Book Review: When Women Kill: Questions of Agency and Subjectivity

Published date01 September 2005
Date01 September 2005
Subject MatterArticles
When Women Kill: Questions of Agency and Subjectivity, by Belinda Morrissey. New York:
Routledge, 2003. 213 pp.
DOI: 10.1177/0734016805282758
This is a very interesting book. Using a case study approach, it details the cases of female
killers. The cases provide the author with a context within which to explore questions of
agency and subjectivity.The cases presented are those of Aileen Wuornos, the “lesbian serial
killer” and/or the “world’s first female serial killer”; the separate cases of Pamela Sainsbury
and Erika Kontinnen, both of whom relied on battered woman syndrome for their defenses;
the case of Tracey Wiggington,“the notorious lesbian vampire killer”; and the separate cases
of Karla Homolka and Valmae Beck, who with their husbands were sentenced to prison for
their parts in the kidnap, rape, and murder of young girls and women—in the case of Valmae
Beck, one young girl, 12-year-old Sian Kingi.
Women who murder are deemed generally, the author writes, beyond the pale, outside
humanity, unrecuperable. The case studies are presented in the form of a continuum of cases
of women who kill, from the most recuperable to the least. In presenting the cases, the author
attempts to develop new models of subjectivity for violent women, models based primarily
on the agency of the individual women. The hypothesis is that female actions, violent and
nonviolent, may be read as intentional and legitimate responses to personal and structural
forces. The debate is between agency and structure. The question is to what extent an individ-
ual is free to shape her own actions and to what extent an individual’s actions are shaped for
her by her personal, political, economic, and ideological circumstances.
The author states her aim as being expressly political in that she wishes to provoke differ-
ent understandings of female violence and agency from those currently relied on in the dis-
courses under study. Only two discourses are considered; they are legal and media dis-
courses. The model of subject constitution employed in the book, drawing on the theories of
Seyla Braidotti (1992) and Judith Butler (1993), argues that narratives are positioned and
constructed through the constraints and enablements of the discourses in which they are
located. To support her case for, as she says, new agentic models in the discourses represent-
ing women who kill, Morrissey details the manner in which, within legal and media dis-
courses, problematic models of women’s subjectivities are constructed and presented. The
discursive strategies used in such constructions and presentations are, she writes, those of
victimology, vilification, monsterization, and mythification, all of which she believes deny
female agency or insist that the protagonist has lost her humanity. The discourses examined
are said to draw on culturally based conventional stock stories that present stereotypical or
mythical characters embodying polarized traits that are negative or positive,commendable or
condemnable. Morrissey writes that within the stock stories, for example in victimized repre-
sentations of battered women, the women are effectively pathologized and reduced to
nonintentional codependents, whereas within vilifying representations such as those of the
vampire lesbian and the sexual sadists, the women are presented as wicked, evil, and
Morrissey does acknowledge women’s oppression within patriarchy and the possibility
that her reading of the cases presented excludes the possibilities of other readings that might
stress female killers’ victimization, circumstances, or structural inequities. She also high-
lights the line between victimization and criminalization, which she suggests leads to women
bearing little or no responsibility for their actions. What, I ask, of the line between vilification
230 Criminal Justice Review

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