Doubly Deviant, Doubly Damned

This is a man's world, or so they say, and no part of it is more filled with machismo than the legal system

Feature by Lauren Mayberry | 01 Jul 2010

Oh, Lady Gaga. Love her or hate her, she has been touted as a visionary, one of the best entertainers of her generation, and a fashion vigilante – but a leader of legal reform? Perhaps not.

Yet, anyone who has seen the video for Telephone, a murderous tale of extravagant proportions, may just have been party to something thought-provoking, even if it was on T4 – in our real legal system, made and administered by white middle-class men, would Stefani Germanotta’s femme fatale ever get away with it?

Probably not.

Back in ye olden days (ie: the 1950s), female criminals were repeatedly described as ‘wicked’ and perverse. One particular theorist claimed that it was the natural female way to be devious and cunning, exemplified by the fact that women may remain passive during intercourse and fake pleasure in ways men cannot. Apparently, even our bodies are manufactured to lie. And here we thought we were just sparing some hurt feelings ...

The perception of a ‘proper’ woman and appropriate femininity is crushed by criminal conduct. Many female academics have pondered the topic, from the oh-so-very-wise Helena Kennedy to Ann Lloyd, concluding that female criminals are 'doubly deviant' and 'doubly damned' in the eyes of the law, simply because of their gender.

Men are thought of as ‘naturally’ violent, while women are traditionally viewed as demure and gentle. When a man commits a violent crime, it is a logical, if undesirable, extension of his masculinity. When a woman commits a similar crime, it is viewed as more abhorrent due to its alien and unnatural connection to the conception of femininity. We wish to punish these women not only for breaking legal rules, but also for breaking the idyllic stereotype intrinsically linked to their gender.

But, according to the experts, this is one big crock of shit (to use the technical term). Ordinary women are equally capable of violent behaviour as men, although the type of violence may differ. But female killers are approached differently to their male counterparts. Half of all female murder victims are killed by a husband or lover – and many of these men are able to argue that the conduct of their missus provoked them to lose control. Yet, few women who kill their husbands after years of domestic abuse are offered the same chance to diminish responsibility for their crime. There can, apparently, be no excuse for ‘slow burn’ anger, even if the eventual murder victim had been beating the breath out of their killer’s body every day for years beforehand. That’s not psychological damage she’s got there, apparently – that’s a grudge.

Most battered wife cases which successfully argue that the dead husband provoked his spouse into ending his life involve stereotypically ‘good’ women, who can be pitted against the Drunk, the Abuser or the Adulterer who drove her to it. If that wife dares to be in any way imperfect, she is deemed undeserving of sympathy or additional defences. This inequality has been highlighted by academics since the early 1990s, focusing especially on the contrasting cases of Kiranjit Ahluwalia and Sara Thornton. Both women murdered their long-term abuser. Ahluwalia – whose crime was arguably more violent, setting her husband on fire, while Thornton stabbed her victim – was described in court as passive, meek and subservient, while Thornton was painted as an arrogant sexual aggressor. As one commentator noted afterwards, "She wasn’t being tried as a defendant but as a woman and, as a woman, she was found wanting."

The ‘type’ of woman on trial is also relevant to sentencing. Despite the best efforts of legal systems to avoid unintentional stereotyping, subconscious personality judgements are almost impossible to avoid, especially in jury trials.

Helena Kennedy says that the ‘golden-hearted whore’ is far less likely to receive favourable treatment on the stand than a ‘good wife’ or daughter. Any woman who would sell her body for tuppence cannot be trusted to further the course of justice, you know – and heaven forbid she be black, on top of everything else. Yet, surely the ability to make canapés so delicious they would coax a back slap from the cold, dead hand of Julia Child doesn’t make a person any more or less likely to kill or to lie under oath?

If the aforementioned ‘good wife’ should cheat on her husband, her credibility would be in tatters, despite the fact that fidelity may have nothing to do with the case at hand. As former barrister Kennedy puts it, this would “offend against the notion of women as keepers of the hearth”. Crikey. So what’s the moral here? We had better start baking a hell of a lot more cookies if we can’t afford our own Johnnie Cochran to get us off? The fairer sex appear to only benefit from the alleged ‘chivalry’ of the system if they fulfil the necessary positive stereotype of ‘woman’ that the decision-makers are after. If not, you’re on your own, dollface.