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From Tess to Aileen: Gendered Rhetoric and Masculinization of Murderesses, 19th Century to Present (2018 Walden Award Winner)

Samantha Przybylowicz • Northeastern University

Originally presented at the Annual Conference of the Mid-Atlantic Popular & American Culture Association. November 8, 2018, Baltimore, Maryland

Hello and thank you for attending today’s panel. I’d like to start with a brief explanation of my topic. This is, in part, an extension of the dissertation chapter I am currently working on about Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. The dissertation as a whole focuses on sympathy and gendered rhetoric applied to women who kill in a selection of 19th-century genres. Without diving in too deep, one avenue I am exploring is how and why language trends shifted from the 18th century to the 19th century when writing about murderesses in particular, and how since then, our modern-day rhetoric has not changed all that much, which is where I’ve expanded for today’s presentation to look at texts featuring Aileen Wuornos, because she is prominently labeled as the “first” woman serial killer in America, and because there is a range of various media that focus on her as the subject for analysis. With that, I’ll start with Tess and move through chronologically.

For those of you unfamiliar with the novel, Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles is an 1891 novel often categorized as realist or naturalist in genre. It follows the eponymous character from her girlhood through her execution—she is convicted for a crime of passion where she stabs the novel’s villain, Alec, a man who rapes and impregnates Tess near the beginning of the novel and exploits her throughout. The “good lover,” Angel, is a foil for Alec on one hand, but also contributes to Tess’s tragedy by abandoning her for her impurities and returning only when it is too late to be of help. As you might surmise from this brief description, despite its realist label, on paper Tess also has all the makings of a sensation novel. A scandal, a romantic triangle, our heroine in physical danger, the (pseudo) aristocratic villain, and above all murder: it is not a stretch to equate the plots of Tess and a Wilkie Collins novel. However, Tess herself is able to occupy both role of heroine and murderess; she was received with sympathy and sorrow for her fall, in great contrast to the villainesses of true sensation genres.

Hardy meticulously writes Tess to be a contradiction. He sets her up in binaries; she is not only murderess/victim, but also passive/active, embodied/absent, and feminine/masculine. She is repeatedly being rewritten to fit a number of needs as the narrative progresses. Tess embodies both masculine and feminine traits through rhetoric, especially after she becomes a murderess. I posit that the crime itself is coded as masculine through the choice of weapon, mode, motive, etc. Furthermore, descriptors for Tess shift to be masculinized in the last section; masculinity and agency are often tied together for Victorians, hence this language reflects the limited agency Tess has at the end. Of course, this is not sustainable in the masculine-driven Victorian society and Tess is captured and executed only a few days later.

Ironically, the modes of murder deemed most masculine also carry language often coded as feminine. To stab someone requires a certain closeness; this type of crime is often intimate, where the perpetrator often faces or likely touches the victim, possibly looking at their eyes/face as part of the proximity. Stabbing may also often be categorized as a crime of passion, a phrase which is also rhetorically attached to women’s supposedly sudden and uncontrollable overflow of emotions. The language associated with violent crimes can be misleading; phraseology around murder tends to be words that are coded as feminine and invoke maternal or nurturing connotations despite being applied to acts labeled as hyper-masculine. Inversely, “womanly” crimes, such as poisoning, typically require distance, premeditation, and fortitude to follow through completely, traits often deemed as masculine because they, in some ways, are more heinous in intent and determination. With the choices Hardy makes for Tess, including making the murder weapon a knife, Hardy raises questions regarding the purity of a woman in her overall character and the circumstances that women were forced into.

Victorian audiences were greatly sympathetic towards Tess, who was considered the epitome of purity and therefore what befell her was tragedy—all in a very passive way that strips her of agency. Contemporary reviews of Tess show great sympathy for the character and most leave off any mention of her execution or the murder she commits. Instead, most focus on her ideal qualities or lament her befalling tragedy after tragedy (of which her own execution would be hinted at but not explicitly stated). Sympathy for Tess also emerges from intent. That is, the reader who believes Tess did not intend to murder Alec—it was not premeditated, it was not the long-con of poisoning—can more easily forgive that Tess “snapped” in a moment of weakness (weakness being code for femininity).

I believe Hardy effectively uses the realist genre to make Tess a complex person who has been failed by the system: she is passive, she has little-to-no agency for most of the novel, she deeply feels shame and guilt about things that have happened outside of her control and are, largely, imposed on her by men. In this way, Tess becomes more tangible to the reader as she reflects the helplessness and lack of agency that many Victorian women felt and experienced. For the Victorian audience, she is more like the very real woman next door who had personhood (and happened to poison her husband) than the sensationalized monster put in headlines to sell newspapers.

Hardy’s agenda appears to be to portray women sympathetically even when they are pushed into situations that may result in bursts of violence, but he also illustrates the fact that women are indeed capable of violence without it needing to be labeled as abnormal (although Angel briefly wonders if this is the case with Tess or not). Through the use of rumor/hearsay in the novel, Hardy mimics the way assumptions about women killers were spread through the news outlets and word of mouth, which then morphed into popular opinion. Tess gives great weight to what others think or say about her, which becomes as good as or better than the truth because it is the perceived truth. All in all, this rumor mill and public majority is how perceptions of murderesses were able to be rewritten and manipulated.

With Tess’s execution come complications of emotions. Tess has been the pure, ideal emblem of womanhood, but she is also a murderess, subverting the expectations of the types of women who kill—especially the types of women who commit masculine crimes of great violence. To compensate, she must dissipate so she is not labeled as an aberration, a title that is fleetingly applied by Angel but is ultimately pushed aside as he decides to accept her and try to protect her, even though he ultimately fails in doing so. As mentioned, the murder Tess commits is masculine and phallic—it is her rape of Alec; it is a crime of passion and not the womanly method of poisoning. Tess plunges a knife directly into Alec’s heart. Alec is reduced in a visceral manner; Tess is reduced in a manner that is invisible yet symbolic.

Furthermore, the way Tess is named throughout the novel reinforces the gendered rhetoric of the woman vs. the murderess. Throughout, she is called “coz,” “maidy,” or “my pretty,” among other feminine or innocuous titles; however, she repeatedly asks men to “call me Tess.” This displacement of her identity substitutes her being for something that is Othered, regardless of gender, such as when Angel gives her goddesses’ names that go beyond Tess’s understanding. Tess repeatedly tries to assume an identity but the men around her refuse to give it to her and instead push their own assumptions on her through constant renaming, which progresses from the earlier, lighthearted or romantic names to “witch” or “aberrance”—the latter of which is genderless but highly negative and commonly used when trying to strip women of their feminine markers. For the Victorians, lack of femininity often meant it must default to masculine, as gender-neutral or non-binary terms were not often given weight.

Similar to Tess, we see this gendered language in modern conversations of female criminals. Just turn on the ID Channel to Deadly Women or Twisted Sisters or Evil Stepmothers (yes, these are really titles of shows that are on air!) and you’ll hear the same rhetoric over and over—the jilted lover, the girl who snapped, or the “something was just inherently wrong” tales will recycle over and over, but rarely is the fact that women are just as capable of violent crime as men incorporated into these narratives, because it’s not widely accepted and it’s not as sensational of a headline to entertain. The language around Aileen Wuornos falls into similar patterns; for today, I examined the 2003 film Monster, for which Charlize Theron won a best actress Oscar for her portrayal of Aileen, and the 2004 documentary Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer by Nick Broomfield. Broomfield is a fairly controversial documentarian, known for sensationalizing subjects, and has a somewhat invasive film style. However, he was granted the most access to Aileen while she was on death row, even being the last to interview her before her execution in October 2002.

Facts of Aileen’s case imply that the public had no sympathy for her; people were horrified at the idea of a woman serial killer and wanted her not only locked up but executed. Additionally, the legal ramifications, although arguably deserved, demonstrate how threatening the female serial killer is to society. Aileen was never given the option of life in prison. The documentary points out that male serial killers in similar situations have been afforded this sympathetic leniency: “Even Ted Bundy was offered life imprisonment. This was never offered to Aileen Wuornos. By the time I [Broomfield] met Aileen, she already had four death sentences.” Aileen’s response: “How many times ya gotta kill me? This is bullshit.” Note that Bundy was also tried and convicted in Florida, and he refused the plea deal, which would have taken the death sentence off the table.

Aileen was also easy to target as a villain in the media because of her masculine appearance; Aileen was not particularly feminine in her dress, preferring oversized clothing, “trucker” or “biker” looks with hats, flannel, leather jackets, etc. Her lesbian relationship with Tyria added to her “otherness,” which made it easier to write off the why and how. Obviously, media would skew that Aileen would be more capable of these crimes because she was not feminine. There are plenty of other cases where women who kill are shown more sympathy; many of these women are depicted as jilted lovers, emotional wrecks giving in to a “crime of passion,” and the prettier and more feminine the woman on trial (American Beauty killer Kristin Rossum, Casey Anthony, Amanda Knox), the more sympathetic or polarizing the “audience” may be—that is, this goes two ways: either disbelief which manifests in sympathy/leniency, or the more horrific it is because it seems more subversive which manifests in vilification of the woman. In Aileen’s case, the public vilified Aileen; only at the end of her life/after her execution did fictional representations do a revisionist imagining which gave a sympathetic spin on her situation. Broomfield says he felt sympathy for Aileen “because she had been betrayed by those closest to her all her life.” However, Aileen’s blatant admittance to lying, to killing in cold blood to rob men, and the back-and-forth stories of whether it was self-defense or not add to her unreliability and should affect one’s sympathetic leanings.

The film Monster (2003) definitely puts a sympathetic spin on Aileen, starting by providing a setup of her difficult childhood. Aileen grows up having dreams, being laughed at, being rejected—all with good intentions on her part that lead to either bad decisions or shifty situations, but blame seems more circumstantial than put on Aileen herself. The film also focuses primarily on Aileen’s romance with Selby (whose real-life counterpart is Tyria); in this way, the film plays with the “we’re just misunderstood” trope—the “outsider” looking in. You want to root for these two to run off and find a better life with each other if you don’t know the rest of the context. Selby also glorifies Aileen’s hooking; there’s a slant of it being somewhat glamorous, all the men who want to be with Aileen.

It isn’t until approximately 25 minutes into the film, when she’s with her first victim, that things seem truly bad for her, and, even then, this first victim reads as justified, a one-off, deserving of his fate. His language starts before anything physical happens. He says, “Women, I love ‘em … and I hate ‘em”—the hatred and misogyny that he verbalizes aligns the viewer with Aileen before the fact. What’s more is that he is the first to become violent, hitting her in the head rendering her unconscious; when she comes to, she’s bound and gagged and he obviously plans to kill her—a hacksaw is later found in the car with the insinuation that he would have mutilated or dismembered Aileen (Jenkins). Of course, this view is mostly fictionalized. All we actually know about this encounter is that Aileen claimed it was self defense and the victim did have a criminal record of sexual assault. We also know that she later said this one encounter still was self defense when the others weren’t, but the lurid details that she gave on the stand at trial, which the film seems to be based on, Aileen later stated had all been made up to try to play the system. In other words, Aileen claimed to lie to try to garner sympathy.

Overall, the language in Monster toward Aileen is not overtly negative or masculine. Some characters attribute general stereotypes toward her, with phrases like “she could have stolen something from you” or “we don’t associate with those types of people” or the more general naming of Aileen as “that woman.” In fact, the only time in the film that she is called “monster” is an allusion of her own narration dubbed over a scene in a hotel room while she tries to hide her most recent murder from Selby. Almost exactly halfway through the film, Aileen has just killed her second john, the first of her victims that is not depicted as the self-defense angle. She says, “I remember I was just a kid and the 4-H club set up this beautiful gigantic yellow and red ferris wheel that lit up the night sky. They called it ‘The Monster’ … As a kid, I thought it was about the coolest thing I ever seen and I couldn’t wait to ride it. Sure enough, when I finally got my chance I got so scared and nauseous I threw up all over myself before I even made one full turn.” Later, the ferris wheel is romanticized as she rides one at Fun Land with Selby in a bonding moment. The fact though that the film is called “Monster” gives the audience expectations that she is monstrous, inhuman, and also therefore aligned with the masculine killers that inform the history and prior knowledge of the definition of “serial killer” The tone of the film somewhat contradicts this to an extent, on one hand adding complexity to Aileen’s character, but on the other hand possibly giving her credit or benefit of the doubt in some areas that may not be deserved.

So I’ve been questioning myself for some time about if or when we should or should not have depictions of women killers in sympathetic light or not, and my answer is that I don’t know. I think the question I have answered, however, is that there is indeed a great divide in when and why killers are depicted sympathetically and there is a gender gap in said depictions. A murderess is sympathetic when the teller of her tale needs her to be, and she is villainous when needed as well. As I’ve demonstrated, this is nothing new. The Victorians seem to have started the trend of manipulating their decorous women either to vilify them and have them serve as cautionary tales, threats to help keep certain members of society in line, or to keep them on a pedestal, commenting on the societal restrictions that would drive a woman to have no other choice, and placing the blame on systemic constraints. Although the specific constraints may have shifted over the past 150+ years, the trend of how we use violent women in media has not changed much at all.


Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, directed by Nick Broomfield. 2003; Dallas, TX: Lantern Lane Entertainment. Film.

Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the D’Urbervilles. [1892]. London: Penguin Classics, 2003.

Hardy, Thomas, and R. G. Cox. The Critical Heritage. London: Routlege & Kegan Paul, 1970.

Jenkins, Patty, dir. Monster. 2003; Los Angeles, CA: Newmarket Films. Film.