill as women (Jewkes, 2004, p. 129).
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