Moviegoers are often captivated by Hollywood fatal Woman, portrayed as both seductive and dangerous. But when real-life headlines of women accused of murder emerge, many would-be jurors question the likelihood of a woman being capable of murdering her partner, believing there must be more to the story. Is there?
Media portrayals of dangerous women
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I have prosecuted women for domestic violence throughout my career as a prosecutor. The researchers corroborated the reality that I witnessed firsthand: the real cases are often very different from what is portrayed in the media.
Kellie E. Carlyle et al. (2014) explored this issue in an article aptly titled “Media Representations of Female Perpetrators of Intimate Partner Violence”.I Recognizing intimate partner violence (IPV) as a public health priority, they sought to understand how media representations of IPV impact public policy and public opinion, acknowledging that these views are also relevant to prevention efforts.
Carlyle et al. noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines IPV as “physical, sexual, or psychological harm caused by a current or former partner or spouse” that may occur “in heterosexual or same-sex couples and does not require sexual intimacy”. Their research analyzed depictions of IPV in newspaper articles over two years and revealed some very important insights.
women who kill
Carlyle et al. cited the case of defendant Jodi Arias, who was accused of killing her boyfriend, Travis Alexander, in June 2008. He was found with multiple stab wounds, a slit throat and a bullet to the head . Although Arias claimed self-defense and her defense team described her as the victim of a “controlling and psychologically abusive relationship”, a jury found her guilty of first-degree murder.
The sensational media coverage surrounding the Arias trial has reinvigorated public debate about how the media portrays female perpetrators of IPV, and Carlyle et al. sought to investigate the impact of these depictions on public perception.
The role of gender stereotypes
In examining the role of gender, Carlyle et al. found that when examining the potential motivator behind IPV as presented in news stories, articles with female abusers were more likely to also include motives involving self-defense, victim infidelity, money and emotional distress. They noted that these reasons involve gender stereotypes and themes. For example, they note that women are often stereotyped as being violent because they are overly emotional and prone to react “in the heat of passion.”
They acknowledged another idea that has infiltrated the gender symmetry debate is the notion that women react aggressively to male violence or that a couple engages in reciprocal violence. Carlyle et al. acknowledged that there is a large body of research supporting the reality of reciprocal intimate partner violence and acknowledge the speculation surrounding an aggressive woman having experienced domestic violence in the past – what they note is not not unreasonable.
They also pointed out, however, that such speculation could indicate a tendency to explain why a woman is violent, whereas male violence could be understood to reflect the nature of a man.
Carlyle et al. also noted that stories about female abusers more often included a criminal history than for male abusers – which they suggested could indicate a tendency to explain a woman’s aggressive behavior by establishing her tendency towards violence, l establishing as something other than a “typical” woman.
Some people are just dangerous
Carlyle et al. noted that their findings indicate that women can become violent in circumstances other than self-defense, supporting the idea that some women might simply be violent in nature.
They concluded that women are capable of extreme violence just like men, challenging the notion of gender symmetry. At the end of the line ? We need to be alert to the red flags of violent tendencies in both men and women, hopefully as early as possible in a relationship, to intervene effectively.