The Aileen Wuornos Case: Bending the Criminal Binary of Monsters and Martyrs

The Aileen Wuornos Case: Bending the Criminal Binary of Monsters and Martyrs

Christine Bussey (Judson College, USA)
Copyright: © 2023 |Pages: 9
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-9668-5.ch010
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During an era in which serial killers simultaneously terrified and titillated the American public, Aileen Wuornos stood out in what had largely been, and continues to be, a boys' club. However, unlike her male counterparts, Wuornos incited revulsion rather than enthrallment. Indeed, even feminist advocacy groups, which had championed the right of abused women to defend themselves, were silent when it came to Wuornos's prosecution, incarceration, and execution. To understand this abdication requires consideration of the ways in which understandings of crime, specifically those involving women, are dichotomized. Two decades after the execution of Aileen Carol Wuornos, have these same binaries been bent?
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Analytical Framework

Feminist criminology offers insight into the monster/martyr criminal binary to which accounts of Wuornos’ criminal violence skew. For much of its disciplinary history, criminology evaded serious contemplation of female criminality. When women’s criminality was contemplated, women offenders were characterized as aberrant, having defied what was believed to be their inherent femininity. For example, Cesare Lombroso, “Father of Modern Criminology,” opined in the nineteenth century that woman’s natural disposition was wholly incompatible with criminality and that a female offender was “more terrible than any man” (Lombroso and Ferrero, 1895, p. 151).

Lombroso’s contention that women’s de facto nature was incompatible with the purported masculinity of crime ossified within American penology. Indeed, presumptions regarding women’s innate femininity gave rise to paternalistic lenience shown by the criminal justice system, a microcosm of the larger patriarchal society in which it functioned. Women’s lessened culpability stemmed from perceptions of their physical and mental capabilities, as well as their inability to eschew emotion. For example, when incarceration grew nationally as means of social control, it was widely supposed that women could not survive the austerity of imprisonment. Separate carceral facilities for women emerged, equipped with programming designed to cultivate femininity, which was deemed lacking or absent in women who broke the law. However, the criminal justice system’s presumptive chivalry did not extend to the “evil woman,” one who flouted conventional femininity; instead, undeserving of mercy, the female offender received harsher treatment (Belknap, 2020). The “evil woman’s” societal affront is two-fold, having violated both the law and the dictates of her prescribed gender role. The resounding absence of support for Wuornos, even from feminist advocacy groups, as she faced prosecution, sentencing, and execution, suggests that the ostensible masculinity of her criminal acts, coupled with her unfeminine presentation, eliminated her eligibility for any modicum of chivalrous consideration.

The woman offender who is deserving of chivalry and the evil woman who isn’t problematize another criminological dyad: victim and offender. With few exceptions, such as the affirmative defense of self-defense, these categories cannot merge. Yet, reality challenges this calcification. While victims do not always become perpetrators, “it is the rare serious perpetrator who was not also a victim” (Smith, 2004, p. 369). As Young (1996) observes, the battered woman who kills her abuser embodies “both victimhood (she is a battered woman) and criminality (she commits homicide)” (p. 24). This “dual value” within the criminal justice system prompts a crisis of interpretation: Is she an offender or a victim, a monster or a martyr? The inconsistencies within Wuornos’ own accounts of her crimes complicate her designation as victim.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Chivalry Hypothesis: The presumption that women comporting with conventional gender norms will be treated more leniently by the criminal justice system than men, as well as those women who defy such norms.

Evil Woman Hypothesis: The presumption that women acting in defiance of conventional gender norms will be treated more severely by the criminal justice system than men who engage in comparable acts or women who comport with such norms.

Feminist Criminology: A subfield of criminology that addresses the questions of (1) whether theories explaining male criminality aptly apply to female criminality and (2) why criminal behavior has historically and overwhelmingly manifested as a male phenomenon.

Imperfect Self-defense: An affirmative defense in which the accused’s honest but unreasonable belief in the necessity of using force mitigates the punishment imposed.

Battered Woman Syndrome: A set of psychological symptoms experienced by women victimized by domestic violence that instills a sense of learned helplessness. Dr. Lenore Walker’s research in the 1970s and 80s is credited for recognition of BWS in the mental health and legal fields.

Battered Woman Defense: An expansion of the affirmative self-defense, incorporating understanding of Battered Woman Syndrome.

Self-Defense: An affirmative defense in which the accused’s honest and reasonable belief in the necessity of using force absolves them of culpability.

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