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Why We Love to Hate Female Killers (even the alleged ones)

The demonizing of Casey Anthony, Jodi Arias, Pamela Smart and others.

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever wondered why certain women who are charged/convicted with murder are transformed into criminal celebrities and symbols of evil by the news and entertainment media? I am talking about the likes of Pamela Smart, Casey Anthony, Amanda Knox and Jodi Arias who were are all turned into what I call “celebrity monsters” by the news media. And it seems not to matter whether they are convicted of their alleged crimes in a court of law. The evil label sticks.

As a criminologist and sociologist, I can state with confidence that a brutal and highly publicized act of murder, particularly when it involves the violation of race and gender norms on the part of the alleged offender, can cause public confusion, anxiety and a burning desire to understand how and why it occurred.

I contend that the outward physical characteristics of individuals such as Pamela Smart, Casey Anthony, Amanda Knox and Jodi Arias—that is, young, female, white (or perceived to be) and attractive, combined with the unexpected brutality of their alleged crimes, contradict sacred social norms of gender and race which create a state of confusion and intense curiosity among the public.

Because the collective consciousness of society is shocked and outraged by the actions of these norm violating females, their televised criminal trials become public spectacles.

Each of the women mentioned above was charged with a brutal and shocking murder. According to the stereotypes of gender and race depicted in the news and entertainment media, women who look like them are supposed to be the victims of premeditated murder, not the perpetrators of it.

The prevailing social norms which are perpetuated by the media tell us that pretty, young, white females are submissive and passive. More often than not they are presented as non-threatening sexual objects in advertising, fashion, television and film. We are socialized to believe that such women need to be protected and cared for.

As such, the behavioral expectations associated with the visual image of an attractive, young, articulate woman like Jodi Arias are inconsistent with the grisly particulars of her crime—that is, stabbing her former boyfriend twenty-seven times, nearly decapitating him, and then shooting him in the head. Such actions clearly violate traditional female gender norms.

Similarly, the social expectations associated with Casey Anthony, an attractive, young, white mother, are completely inconsistent with the particulars of her alleged crime which she was found not guilty of in court—that is, the cold-blooded murder of her own baby daughter.

Anthony’s alleged crime violated the sacred norms of motherhood in addition to violating the norms of race and gender. The social expectations of motherhood were exploited by the news media throughout Anthony’s trial and used to demonize her in the eyes of the public. The media were highly successful in their efforts to brand Anthony an evil woman because society could not comprehend how a young mother who looks like Casey Anthony could kill her own child.

Similarly, the social expectations associated with the visual image of a pretty, young, white wife and school worker like Pamela Smart are grossly inconsistent with the reality of the crime for which she was convicted—that is, seducing and manipulating her underage lover and his friends into murdering her husband. In contrast to her normative outward appearance as an innocent young wife, the crime of Pamela Smart suggests that she is actually a temptress or modern day Eve who lured an impressionable, young Adam (Billy Flynn) with the pleasures of her forbidden fruit.

If you watch TV networks like HLN, Oxygen and ID, it is readily apparent that the public has an intense fascination with female celebrity criminals. I believe this fascination is due in part to the concept of “ideal female beauty” which arguably looks very much like a blonde, blue-eyed Barbie doll, and the behavioral expectations associated with this concept. These norm expectations include, “pretty girls don’t kill.” This expectation runs counter to certain “bad girl” archetypes that have been constructed in our popular culture. These archetypes include: the femme fatale, woman scorned, temptress, witch, and black widow.

Law enforcement authorities and the news and entertainment media use powerful female archetypes such as the femme fatale to explain the motivations of female killers and, more importantly, and disturbingly, to sensationalize them. By relying on exaggerated stereotypes, the news media can generate large commercial audiences, while sometimes unfairly demonizing the targets of their hyperbole and declaring them guilty prior to their criminal trials.

The results of pretrial propaganda can be dire. The life of Casey Anthony, for example, despite being found not guilty of the first-degree murder of her daughter, has essentially been destroyed and she is now a hated and penniless recluse who cannot leave her house in Florida without a disguise. The news and entertainment media have forever framed her as a monster.

The exploitation of social norms by the news and entertainment media does additional damage. Inaccurate and stylized depictions of attractive, white, female criminals obscure the complex and diverse reality of crime and victimization in the U.S. In the end, the use of negative stereotypes harms all of society by creating alienation, and perpetuating inequality and injustice.

In a similar vein, I examine the public’s intense fascination with notorious and deadly serial killers, including David Berkowitz (“Son of Sam”) and Dennis Rader (“Bind, Torture, Kill”) with whom I personally corresponded, in my best-selling book Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World’s Most Savage Murderers.

Dr. Scott Bonn is a criminologist, professor, author and TV analyst. Follow him @DocBonn on Twitter and visit his website

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