Media images influence individuals in a powerful way and media images are everywhere in modern society

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Revenge, Greed, Passion and Murder:

Film Representations of Women Who Kill
By Natasha Uffner

Social construction theorists find that the media socially constructs the images of individuals, including criminals. Given the media attention to several high profile cases of female murderers (e.g. Susan Smith, Andrea Yates), this study analyzes how women murderers are socially constructed in film and compares these constructs to actual statistics. Using a content analysis of eight films from the 1940s and the 1990s, this study focused on the characteristics surrounding the individual murder and the female murderer. Overall, this study found that the images constructed by films do not give an accurate representation of women murderers. Instead, films over-represent white, heterosexual, single women.
Media images are ubiquitous in modern society. Sociologists recognize that the creators of the media images embed cultural meanings, including gendered images, into each media product. These gendered images are then reproduced throughout the world.

The media constructs criminals to be the least offensive to a broad audience. High profile cases are highlighted in the news, giving audiences false impressions of who criminals are. The purpose of this paper is to analyze how women murderers are constructed in media, specifically in film. The data collected from this analysis of films is then compared to statistics on women murderers.

Pollak (1950) argues that most criminologists have ignored the evidence regarding the involvement of women in crime because women were assumed to not be violent. Pollak (1950) claims that due to the social role our culture assigns to each gender, women have traditionally been removed from any connections to a criminal act. Despite disregard for women in criminal activities, Ramsland (2005) found that 88% of serial crimes involve women.

According to Steffensmeier and Allan (1996), female crime participation is highest for crimes that correspond with traditional social norms, thus women have more opportunities to commit such crimes. For example, Steffensmeier and Allan (1996) found that women tend to commit property crimes in order to protect their family and loved ones, and when a woman is involved in a crime as a man’s partner, the woman usually fulfills a role that reinforces traditional subordination to men.

Chesney-Lind (1997) argues that the gendered nature of a girl’s environment, particularly her experience as a marginalized youth in a low income community, effects her pathway into crime and violence. Angel (2001) found that murderers often have experienced abusive childhoods. Furthermore, girls are just as capable as boys of acting out their rage and becoming deviant, although they usually have different motives for murdering (Angel, 2001). An example of motive for a girl might be self defense or protecting her child.

The phenomenon of violent women is ignored in society in general yet simultaneously sensationalized in the media. Women homicide offenders are frequently portrayed in films and television as monsters or psychos. Leighton (2005) states that the fascination of women murderers involves the inevitability of femininity collapsing into criminality. Women who murder are often not often recognized as legitimate criminals but tend to be portrayed as accomplices or victims of men’s persuasion. Students of WMNS 36 (2005) argue that women criminals in the media are presented as insane more often than men.

Dominick (1973) found that television over-represents violent crimes directed at individuals and that violent crimes between family members are under-represented on television. Because a TV criminal serves a social function, criminals tend to be portrayed as young adult, white, middle class males to prevent accusations that the criminal’s representation is racially offensive (Dominick 1973). Barok (1995) found that TV crime news is oversimplified and has been reduced to stereotyping that socially constructs criminals and victims in subtle and not so subtle ways. Ferrel and Websdale (1999) found that the overarching media construction of a violent woman is a woman masculinized by some form of “emancipation” that casts women out of the ranks of “true womanhood.”

In films, women who kill are portrayed in a variety of ways. Bailey and Hale (2004: 228) give examples of women who kill portrayed as “innocently destructive,” defending herself, taking up weapons to protect her family or country, hard-bodied, and women “who plot, scheme, and kill with malice aforethought.” Bailey and Hale (2004: 229-230) found that “the fatale begins to border on caricature in 90s cinema…Long gone is the ‘nurturing woman’, representing a wholesome alternative in classic noir”. When a woman kills, she is constructed in some films to have mental health issues or her evil destructiveness is thought to be inherited (Bailey and Hale 2004). Bailey and Hale (2004: 231) argue that Hollywood’s constructions of deadly females are often represented “as sexually ambivalent or overtly lesbian.” Bailey and Hale present the debate of whether films with strong women characters are empowering women in the audience or if the films are Hollywood’s new technique to cater to a male perspective on violence. They argue that women who kill often have to tell their stories in a way that is scripted to fit certain stereotypical assumptions of gender. This story telling can be beneficial to some women but poor or non-white women do not have this benefit due to their inability to tell their story fluently or because of their social status.

The purpose of this study is to evaluate how the socially constructed images of women murderers in films has changed over time, and Goffman’s theory on gendered advertisements can inform this analysis.
Goffman ON Gender IMAGES
In Gender Advertisement (1976), Goffman focused on women’s images in advertisements to describe the ways women are pictured and what the poses reveal about American cultural beliefs. Gestures, expressions, and posture create a background that reveals embedded cultural values. Human capacity to reframe media behavior complicates the way individuals display themselves. Goffman (1976: vii) argued that the purpose of the images in the advertisements is “convincing us that this is how men and women are, or want to be, or should be, not only in relation to themselves but in relation to each other.” Goffman held that people see the images of men and women in advertisements and then transfer socially constructed images into real societal behavior.

Goffman analyzed specific aspects of advertisements including body parts, sizes in relation to other people present in the ad, and how the model is positioned in order to analyze social power. One way that power is depicted in advertisements is through relative size—a man’s power is shown by placing him in a way that emphasizes his bigger physique in relation to women in an ad. Relative size makes it clear in advertisements who has the power. When women are depicted as taller then men, Goffman found it is because the woman is superior in social status when compared to the man.

When analyzing specific social situations in advertisements, Goffman found that men are typically positioned as the instructor while women and children are shown as being instructed. When families are depicted, it is often in a balanced manner so that there is an equal number of women/girls and men/boys, but men are likely to be shown standing on the outside of a family group to reinforce his position as the protector. Goffman found that women tend to be pictured as child-like; women look and act like children and often wear a smile on their faces. Men wear clothes in a serious manner while women appear to be dressing up for play time.

Goffman argued that the difference in the portrayal between men and women in advertisements affects the way people act in their real social surroundings. Every individual learns to perform a gendered persona so that when the social identity is read by others, they know to interact with the individual. Among the styles of identification described by Goffman (1976:2) are hair style, gender, clothes, tone of voice, and handwriting. The styles of identification are modified as the situation changes. Since styles are consciously performed, each individual chooses which style he or she wishes to display. Thus, advertisements help to determine the range of styles an individual has to choose from.

For Goffman, gendered expressions are socially learned and socially patterned. Expressions of the self may seem to be spur of the moment and genuine, but the expressions are really socially predetermined to happen in set ways. Individuals have been socialized to view gender as a particular set of patterned behaviors, and they seek to validate their expectations and ideas of gender performance when interacting with others. “Given our stereotypes of femininity, a particular woman will find the way has been cleared to fall back on the situation of her entire sex to account to herself for why she should refrain from vying with men in matters mechanical, financial, political, and so forth” (Goffman 1976:8). According to Goffman (1976:8), “one might just as well say there is no gender identity. There is only a schedule for the portrayal of gender….And what these portraits most directly tell us about is…the special character and functioning of portraiture.” For a woman to move beyond a typical “women’s area” means challenging a gendered social structure.

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