Five mothers in a wealthy California enclave cover up the murder of an abusive spouse, reckoning with their roles as wives and caretakers. A group of girls investigate their missing friend’s murder, only to become stalking victims and killers themselves. A female MI5 investigator tracks down an assassin, and soon, the two become obsessed with each other. Three women living across three different decades experience betrayal and the temptation to murder. These are some of the most compelling concepts on television. What do they have in common? Women who kill.
There is no denying that our culture is fascinated with killers — who they are, why they do it, how they do it — but the most interesting piece of this fascination is how uniquely invested we are if the killer is a woman. We feel shocked — almost betrayed by the idea that a woman could commit such a crime. Or do we? What if these stories speak to something deep within us, acting as a proxy to access rage that has long been simmering? Inspired by the premiere of CBS All Access' new darkly comedic show Why Women Kill, we examined why audiences gravitate toward stories about lethal women.
“Violence is often seen as a heroic attribute of masculinity,” says Jane Caputi, professor of women, gender, and sexuality studies at Florida Atlantic University. “Whereas when a woman is violent, she is almost always seen as evil.” The femme fatale is a good example of this. For decades, powerful, lethal women were characterized as temptresses who exist to entice and then destroy the male protagonist, Dr. Caputi says. But it’s an outdated trope. In the 1970s, the female avenger character emerged. “This has been going on for decades,” she says, noting that these narratives tend to come in waves, following the tide of our national conversation.
“We have a culture that has always celebrated male violence, particularly vigilante violence,” says Soraya Chemaly, author of Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger. “A lot of our superhero stories are vigilante stories and they glorify that phenomenal, explosive, violent power, but in fact, when women in real life act that way in their self-defense, they are disproportionately punished by judicial systems, and that’s true all over the world.” She cites the case of a Florida woman convicted of aggravated assault charges after firing a warning shot at her abusive husband and the case of a Turkish woman who received life in prison for beheading her rapist. “In actuality, there is a strong cultural prohibition on women acting violently and what that violence represents. I think it’s interesting [that by watching shows about female killers], women are exploring violence in a medium in which the punishment cannot be exercised on them. It’s an imaginative exercise.”
This imaginative exercise is not limited to the audiences viewing these narratives, either; as Chemaly notes, “There’s a whole ecology to it.” Oftentimes, there are women reflecting upon their own latent rage during the production of television shows (writers, directors, actresses, producers) and the promotion (publicists, journalists, television hosts) in addition to the legions of viewers. “What we’re seeing with this explosion among women is not just an interest in violence, per se, but an interest in violence as retribution,” she says, “and violence that doesn’t just mimic the tropes of masculine violence.”
We have been in the age of the anti-hero, and I think we’re seeing that shift towards an age of an anti-heroine.
Rachel Monroe, the author of the forthcoming book Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession (out August 20), also believes we’re seeing more female crime narratives as a result of the current political climate. “We have been in the age of the anti-hero, and I think we’re seeing that shift towards an age of an anti-heroine,” she says. “In some ways, you could say it’s a certain kind of glass ceiling that’s being broken, that women can be just as evil as men.”
Savage Appetites focuses on true stories of women and crime (plus why the true crime industry is driven mostly by female fans). Monroe says audiences often gravitate towards thrillers for the same reason we like to follow IRL crime stories. “Sometimes these crime stories function almost as modern-day fables or fairytales, and when we pretend we’re talking about a particular case, we’re actually working through other issues or questions, on an individual level or a societal level,” Monroe says. Like any other narrative, crime stories allow women to identify with characters and empathize with them, whether they’re the detective, the victim, the defender, or even the killer. “There are so many taboos against women expressing anger and outrage, and so I think these stories are a way of talking about those things. It’s harder for me to talk about my anger about, say, being passed over at work, but I can talk about this woman who stabbed her husband to death as a kind of proxy for accessing my own rage, which is unacceptable in some ways.”
The Female Killer
In real life, it’s highly unlikely for a woman to commit murder. Only one in six homicides are carried out by women, according to Marissa A. Harrison, associate professor of psychology at Penn State Harrisburg. That’s one of the reasons the female killer works so well as a metaphor: She is exceedingly rare.
Dr. Harrison is the author of the widely cited studies, “Female Serial Killers In The United States: Means, Motives, and Makings,” and “Sex Differences In Serial Killers,” which are among the first to dive into the differences between men and women who kill. She and her co-authors have created a profile of the “typical” female murderer: a white, middle-class, married woman in her 20s or 30s, likely of average intelligence. “When religion was reported, 100% of the time she was Christian,” Dr. Harrison says. Our killer probably cares for children or the elderly — giving her easy access to potential victims — and there’s at least a 40% chance she suffers from a form of mental illness like depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. She’s also probably attractive. “That might be why they get away with it,” Dr. Harrison says, “because who wants to look at a beautiful woman and say, wow, she just shot somebody in the face?”
Wouldn’t you watch a TV show about this woman? She sounds like a homecoming queen who snapped. “Take that shiny veneer off a human being and we all have some kind of drive within us, good or bad,” Dr. Harrison says.
Though many female killers — in real life — commit disturbing crimes against children or the elderly, Dr. Harrison uncovered one trend that’s catnip for Hollywood. “Typically, female serial killers will poison, and we found the most common reason to be for money,” she says. “Marry husband after husband, poison them, take their insurance policy, find another husband. I’m confident that’s a real thing.”
The Rumor Mill
Both in real life and on-screen, Monroe says, there’s a link between female killers and sex, and the judgment associated with being a transgressive woman. According to her, crime narratives about female killers “give audiences a chance to pry into people’s private lives and judge them. You see this a lot when women are victims or perpetrators — there’s this obsessive focus on [their] sex lives, as if that’s going to tell us something about the [murder].” When you’re following a real case, it’s common to seek out biographical information about the accused — what she does for a living and who she dates and how she dresses. It’s easy to justify one’s obsession with a female killer, Monroe notes, “because there’s a court case involved, it’s like, ‘No, I'm trying to solve the crime,’ but it plays into those same desires to police and judge and evaluate women’s behaviors I think. Whether it’s a crime that you commit or a crime that someone commits against you, both open you up to scrutiny and criticism of your sex life or anything that might be an indicator of your sex life.” This harkens back to the femme fatale and has never been part of male murder narratives.
Done Being The Victim
If you’ve ever seen a horror movie, there’s a good chance you’ve watched a woman’s murder unfold on-screen. If you’ve watched a certain long-running crime show, you’ve watched investigators belabor over rape cases. The “dead girl” trope has a long, rich history in film and television, and though it’s undoubtedly reductive, Chemaly believes some women actually identify with it.
“In some ways, what women are absorbing is the fact of violence against women and the fact that they don’t have to consider it alone anymore,” she says. “For a lot of women who have lived silently with the cost of this world, actually seeing people talk about it and experience it or fight it or be part of the recognition of it, I think, makes a cultural difference.”
For years, women have absorbed both violence and microaggressions as facts of their existence. But over the last five years, violence against women has been increasing, according to Chemaly. So has awareness about how social policies affect women’s autonomy, awareness of the judicial system’s bias against women, and awareness of the threats posed by technology — like revenge porn, for example. “Whether or not you think of the threat of rape as terroristic in the political sense, all this other violence — whether it’s ICE raids or anti-trans violence — is escalating, and I think women are aware of that,” Chemaly says. “One of the ways of processing those concerns is to consume it as entertainment, to neutralize it. It’s almost like the difference between a scary movie and actual danger. People who love horror movies love the feeling of being scared but knowing they’re not in danger. And I think there’s a similar dynamic happening here,” when women see themselves in characters who are victims of oppression.
There are more threats towards women than ever, and at the same time, we’re seeing more and more content about women fighting back. Is that a coincidence? Maybe. Maybe not.
“We often use crime stories as a way to talk in coded or unconscious ways about what’s permissible and what’s not permissible, what’s okay and what’s not okay, what kind of behavior gets you in trouble and what keeps you safe, and that sort of judgment and policing has tended to fall more heavily on women,” says Monroe. Our society expects women to be nurturers, not murderers.
Men, Women & The Way Forward
But watching television shows where women act upon their rage doesn’t change the big picture. At the end of the day, when many women turn off the TV, they’re living with their oppressors. Women in heterosexual relationships live in “close intimacy and emotional entanglement with the people who benefit from their oppression,” Chemaly says. “There is very little else that is comparable to the nature of that oppression, and the degree to which that oppression is an active component of identity formation for men, because the ideal of men providing and protecting is only possible if women are vulnerable.”
Ultimately, Chemaly says, “for women to confront that vulnerability means that men’s identities have to change.”