Macabre DesiresWhat Lady Killers In Pop Culture Teach Us About Ourselves

Twelve years ago, Rose McGowan told director Robert Rodriguez that she’d been assaulted by Harvey Weinstein. It inspired him to cast her in Planet Terror as a “badass female action heroine who loses her leg and transforms into a superhero that rights wrongs, battles adversity, mows down rapists, and survives an apocalypse to lead the lost to a land of hope.” Recently, Rodriguez revealed that he and McGowan were using art to send a clear message to Weinstein and make a broader statement: Women are not victims, and men who violate them will pay.

In Lady Killers: Deadly Women Throughout History, journalist Tori Telfer affirms this message by chronicling the motives of 14 murderous women. She begins with Erzsébet Báthory, a 16th-century Hungarian countess who allegedly tortured and killed hundreds of people. For perspective, John Wayne Gacy supposedly killed at least 33 victims. Yet it’s his name and crimes that haunt our dreams. While Aileen Wuornos is credited for ushering in the very idea that women can be serial killers, Telfer’s book covers crimes committed before 1950. Her historical account of female killers negates the belief that female aggression is a recent phenomenon.

“When we only talk about male serial killers, we’re missing out on an important piece of information about our own world,” Telfer said in an email. “We get the idea that violence is an exclusively male thing. We get a warped perspective of our own nature and culture. There have always been violent women. People have always ignored them, not taken them seriously, or forgotten about them after they’re locked up. In the 1998 book When She Was Bad: Violent Women and the Myth of Innocence, Patricia Pearson calls this our ‘collective amnesia’ about female violence. Though women are so often treated as powerless, that’s never been the whole story.”

Lady Killers: Deadly Women Throughout History book cover and Tori TelferLady Killers: Deadly Women Throughout History book cover and Tori Telfer (Photo credits: HarperCollins/Marcy Capron Vermillion)

From childhood, girls are outfitted with “gender straitjackets” that portray them as weak and in need of protection, according to September study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health. Girls begin internalizing these stereotypes between the ages of 10 and 14, and it leads to lifelong consequences, including greater risks of dropping out of school, suffering physical and sexual violence, getting pregnant before they’re ready, and contracting sexually transmitted diseases. The researchers also found that these gendered restrictions emphasize subservience among girls, and justifies violence against them as punishment for not following “the rules.”

Lady Killers works to reverse some of this harmful stereotyping by showing women who not only buck the label of victim, but also invoke fear. Mary Ann Cotton, a young wife and mother, killed her husbands and children in the late 1800s. She allegedly murdered three of her four husbands, and at least 11 of her approximately 13 children. When she died, she couldn’t remember the exact number of children she birthed. History tells us that women are as capable of taking lives, as they are of creating them. Yet, Hollywood continues to feed us the damaging stereotype that women are only exclusively victims, but never killers.

Consider Kim (Maggie Grace), the teen victim in Taken. She’s used as rope in a game of tug-of-war between her father and a sex-trafficking ring. In The Accountant, Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick) screams and cowers behind Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck), but never takes her destiny into her own hands.Then there are the women of the Jason Bourne series, who almost always end up dead. It’s even demoralizing when women are able to defend themselves only after they’ve been (usually sexually) violated. In order for Slim (Jennifer Lopez) in Enough, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) in The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo, and The Bride (Uma Thurman) in Kill Bill Vol. 1 to be capable of lethal force, they were first baptized as victims. When movies place such qualifiers on women’s violence, they reinforce sexist ideals of violence.

Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos in MonsterCharlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos in Monster (Photo credit: Newmarket Films)

“There’s something to be said for acknowledging female aggression,” Telfer said. “Even when it’s sick and twisted. Any woman who’s ever felt perpetually underestimated by the world understands how morbidly cathartic it can be when the villain or killer is a woman. In the academic text Gendered Lives, Julia T. Wood argues that this constant exposure [to women as victims] trains us to believe that violence against females is inevitable. That getting hacked to pieces is simply the inescapable fate of women.”

Perhaps that’s why Hela (Cate Blanchett) and Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) were so enjoyable to watch in Thor: Ragnarok. Hela kills with a smile on her face, which made me curious to see how much she could destroy in a movie about Thor (Chris Hemsworth). With a 92 percent fresh Rotten Tomatoes rating and a $294 million box office, Thor: Ragnarok shows that there is a desire to see women step out of typecasted roles as whimpering cowards. Hollywood has explored the idea that women can be violent: Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) in Terminator, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Alien and Lara Croft (Angelina Jolie) in Tomb Raider paved the way for female killers who aren’t fueled by the trauma of sexual assault. They throw punches, wield firearms with confidence, and don’t outsource their salvation to men. They are their own heroes, and don’t worry about being rude or “unladylike.” And it happens without them first being victimized.

Now, we have killers, including Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) in Game of Thrones, Mallory Kane (Gina Carano) in Haywire, Laura (Dafne Keen) in Logan, Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, and the women of the Fast and Furious franchise. These lady killers are a reminder that power is possible without trauma; their strength comes from a willingness to embrace qualities—strength, violence, musculature—generally associated only with men. While fictional, their onscreen presence deconstructs the belief that women are inferior to men and helps to normalize female aggression.

Uma Thurman as The Bride in Kill Bill Volume 1Uma Thurman as The Bride in Kill Bill Vol. 1 (Photo credit: Miramax)

“We tend to see women killers very differently than male killers, particularly through a sexist lens,” writes Paul Booth, media and cinema studies professor at DePaul University, in an email. “Women killers are typically associated with family and children.” The “mother monster” trope turns mothers—or women who want children, but can’t have them—into evil killers. Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in The Avengers franchise and Clementine (Laura Dern) in The Good Time Girls are perfect examples of how the trope manifests onscreen. The “mother monster” illustrates our fear of women who don’t nurture, according to Booth: “It’s hard to escape the sexist stereotypes of motherhood and womanhood in our media, even when looking at villains. “The danger lies in thinking all women are or want to be mothers.”

Lady Killers highlights this lack of nurture in women like Nannie Doss, who killed four husbands, two children, two sisters, her mother, a grandson, and a mother-in-law for no clear reason. It wasn’t revenge; she simply submitted to her macabre desires. Not all women are invested in being doting, caring, and nurturing mothers and wives. Believing otherwise allowed Doss’s nefarious actions to go undetected for years. We don’t have to imagine a world where women are stripped of their self-esteem before fighting back; many of us already live that reality. Instead, it’s crucial to build worlds where women, like Charlize Theron and Petty Jenkins, are free to depict female rage onscreen.

After winning an Oscar for 2004’s Monster, the biopic of serial killer Aileen Wuornos, Theron has taken on other roles that allow her to embody a remorseless a villain. Since Monster, she’s starred in The Huntsman: Winter’s War; The Fate of the Furious; Mad Max: Fury Road; and, most recently Atomic Blonde—all roles that don’t center her characters’ experience of trauma as a prerequisite of fighting and killing. Jenkins, who directed Monster, has since taken the helm of Wonder Woman, the ultimate female warrior movie. It isn’t farfetched to assume that bringing Wuornos’ story to life inspired both women. Immersing themselves in her life gave them a close-up look at an uncommon narrative: Women wielding the same terrible power as men so often do.

It might sound perverse, but seeing women as killers helps us collectively see them as human, capable of being both the executed and the executioner. As progressive as Lady Killers is, the “gender straitjackets” study shows that we are still raising young girls with the harmful belief that they are weaker than boys. Lady Killers serves as a warning against underestimating women, and a reminder of what can happen in a society that does. The topic might not be pleasant, but it’s a crucial component in the fight for equality. “We might think that an impoverished, serial-killing mother from a small town in 1800s England could not be more different than us and has nothing to teach us—but we’d be wrong,” Telfer concludes. “Studying human nature is an invaluable pursuit, and we can’t just study people who do good things. We gotta look at the bad ones, too. In my experience, reading about serial killers always ends up teaching you something about yourself.” 

by Ximena N. Larkin
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Ximena N. Larkin is a writer and publicist who lives in Chicago. Catch her #BarackingAround.

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