This is a preprint of the following publication:
Patricia Easteal, Lorana Bartels, Kate Holland and Noni Nelson (2015) How Women
who Kill are Portrayed in Newspaper Media? Connections with Social Values and the
Legal System Women Studies International Forum 51: 31–41.
How Women Who Kill Are Portrayed in Newspaper Media?
Connections with Social Values and the Legal System
Framing and language have been identified as important in shaping media portrayals of
women (Bullock, 2007; Jewkes, 2002, p. 1423-1429). Importantly, these can both
contribute to the ‘production of myths’ (West, 2004-2005, p. 1, 5) and be influenced by
stereotypes and mythology (Mead, 1997, p. 6). For example, feminist theorists have
noted that ‘representations of violence against women may in fact reflect the media’s
ambivalence toward feminism and a tendency to reflect an uneasy coalition of
patriarchal values and the language of empowerment’ (Easteal, Holland and Judd
2015: 106, discussing Mendes 2012 and Walter 2010).
In this review article, we consider whether such patriarchal values and myths also
translate into the representation of women who kill. It has been suggested that, in
breaking the law, female offenders are ‘doubly deviant’ (Naylor, 1990, p. 4; see
Collins, 2014, p. 11; Weatherby et al, 2008) because they breach general social
expectations as well as transgress appropriate feminine behaviour (Berrington &
Honkatukia, 2002, p. 50). In other words, gendered ideals of behaviour derived from
cultural ideas about femininity (Brennan & Vandenberg, 2009, p. 144) do not include
the commission of crime. As Easteal has noted,
the woman who commits a crime is perceived as having
perpetrated an act that is diametrically in opposition to the
traditional characterisation of her sex as gentle, nurturing and
angelical. She is far closer to the ‘whore’, the ‘bad’ woman
end of the scale, since her behaviour is deviating from the
‘natural’ feminine traits (2001, p. 22).
Accordingly, women who kill are extra deviant. Violence is incompatible with our
conception of ‘good’ women who are nurturing and emotional mothers and/or passive
and cooperative wives (see Brennan, 2002; Huckerby, 2003; Naylor, 1990). Therefore,
a woman who kills ‘profoundly challenges deeply held assumptions about women and
their capacity to nurture others’ (Storrs, 2004, p. 9, 12). Whiteley recently completed
her doctoral research on Australian women incarcerated for murder in Australia and
Despite the significant contributions to the understanding of
the phenomenon of a woman who kills, the gravitation to
demonise what the western world cannot adequately account
for continues. The act of murder by a woman stands opposed
to the essential nature of womanhood as realised through the
discourse of normative femininity (2012, p. 36).
Unsurprisingly, media discourse tends to present female perpetrators as emotionally
unstable or insane (Barnett, 2005; Farr, 2000); evil manipulators (Berrington &
Honkatukia, 2002; Wilczynski, 1991, p. 71); victims of domestic abuse (Jewkes, 2004;
Morrissey, 2003); sexual deviants (Berrington & Honkatukia, 2002; Farr, 2000); bad
mothers and wives (Barnett, 2005; Berrington & Honkatukia, 2002; Huckerby, 2003;
Naylor, 1990; Morrissey, 2003); and ‘non-agents’ (Morrissey, 2003). These
representations uphold ‘feminine norms by constructing female criminality in terms of
gender deviance’ (Lin, 2012, p. 2-3; see also Skilbrei, 2012, p. 136-141; Kerry, 2011,
p. 263, 271).
Deviance can be correlated with ‘badness’ or ‘madness’ caused by female hormones or
disordered reproductive systems, and has more recently been linked to ‘sadness’ in the
context of victims of violence (Easteal, 2002, p. 22). In each instance, some external
factor is related in the story that explains the criminal behavior of women who are not
classified as ‘bad’. They may be depicted as ‘victims of circumstance’, with criminal
behavior linked to a biological malady or a medical condition (Barnett, 2005). In
contrast to the ‘bad’ women, the narrative for these ‘mad’ or ‘sad’ women is more
likely to include the offender’s feminine appearance (Berrington & Honkatukia, 2002),
a story that frames their act within an adherence to traditional female traits and
fulfillment of domestic responsibilities and/or as sexually and religiously pure (Barnett,
2005; Berrington & Honkatukia, 2002; Farr, 2009; Huckerby, 2003; Naylor, 1990; and
Thus, it seems that women who commit murder are, in some way, portrayed as an
aberration of true womanhood: ‘man-hating, lesbian vampire, demented castrator,
unnatural mother’ (Creed, in Greenwood, 1996, p. 120) or ‘drug addict, prostitute,
welfare recipient’ (Farr, 2009, p. 62) or as a victim herself (Jewkes, 2004). According
to Maras, ‘these typologies force women into categories, which they often do not fit
into’, creating ‘a seemingly general profile of a woman murderer, which relies on
gendered assumptions about women and the motives behind their crimes’ (2014, p.
In this article, we provide an overview of the vast literature that has examined media
reporting of women who kill and we consider whether or not portrayals vary according
to the relationship of the offender to her victim. We therefore structure our review on
the basis of the woman’s relationship to her victim, namely, women who kill a violent
partner, women who commit filicide, and women who kill a non-family member.
Many of the studies we review draw upon the concept of framing to describe the role
media reporting plays in emphasising some aspects of cases of women who kill while
obscuring from view other pertinent factors. We understand frames as being embedded
in the symbolic environment and thus available for journalists and other social actors to
draw upon in making sense of social issues (Reese, 2007; Van Gorp, 2007). Van Gorp
observes that individuals ‘connect the framing devices in a news story with cultural
phenomena because they are already familiar with them’ (2007, p. 63). Thus, by
invoking a particular cultural theme ‘frames can determine which meaning the receiver
attaches to an issue’ (p. 63). Media provides an important source from which members
of the community, such as jurors, form their views about legal issues and through
which legal and law enforcement professionals seek to advance their preferred frames.
It is important, therefore, to closely examine the prevailing narrative when reporting on
women who kill. As Chesney-Lind and Eliason have observed:
Both the media and the criminal justice system play crucial and
complementary roles in the control of women. Popular media
masculinize and demonize a few women, effectively casting
them out of the ‘protected’ sphere of femininity, while
celebrating the presumed passivity of the rest of womanhood.
The criminal justice system steps in, both ratifying and
enforcing the gender order, along with the racial, sexual and
class order, through its processing and punishment regimes
(2006, p. 29, 43).
When women are portrayed as ‘bad’, they are framed as responsible for their actions
and therefore deserving of punishment (Brennan & Vandenberg, 2009, p. 145).
Alternatively, if the ‘story’ is about madness or victimisation, it is likely that sympathy
is engendered and may lead to the view that such ‘women should not be punished for
their criminal actions’ (Brennan & Vandenberg, 2009, p. 146) or punished more
leniently. Are legal processes and outcomes affected? We conclude by theorising about
these and other potential connections between media, society and law.
NARRATIVES ABOUT WOMEN WHO KILL A (VIOLENT) PARTNER
Our analysis indicates that prevailing media representations of women who kill their
violent partner depict them as lacking agency. Thus, one study of US newspaper stories
published between 2000 and 2003 found that:
More of the articles held the perpetrator directly accountable
for the victim’s death (69 out of 70; 98.6%) when the homicide
perpetrator was male than when the perpetrator was female (13
out of 30; 43.3%). (Wozniak & McCloskey, 2010, p. 946).
If the woman can show that her partner was extremely violent towards her, she also
loses the appearance of agency and is not portrayed ‘as an active participant in defence
of her self, but as her partner’s victim’ (Morrissey, 2003, p. 17). Noh et al found that
in over one third (38.7%) of 250 US and Canadian newspaper articles from 1978 to
2002 concerning this type of homicide, the battered woman was portrayed as ‘irrational
or insane’ due to battered woman syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or a
similar psychological condition. Conversely, narratives that framed the act as self-
defence were uncommon (Noh, Tee & Fetley, 2010, p. 120). They noted:
Through images of helplessness, claims makers [eg,
psychologists, lawyers, politicians] in the media have
promoted a collective understanding of the battered woman as
a person whose identity is predominantly that of a victim, a
process known as victimism, [and] [a]ccordingly, the victim is
non-violent, but when violent such as when she has killed her
abusive partner, it is irrational, therefore, excusing and not
justifying her action (Noh, Lee and Feltey, 2010, p. 110, 113).
This is borne out by the example of Mary Winkler, a Tennessee woman who, in 2006,
after years of abuse, shot and killed her husband in their home. In her analysis, Lin
found that 83.5% of articles about this case portrayed Winkler ‘as a victim whose
subjection to long term spousal abuse has left her without the required state of mind to
commit premeditated first-degree murder … rather than a cold-blooded killer’. As a
result, she was seen as ‘blameless because she is mentally incapable of making rational
decisions’ (2012, p. 2-3); she was sentenced to three years in prison.
Another representation is for these women to be ‘placed in the opposite and equally
non-agentic category of the inhuman monster (Morrissey, 2003, p. 17).’ A female who
kills her abusive partner may be regarded as someone who ‘transgresses the
conventional gender boundaries … in an usurpation of masculine privilege’ (Hinds and
Stacey, 2001, p.170). Accordingly, in Noh et al’s analysis of newspaper articles,
battered women who killed were framed as ‘rational manipulative cold-blooded killers’
in 30.4% of stories (Noh et al, 2010, p. 120). The description of American Judy
Buenoano, who was executed for poisoning her husband in the early 1970s, is a good
example of this type of depiction. She also killed her son, fiancé and boyfriend, and
was ‘portrayed as a man-hater, the “black widow” who fed upon the men in her life’
(Farr, 2009, p. 50).
The quotes in Noh et al’s sample of US and Canadian media pieces support a picture of
mental illness. Over half (56%) of the 185 quotes they identified were from
psychologists offering evidence medicalising the woman offender (2010, p. 120-121).
For example, of the 54 claims-makers quoted in the medicalised accounts, the most
frequently quoted were defense attorneys (30%) and psychologists (26%), followed by
defendants (19%) and women’s advocates (15%), with politicians, prosecutors and
other third parties rarely quoted, as they are much less likely to make reliable and
supporting claims of the medical model. Noh et al therefore concluded:
[p]resuming that claims makers of each group are available to
offer statements for each story/article, the selection of some
types … but not others, suggests that members of the media
may rely on a particular “angle” or “frame” to construct their
accounts, rather than attempting to provide an objective or
“balanced” report of incidents when a battered woman kills
(2010, p. 123).
Media reporting can also reinforce the abused victim narrative by providing details
about the victimisation. A comparison of newspaper reporting of male and female-
perpetrated intimate partner homicide in heterosexual relationships published in the US
between 2000-2003 looked at the first article published about a case to specifically
investigate initial representation, and randomly chose 100 articles, 70 of which were
about men and 30 about women. This study found that past violence perpetrated by the
male homicide victims and opinions from justice system workers, family members,
friends or neighbours were more likely to be included in cases involving female
perpetrators (Wozniak & McCloskey, 2010, p. 934, 942-948). Articles about Winkler,
for instance, emphasised the physical, verbal, emotional and sexual types of abuse she
had experienced (Lin, 2012, p. 26). That description was coupled with a picture of
Winkler as ‘the epitome of female subservience, sexual modesty, and wifely devotion’,
which allowed ‘journalists [to] persuasively characterize Mary Winkler as the true
victim’ (Lin, 2012, p. 28).
WOMEN WHO KILL THEIR CHILDREN:
FLAWED MOTHER NARRATIVES
Mass media and journalism ‘have played a prominent role in … perpetuating the myth
or “sacred narrative” of maternal perfection, which stands as both ideal and norm’
(Barnett, 2013, p. 508; see also Douglas & Michaels, 2004; Ruddick, 1995; Thurer,
1994; Wolf, 2001). According to Naylor, ‘“[c]oping” is clearly a compulsory element
of the maternal role’ and is portrayed as] ‘what mothers are supposed to do, part of the
conventional narrative of selfless motherhood’ (Naylor, 2001, p. 160). Journalists and
sources focus on ‘the maternal defects that caused the violence’ (Barnett, 2013, p.
[t]he notion that only the sickest woman would harm her
children presents a comforting myth that permits the illusion of
the good mother to continue and reinforces the cultural
stereotype of women as all-loving [and] … is a myth that
separates and distances; it positions women who hurt their
children as the other, the not normal, and the not feminine
(Barnett, 2005, p. 19).
The early coverage of Kathleen Folbigg, an Australian woman convicted in 2003 of
killing her four infant children, is an example of this focus on motherhood deviance.
She was originally sentenced to 40 years’ jail, with a non- parole period of 30 years; on
appeal, this was reduced to 30 years, with a non-parole period of 25 years.
Cunliffe has suggested Folbigg was wrongly convicted. She noted that the newspaper
reports on the case
sought to comprehend what circumstances or personal
characteristics produced a mother like Folbigg …Certain
entries [in Folbigg’s diary] … enabled journalists to categorise
Folbigg as a manifestly dangerous and unnatural mother …
Like the prosecution, both [major] newspapers accepted the
diaries as a relatively uncomplicated, literal record (2011, p.
This allowed them to explain Folbigg’s behaviour as deviant from the expected actions
of mothers. The media’s treatment of another Australian woman, Lindy Chamberlain
leading up to and during her trial in 1982 is also consistent with the hypothesis that the
media casts murdering mothers into the realm of ‘other’ using this dichotomy (Goc, 2009).
She was convicted of the murder of her daughter Azaria but the conviction was
quashed and in 1992 Chamberlain received a compensation payment for wrongful
These representations have also been found in a number of other countries. For
example, in 1995, Susan Smith was sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering her
three-year-old and fourteen-month-old sons by driving her car into a lake in South
Carolina. She was described ‘as the Bad Mother — a cautionary tale to discipline
women about motherhood. Her acts were not only deemed horrible, which they most
certainly were, but “unnatural” — a violent subversion of the natural role of the mother
as nurturer’ (Harris, 1996, p. 225, 247).
In Israel, Jewish women who kill are portrayed in the media as bad (Cavaglion, 2008,
271) or as ‘insane’ or ‘unbalanced’, a notion
corroborated by centuries-old deterministic knowledge
about women, sexuality and crime. Identification of women
with the unconscious, and therefore the irrational,
irresponsible and disturbed is a common stereotype …
particularly when mothers deviate from moral standards of
behaviour (2008, p. 272)
Another example concerns the reporting of Veronique Courjault, a French woman who
was sentenced in 2009 to eight years in prison for the murders of her three infant
children. A comparison of two Irish newspapers demonstrates the dominant narratives
in the case. In one, she was seen as ‘bad’ and her argument of pregnancy denial
downplayed. On the other hand, the Irish Times provided more context, describing her
as ‘“an apparently devoted wife and mother”, beset by psychological disorders’, and
acknowledged that ‘Courjault was suffering from “pregnancy denial”’ (Black, 2009, p.
These images raise the question of where such flawed or defective motherhood comes
from. Most media stories attribute it to some kind of innate ‘badness’ or psychiatric (ie,
sad) reasons; it is rarely seen as a consequence of a wider societal context.
Accordingly, Barnett found that women who killed their children were not portrayed as
‘sad’ but instead either as the perfect mothers who killed because they were mentally
ill, or as purely inept mothers who killed because they ‘performed their mothering
tasks poorly or rejected mothering work altogether’ (2006, p. 417) – essentially the
It should be noted that even teenagers who commit neonaticide are not exempt from
the bad/mad/sad narratives, with Rapaport finding that depictions showed them as
‘depraved and licentious, and that these not-yet-women were overwhelmed because
they lacked the maternal resources that grown women have [with] [t]he depravity
account’ only lacking conviction due to the social status of the teenagers (Rapaport,
2005, p. 112).
Framing the Bad Mother Narrative
Perhaps unsurprisingly, women who are ‘economically marginalized, uneducated,
young, unwed, or belong to marginalized ethnic groups’ or stereotyped as deviants or
criminals are more likely to attract a ‘bad’ frame (Cavaglion, 2008, p. 274). This was
the case for Khoua Her, a 24 year-old Hmong immigrant living in the US who
strangled her six children and then attempted suicide before calling the police and
reporting the incident. She was immediately identified as ‘other’ in news reports that
described her as an ethnic, poor, young single mother (Huckerby, 2003, p. 154).
Comments from other Hmong mothers and female members of Her’s family were
‘presented by the media in such a way as to highlight Her’s failure to be sufficiently
“motherly” even within the perception of her own culture’ (Huckerby, 2003, p. 156).
Her was condemned by the press who repeated her husband’s accusations that she
came “home late from work” and was often “running away [from home]” and was
‘therefore … presented as someone who endangered the physical health of her
children’ (Huckerby, 2003, p. 162). In December 1998, she was sentenced to 50 years
in prison with no possibility of parole for more than 33 years.
Images of ‘Bad’ Women
Two Australian women, Rosa Richards and Lindy Chamberlain, were at least initially
framed as extreme versions of badness. At her committal for trial for the murder of her
19-month-old son, Richards was portrayed, using powerful representations of the
demonic, as ‘an unnatural mother, a monster’ (Naylor, 2001, p. 159). The image for
Chamberlain was that of a witch: her ‘dress and personal style became a focus of much
public ambivalence … [l]ike the medieval witch, who it is said, made her own cloak’
(Johnson, 1984, p. 89, 98). Chamberlain was also portrayed as a freak of nature, a
mother who had lost her natural ability to mother. This was shown by her unfeminine
emotional stoicism (Creed, 1996, p. 119). Johnson went on to observe that the:
imagery which informed the public discourse was peppered with
potent allusions to creatures and moods of other times and other
places long past. The spectre of Lindy as witch was rarely
articulated, yet the notion percolated just beneath … constantly
informing the imagery which pervaded the discussion (1984, p. 90).
Unfeminine behavior may also be emphasised in these images. For instance, in the
early reportage about Richards, narratives presented her as violent, swearing,
impatient, unable to love and sexually promiscuous; the pictures that accompanied
these stories presented her as overweight, unattractive and as ‘a prisoner, unable to
control how she appears, nor to ‘present’ herself as women are conventionally
expected to do’ (Naylor, 2001, p. 168).
Language can be used to construct images of the unfeminine woman. Awilda Lopez,
who beat her six-year-old daughter to death and pleaded guilty to second degree
murder in 1996, was described as promiscuous, unfeminine, “ranting, wild-haired” and
a “crackhead” (Barnett, 2006, p. 423). Courjault, discussed earlier, was referred to
throughout one Irish Star article as a mother or Mum. ‘…each time the word was
rearranged to form a different reference, “Freezer baby mum”, “French mum” and
“killer mum”, [which] cement the idea of Courjault as mother, and create an
unsympathetic tone’ (Black, 2009, p. 39). In addition, the language employed in the
reportage on Susan Smith, also referred to above, depicted the opposite of the ‘good
mother’ (a selfless nurturer): ‘[t]his is a case of selfishness. This is a case of I, I, I and
me, me, me’ (Barnett, 2013, p. 513)
Using Contextual Information to Support the ‘Bad’ Narrative
Smith’s victimisation both as a child and as an adult were relayed in the media by
reporting events such as her father’s suicide, sexual abuse by her stepfather, her
husband’s infidelity, and rejection by her boyfriend, who did not want parenting
responsibilities (Harris, 1996, p. 248-49). However, this history was used against her
when it emerged that she had had consensual sex with her stepfather six months before
drowning her children. Characterised as ‘a temptress who invited and enjoyed sexual
attention’, one news article stated that Smith had ‘succumbed to her own molestation
as a teenager and grew up to become a promiscuous, sexually exploitive young adult’
(Barnett, 2006, p. 422). The context was therefore interpreted to fit the story. She had
become, according to the press, ‘the perfect embodiment of the mythical Bad Mother -
a violator of the sacred myth of motherhood’ (Harris, 1996, p. 249).
In the reporting of Her’s case, contextual information in news articles only briefly
mentioned Her’s own violent victimisation history and, like Smith, some of this
information was used against her. Her was 13 when she became a mother. Instead of
this being presented to evoke compassion it was used to perpetuate a ‘stereotype of
women of color as lacking control over their sexuality and “wantonly” having a
succession of children’ (Huckerby, 2003, p. 154). The depression and anxiety Her
suffered as a result of her maternal role ‘were not construed as a pathological
condition, warranting more lenient treatment’ instead, the media linked [the
conditions] to Her’s own immaturity and selfishness’ (Huckerby, 2003, p. 161).
In the same way, the contents of Folbigg’s diaries ‘were reported as if they presented a
complete insight into Folbigg’s experience of motherhood and, especially, her
inadequacies as a mother’ (Cunliffe, 2011, p. 181). Having already adopted the ‘bad
mother’ narrative, the diaries were then used to support it.
In Rosa Richards’ case, there was evidence of mental illness. She had told her doctor
that she was afraid that she would hurt her children because of postnatal depression.
The doctor gave evidence at the committal that ‘the system had let [her] down’
(Naylor, 2001, p. 159). Nevertheless, reportage of her concerns was not presented in a
sympathetic way: ‘Instead, the admission of violent feelings is itself seen here as an
element in her unnaturalness, her wickedness … [which could] be read as warning
readers/mothers not to seek help or admit such feelings…’(Naylor, 2001, p. 159).
Mad or Sad Narratives
Marina Davidowich, a Jewish Israeli woman who drowned her two daughters (aged
three and seven), was portrayed in the press as sick, with one headline stating: ‘She
was experiencing temporary insanity’ and a reporting narrative that emphasised mental
impairment and the need for treatment (Cavaglion, 2008, p. 273).
For Andrea Yates, who drowned her five children in the bathtub in 2001 at her
Houston home, then phoned the police and told them that she had committed the
murders because she wanted to save her children from Satan, there was a transition
from ‘bad’ to ‘mad’ when it became known that she suffered from post-partum
psychosis. In this context, the media reportage included Yates’s former profession as a
nurse, how she cared for her terminally ill father, her fundamentalist Christianity and
her role as a ‘devoted home-schooling mother’ (Robert Yates quoted in Huckerby,
2003, p. 156). Therefore, it has been suggested that because Yates ‘remained a
demure, confused, and pitied feminine creature, the media and public took the time to
begin to understand the reasons why she committed this cruel crime’ (Weatherby,
Blanche & Jones, 2008, p. 4). She was categorized as mad with reportage emphasising
her ‘known history of attempted suicides, deep depression and frequent
hospitalizations’ (Weatherby et al, 2008, p. 8). Her appeal against her murder
conviction was successful and she was acquitted on the grounds of insanity in her
The portrayal of Rosa Richards also shifted from ‘bad’, as described above, to ‘mad’
and ‘sad’. According to Naylor, ‘Rosa Richards was entirely reconstructed as the
victim of her own abusive past and her intellectual limitations: a woman without
agency’ (Naylor, 2001, p. 170). She was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced
to seven years’ imprisonment.
Framing with Selective Use of Context
Some of the reportage on Yates focused on the inadequacy of her medical treatment
and/or on her husband’s inability to protect his children. According to Barnett, though,
it did not adequately
explore the issues of lack of knowledge about postpartum
depression, lack of services for mentally ill patients, or the
more troubling question of what, if any, help is available to
women who cannot handle the demands of mothering (2005, p.
Similarly, in reporting about Rebecca Hopfer, a case involving a teen pregnancy
filicide, there was little focus on the circumstances surrounding the crime or
consideration of the culpability of the baby’s father (Oberman, 1996-1997, p. 27). It
should be noted that there was considerable ‘[p]ublic sympathy’ for Hopfer in relation
to the decision to try her as an adult, as she was only 17 years old at the time of the
offence. Her release on home arrest ‘precipitated a reversal in public sentiment, as
many speculated that she had received preferential treatment because she was white,
suburban and middle-class’ (Oberman, 1996-1997, p. 27).
In fact, the father’s role, even if involved in the homicide, may not be included in the
narrative. For example, in Naylor’s analysis of Richards’ case, she noted: ‘The reader
may be struck by the absence from the reports of Lindsay Gregory, her partner …
reports focused almost exclusively on Rosa Richards, although Lindsay Gregory had
specifically confessed to striking the baby so that he fell to the floor’ (2001, p. 161).
What also emerges in the reporting of neonaticide cases is that these actions can, in
some cases, be ‘seen alternately as the result of permissive sexual norms, parental
failure to discipline, or inadequate sex education’ (Oberman, 1996-1997, p. 28).
WOMEN WHO KILL A NON-FAMILY MEMBER
Women who kill someone who is not a family member are usually cast into the super
bad narrative and often demonised (Collins, 2014), masculinised (i.e., described as
masculine in appearance and/or personality) (Barnett, 2005; Berrington & Honkatukia,
2002; Bond-Maupin, 1998; Farr, 2000; Grabe et al., 2006; Wilczynski, 1991), and/or
presented as sexually deviant (Collins, 2014). In the following section, we look at the
media portrayal of some women who were cast in these ways.
Flawed Sexuality Narratives
Australian Tracey Wigginton was convicted of the murder of a man after she and three
other women stabbed him approximately 27 times. She was portrayed in the media
(and in court) as the ringleader of the group and was the only one who pleaded guilty.
Her then-girlfriend and co-accused, Lisa Ptaschinski, as well as the other two female
co-accused, claimed Wigginton was a vampire (Verhoeven, 1993, p. 99). This detail,
together with her sexuality, was picked up by the media, which labelled her ‘the
lesbian vampire killer’, depicting her as bloodthirsty and with satanic powers (Creed,
1996, p. 119-20).
In the US, Aileen Wuornos was also given a name by the media - ‘the damsel of death’
(Hart 1994, p. 140). Wuornos admitted to killing seven men in self-defence whilst
working as a prostitute on highways in Florida, because she believed ‘the men were
going to beat, rape or even kill her’ (Weatherby et al, 2008, p. 2-3). It has been
suggested that Wuornos’ masculine characteristics (lesbianism and overt sexuality)
were emphasised because ‘[t]he notion of a female serial killer was beyond the pale;
Wuornos could not persuasively occupy that gendered space until she was rendered
“male”’ (Friedman, 2008, p. 851).
Indeed, both Wuornos and Wiggington ‘killed in “male” ways, attacking strangers in
public places … [l]esbianism thus provided popular and readily accessible
explanations for their behaviour’ (Millbank, 1996, p. 461). The media described
Wuornos as a ‘deadly rattlesnake’; her masculine characteristics were emphasised in
articles about her sexuality with newspapers discussing her ‘lesbian lover and the
physical description of their relationship’ (Weatherby et al, 2008, p. 8).
The same focus on deviant sexuality appeared across the Atlantic in the English press.
Between 1963 and 1965, Myra Hindley, together with her boyfriend, Ian Brady,
sexually assaulted and killed five children and buried their bodies in the Moors.
Similarly to Wigginton, ‘[b]efore, during and after her trial the media made much of
the fact that Myra engaged in sadistic sexual activities with her partner in crime’,
focusing on, and sensationalising, evidence that ‘she allowed him to take pornographic
photographs of her’, as well as her ‘lesbian love affair with one of the female prison
wardens’ once in gaol (Weare, 2013, p. 348). A ‘ghoulish’ (Wright, 2009) photograph
of Hindley was repeatedly used by the media, which eventually caused her to ‘become
divorced from the reality of her as a human being’ and instead a ‘symbolic
[representation] of the threat of femaleness, let loose from the conventional ties of
righteousness, gentleness and nurturance’ (Storrs, 2004, p. 23).
Aberrant sexuality was also included in the media portrayal of Karla Tucker, who was
convicted of murder in Texas after she and her boyfriend Danny Garrett stabbed two
people multiple times with a whilst on drugs. Her alleged statement ‘that she had
achieved orgasm each time she struck her victims with the pickaxe’ was widely quoted
along ‘with media accounts of her alleged inability to achieve (hetero)sexual
satisfaction … as well as the allegation that she had sexually molested a female inmate
while in jail’ (Farr, 2000, p. 56). Interestingly, her subsequent conversion to
Christianity and unconsummated marriage to the prison chaplain translated into more
sympathetic news stories as her execution neared and ultimately took place (Halmari &
Östman, 2001, p. 808-809).
Convicted of 10 counts of murder, Rosemary West was another woman who killed
with her male partner. Once again, deviant sexuality was part of the image:
Images of evil and deviant sexuality were juxtaposed as
explanation for events. Totally missing in this gendered focus
is any consideration of issues relating to male heterosexuality
and their influence on events (Berrington & Honkatukia, 2002,
Like Hindley, this was encapsulated by a particular photograph used by all the
newspapers, alongside captions such as ‘The Face of a Monster’, ‘The Face of Evil’,
‘Evil to the Core’ and ‘BUTCH SADIST IS MOST HATED KILLER’ (Berrington &
Honkatukia, 2002, p. 61-62).
She rarely escapes her sex
Women who kill non-family members are also likely to have the media focus on their
appearance albeit with a different focus. For instance, as a counterpoint to the image of
butch lesbians, coverage of Tucker was highly ‘feminized, with reports describing her
as pretty, young and demure. [One newspaper account, for example … notes “Tucker’s
soft, brown eyes, bashful smile and long dark curls”’ (Farr, 2000, p. 50).
Another example is Sanna Sillanpää, who walked into a gun club in Helsinki and
opened fire, killing three men and injuring a fourth. The media emphasis was how she
looked. ‘Every facial expression and body movement was described, in addition to her
clothing, hairstyle and make-up’ (Berrington & Honkatukia, 2002, p. 65).
Even suicide bombers and terrorists, if deemed attractive, are not immune from this
focus: Wafa Idris was the first female Palestinian suicide bomber, who killed herself
and one other, as well as wounding more than 100 people, when she detonated a bomb
in the centre of Jerusalem. Media reports referred to her ‘“chestnut hair curling past her
shoulders,” “her auburn hair and pale complexion”’ and noted that she ‘did not follow
Palestinian convention in her attire, wearing “sleeveless dresses and makeup”’
(Berkowitz, 2005, p. 613-4; see also Nacos, 2005, p. 438).
In the same way, Heba Daraghmeh, who bombed an Israeli mall, was described as
‘well-dressed and wearing high heels’ and as resembling a Middle-Eastern folk singer,
‘“with her ruby-red lips and black headscarf”… [with] [d]ark, wide-set eyes peer[ing]
out from a striking, heart-shaped face”’ (Berkowitz, 2005, p. 613-14. Similarly, in the
London Times, Idoia Lopez Riano, a Basque separatist who was arrested and convicted
of murdering 23 people, was described as looking like ‘“a Mediterranean film star” and
“is one of the few women who manages to look good even in a police shot” …
furthermore as “wearing hefty eye make-up, fuchsia lipstick and dangling earrings that
tinkle as she tosses her hair of black curls”’ (Nacos, 2005, p. 438).
This type of framing is not limited to descriptions of women’s appearance, but also to
how the media explains women terrorists’ actions. As an example, unlike discussion
surrounding male suicide bombers, theories about what underpinned female suicide
bombers’ actions abound (Patkin, 2004, p. 85). Men are seen as ideologically driven
(Patkin, 2004, p. 80, Sela-Shayovitz, 2007; see Brown, 2011; Shcheblanova &
Yarskaya-Smirnova, 2009, p. 265-6), while the explanation for women is more often
described as coming from the domestic realm or rationalised in some way. For
example, the media reported her friends as saying that Wafa Idris was ‘haunted by the
terrible things she’d seen, but [they] still wondered if she chose to die because her
marriage had broken up’ (Patkin, 2004, p. 85) and her unhappiness about her infertility
(Naaman, 2007, p 936). As opposed to the rational and political male terrorist, women
terrorists may also be constructed as ‘deviant: either bad, as in evil or inhuman, or
mad, as in insane’ operating to deny them any agency or autonomy in relation to their
actions (Friedman, 2008, p. 850-851).
Alternatively, female bombers may be seen as possessing male warrior traits
(Berkowitz, 2005). They are represented as being like men in order to make their
violence understandable (Berkowitz, 2005; Friedman, 2008, p. 843). However,
Friedman found that ‘when one suicide bomber was also a mother, journalists could
not fit her into the archetype. Instead, they worked to safeguard the myth of the “Good
Mother” and explained … [her] behavior as deviant rather than that of a heroic
warrior’ (Friedman, 2008, p. 843). According to Brown:
across all of these studies on media representations of women
[suicide terrorists], we see a dominant, even hegemonic,
construction of femininity, one which subordinates women’s
actions and motives to men, places them on the margins of
politics and demonizes exceptions (2011, p. 708).
De-Contextualising Women Who Kill
The narratives described above tend to exclude or minimise contextual details that
could reveal other relevant facets of the female killer. For example in the coverage of
Tracey Wigginton, alternative ways of framing her story, such as focusing on the
sexual and physical abuse by her grandparents, were ignored (Morrissey, 2003, p. 15;
Creed, 1996, p. 119-20). According to Morrissesy, ‘journalists adhered to this frame
even in the face of … an alternative narrative of mental illness and childhood abuse
that was available’ (2003, p. 15) and chose also to omit the views of lesbian welfare
organisations whose members attended the women’s trials (2003, p. 112).
In the same way, Wuornos’ abandonment by her mother, childhood rape and abuse
were peripheral to the lesbian narrative (Creed, 1996, p. 118) with most articles just
mentioning her history of victimization since early childhood, rather than giving any
greater context (Weatherby et al, 2008, p. 7).
Rosemary West also alleged that her father had sexually abused her; yet, the media
‘story’ precluded ‘consideration of violence against women and children or any
relationship between pornographic fantasy and sexualization’ (Berrington &
Honkatukia, 2002, p. 61). Storrs concluded that, for both West and Hindley, ‘no public
explanations have been given to account for the underlying factors which contributed
to these crimes being committed’ (2004, p. 21).
POSSIBLE CONNECTIONS BETWEEN MEDIA, LAW AND SOCIETY
As we set out in our introduction, news media construct particular versions of reality as
they report cases of women who kill and therefore contribute to the social context in
which legal proceedings are realised. Accordingly, there has been recognition by the
courts that media can influence legal outcomes. The Taylor sisters, Michelle and Lisa,
who were convicted of murder in 1990, are a good example. After spending around
two years in prison for the murder of the wife of the lover of one of the sisters, their
convictions were overturned. The English Court of Appeal held that the media’s
reporting (and police actions) had ‘convicted [the sisters] of the murder from the start’
(Naylor, 1994, p. 493). Indeed, in quashing the verdicts as unsafe and unsatisfactory,
the media coverage was described by the Court as
“unremitting, extensive, sensational, inaccurate and
misleading”. Despite warnings by the judge to the jury, it was
impossible to say that the jury were not influenced in their
decision by what they had read, and the court was satisfied that
“the press coverage of the trial did create a real risk of
prejudice”. On the basis of its findings on the press coverage,
the court did not order a retrial (Naylor, 1994, p. 493-4).
As Easteal et al have noted, ‘[m]edia messages are not simply a “one-way” dialogue
and diverse audiences will likely filter, interpret and appropriate them differently,
including on the basis of their personal experience’(2015, p. 104). For the most part,
though, media stories are ‘told within a gendered societal landscape … cultural images
of masculine and feminine’ (Easteal et al, 2015, p. 104). Against this backdrop, violent
women are anathema and therefore tend to be constructed as unfeminine – as bad, mad
or sad. Because ‘women are often faced with a societal expectation of purity and good-
ness’, they are stigmatised in a way that shows them as deviant and leads to the
conclusion that women in general are ‘a gender less capable of crime’ (Collins, 2014,
p. 11). Consequently, when women do offend, the reporting tends to be
sensationalised. This is, perhaps unsurprisingly, intensified when their offending
extends to the most serious of all crimes, namely, homicide. As Weatherby et al have
noted, ‘[t]he female killer is such a rare occurrence in modern times that the general
public tends to resort to a heightened or frenzied state whenever such events happen’
(2008, p. 8).
This was illustrated in the reporting of Wournos’ trial:
Instead of taking the necessary time to understand this woman’s
plight, the media and general public, in their state of normlessness
and confusion, jumped to the conclusion that Wuornos was an
inhuman, unfeminine monster and was handed a heavy punishment
(Weatherby, 2008, p. 4).
Unfeminine is the key word here. In fact, female killers’ degree of femininity has been
found to correlate with how they are portrayed in the media, which may affect
charging, prosecution and sentencing. It has been theorised that the sentences given to
Wiggington’s accomplices correlated negatively with their degree of femininity: the
defendant who appeared least feminine, Lisa Ptaschinski, was sentenced to life
imprisonment, compared to Kim Jervis, who was found guilty of manslaughter and
sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment, while the most feminine accomplice, Tracey
Waugh, was found not guilty (Morrissey, 2003). As Morrissey observed,
Lisa was described as “a heavily-built woman” … while Kim
was “short and stocky” and had a “dumbfounded” expression
on her face during the trial … Waugh, however, was “the most
attractive of the three” and “sat demurely with her wide brown
eyes downcast” while in court (2003, p. 123-124).
Certainly, we have seen that journalists use various techniques to frame a story, and
their choice of words, images, metaphors and catchphrases are not trivial matters (Pan
& Kosicki, 1993, 55-75). Instead, they are designed to draw particular pictures, which
the literature tells us may lead to adverse ‘legal treatment of individual female
offenders themselves and can militate against their receiving any sort of rational
justice’ (Morrissey, 2003, p. 17).
Seven Australian women serving sentences for murder agree. Whiteley’s interviews
identified a theme of frustration and anger with the media’s failure to provide the
context to these women’s actions (2012, p. 22). Some convicted women felt this
affected how the courts dealt with them:
I felt like their first case, ever, of a grandmother who
murdered, and I don’t think I stood a chance ... I didn’t get a
fair trial, no, not once, because of the media, all the slander
(2012, p. 128).
I was seen as an animal, as evil, as a cold blooded killer. They
see me as this bitch, this terrible person, who didn’t care about
my kids and my family. They said I only cared about myself. I
am a normal person ... a normal person…You see, I was
painted as a sly and wicked woman. The media did this to me
(2012, p. 198).
However, we note that the outcomes of these media ‘pictures’ are not always adverse.
It was perhaps because of the media coverage about her mental health that there was no
trial for Marina Davidowich, who was hospitalised instead (Cavaglion, 2008, p. 274).
Sanna Sillanpää was also portrayed in both broadsheet and tabloid newspapers as
having mental health problems (Berrington & Honkatukia, 2002, p. 67), which
facilitated framing her ‘as a victim’. The court ultimately determined that she ‘suffered
from paranoid schizophrenia and was, therefore, not responsible for her actions’
(Berrington & Honkatukia, 2002, p. 68).
Nonetheless, as we have seen in the preceding sections, many women who kill are
portrayed as evil and the media seems to assume their guilt well before the trial.
Verdicts and sentences correlate with such framing. The coverage of Rosemary West is
a good illustration:
The guilty verdicts against [her] … were pre-empted by
newspaper headlines … [that] ignored the legal arguments and
focused solely on constructing Rose's sexuality as debauched
(Storrs, 2004, p. 17).
In addition, media representations tend to be framed around the prosecution’s
interpretations and opinions (Morrissey, 2003, p. 37). In relation to the case of the
Taylor sisters, described above,
[t]he press adopted the prosecution story with gusto. It
provided a scenario—the jealous woman killer—well known in
myth although statistically rare, and popularised in films such
as Fatal Attraction (Naylor, 1994, p. 494-495).
In addition, an analysis of reports on the Folbigg case in two Sydney newspapers, the
Daily Telegraph and Sydney Morning Herald, found that the media’s portrayal
‘selectively reported some aspects of the case and excluded others’ (Cunliffe, 2011, p.
158) and in a way that ‘systematically and chronically attended more closely to the
prosecution story … than the defence (p. 165). While 39% of court transcript pages
were devoted to the defence case, only 13% of printed words in the two newspapers
discussed it, compared with 37% for the prosecution. The Daily Telegraph allocated
73% of its related reporting to the prosecution story (including exhibits) and the Sydney
Morning Herald devoted 51% of its printed words to the prosecution story (including
exhibits). If exhibits are excluded, the numbers still favoured the prosecution: 51% for
the Daily Telegraph and 57% for the Sydney Morning Herald.
In homicides with both male and female perpetrators, the focus tends to be on the
woman. For instance, in the coverage of a homicide in Norway where two men and
two women were charged, the women were more visible in the media, reflecting a
view of them as ‘not only sensational, but fascinating’ (Skilbrei, 2012, p. 140-141).
Specifically, they are seen as fascinating because what they have done deviates from
how feminine behavior is defined in western cultures. In lieu of providing context and
the underlying reality of what contributed to a woman’s violent act, therefore, there is a
tendency to sensationalise her actions. In fact, Morrissey found that
[t]he necessity of social change promoting a less extreme,
more humanist view of women who kill is elided through
narratives such as … the lesbian vampire which maintain
stereotypes of femininity and … uphold[s] the status quo …
effectively, expelling both act and perpetrator as abject and
inhuman, rendering them politically harmless (2003, p. 111).
These sensationalised stories also ‘deny female agency and a concept of women as
active, human subjects’ (Morrissey, 2003, p. 17).
With filicide, the lack of societal context translates into media portrayal as ‘the isolated
act of a flawed individual’ (Barnett, 2006, p. 425). Rarely is information provided that
could assist better understanding of the crime and the need for the community to help
women who, for a variety of reasons, end up with violent feelings towards their
children (Barnett, 2005, p. 23). Further, narratives that demonise violent mothers
ultimately discourage women from disclosing their struggles with parenthood and
family or friends from offering support (Barnett, 2013, p. 518).
Our analysis indicates that there is a similar lack of contextual information in the
reportage of women who kill a violent partner. Specifically, the domestic violence that
lies at the core of these homicides is not the focus. Instead, Lin’s analysis found that
some ‘articles present domestic violence in a greater social context’, while none
present it ‘as a social problem caused by gender inequalities, and no articles offer
readers information about violence-related agencies or resources’ (2012, p. 41). As a
consequence, the media continue to reinforce a view of battered women as bad or mad
– not as sane individuals acting in self-preservation. Perhaps inevitably, the legal
outcome for most of these women then mirrors those representations (Carline &
Easteal, 2014): not necessarily a causative relationship but certainly some degree of
As an example of this, domestic violence was not accurately described in the coverage
of Winkler’s case, discussed above. The mental and emotional abuse that she had
experienced received far less media exposure, indicating that this type of ‘abuse is
considered less newsworthy and less significant’ (Lin, 2012, p. 28). This construction
of violence is discordant with what is experienced by most women (Carline & Easteal,
2014, p. 151-164). The critical nexus between media representations and social
attitudes about spousal abuse was acknowledged recently by Wozniak and McCloskey:
If the media do not portray IVP [intimate partner violence] as
important, then society at large will probably not view it as
important. There will likely be little motivation for societal
change if the severity of violence against women is not
portrayed accurately and completely (2010, p. 939).
We have examined studies of the media reportage in six countries where women have
killed their partner, child or some non-family member. The article does not address
how individual readers interpreted media reports of the cases discussed. Media effects
is a complex area and people’s opinions are formed by multiple sources, which means
that identifying any direct relationship between media portrayals, legal outcomes and
public opinion is not a straightforward task. Our review identifies cases where media
has been explicitly implicated in legal processes and outcomes. However, what our
article also highlights is the more subtle and cumulative potential effects of media
framing over time, which may make it more likely for readers to incorporate certain
narratives into their own understandings. The potential of these frames to influence
public opinion emerges in part from the way in which they come to offer familiar
narratives for understanding cases of women who kill because audiences have seen or
heard them before and thus they will resonate with their preexisting schemas (see Van
We have identified some common themes in the ‘mad’, ‘bad’ and ‘sad’ representations
of these women, as well as a tendency to downplay information that might
contextualise or explain the women’s actions. Details of the women’s appearance and
sexuality were also emphasised in media reports, with particular attention given to
sensationalised images such as depictions of debauchery, vampirism and lesbianism.
In short, we believe that the media could act as an agent of social and legal change.
Reportage could further explore the antecedents to homicides committed by women
and, where appropriate, identify underlying social problems that need to be addressed.
In this way, the media can contribute to the (re)framing of societal understandings and
responses to domestic violence and the challenges new mothers face. This was done in
England in the early 1990s, when the press combined forces with feminist legal
advocates to highlight the inequitable nature of the law in relation to provocation. The
end result was enactment of a broader legislative definition, which adopted an
extended timeframe in relation to the relevant provocation thus better protecting
battered women who killed (Hinds & Stacey, 2001, p. 167-170).
We have seen, though, that such reporting would seem to be the exception - at least in
the cases that have been analysed in the literature. Given that journalists’ primary
incentive is to produce a compelling narrative and to cater to what they perceive to be
the values of their audiences, their ability to effect change is limited by the need to
‘pitch’ to the majority of the readership as well as ‘sell’ stories. For example,
retribution and responsibility – the desire for people to be punished and held
accountable for their actions – and its perceived populist appeal may play a conscious
and/or unconscious role in reportage.
Accordingly, we have noted that it is more common for sensationalism to substitute for
social context. Homicides by women are relatively rare and stories are made to
resonate with existing cultural themes about femininity, sexuality and motherhood.
Pictures of female killers are framed and focused around notions of what it means to be
a woman, to be feminine or to be a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ mother. These are interwoven into
media portrayals in ways that reinforce and feed potentially harmful ideals. In fact,
‘adherence to gender norms is critical in the media’s depiction of female criminality’
(Lin, 2012, p. 39). As our review demonstrates, this very much includes women who
Assuming that alternative sources of information are available, individual journalists
have the power and responsibility for choosing the sources that will support their
preferred way of framing a woman and her crime. The sources consulted are therefore
critical to the framing of women who kill. We have noted the various ways in which
contextual information is put to use and the determinative role this can play in media
representations of women who kill. The availability of contextual information,
particularly that which challenges preconceived frames that journalists bring to these
crimes, is highly important. Reliance on those who support medicalised explanations
may elicit sympathy at the same time as pathologising individual women for what
might be better understood as problems caused or at least exacerbated by familial or
We have seen that background variables that do not fit within these frames are either
ignored or played down. Somewhat paradoxically, background from the private sphere
is emphasised more in the most ‘public’-oriented of homicides, namely, political
terrorism. This might be indicative of the omnipresent gendered private and public
dichotomy. Since women are seen as belonging more in the home, terroristic behaviour
is not readily understood as motivated by political values. The underlying narrative is
instead that something in their personal lives is identified to explain their actions.
By contrast, such a need to understand or seek alternative views or explanations is
often not a part of the story when a woman kills her husband or children. Those
homicides take place in the sphere in which women more naturally reside. Thus, one
of the functions of these portrayals is to distance their actions from the
‘ordinary/normal’ woman, suggesting that they are not like ‘us’ or that they are so
different that we need not bother ourselves with their stories, motivations and
struggles. Moreover, such factors are glossed over amidst the tone of outrage and
horror that accompanies the ‘bad’ and ‘mad’ woman and mother narratives. The ‘sad’
story – the underlying social issues and causes – are often not included. Tragically, our
ability to make sense of such crimes in a manner that may assist in their prevention is
We acknowledge that the media’s tendency to simplify issues and fail to report on the
wider social context in which they occur is of course not unique to the cases we have
discussed in this paper. Nevertheless, we would encourage further contextualising
information to present a fuller picture of the comparatively rare incidence of women
who kill. This of course begs the question of whether we are thereby encouraging the
media to be predisposed to reporting such cases in a way that seeks to excuse them.
Clearly, journalists are not psychiatrists or psychoanalysts, and cannot be expected to
perform that role. Perhaps though, their role in providing context through reporting on
expert opinions, as well as a fuller analysis of the prosecution and defence case, could
contribute to depiction of a more multi-faceted representation of women who kill.
What is also required is a deeper consideration of the circumstances in which and
reasons why this occurs, including the societal factors which may precipitate this and
for which we all, as members of the public and consumers of the media, bear some
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