Why are we so obsessed with criminals who are women?
Anna Delvey fan girls, raise your hand.
Criminals who are women go against every gendered identity we’re socialized to accept. Women are called many things, but we’re never presumed to be physically dangerous, maliciously cunning, or just plain evil. Criminals who are women are the antithesis to the maternal trope we’re stamped with, something I explored previously.
First, I believe our obsession starts with flipping the “damsel-in-distress” cliché on its head. We're so used to seeing women on screen as victims—helpless and in need of saving, usually by a man. The damsel in distress shows up in all forms of media—typically these characters are hypersexualized, need to be “saved,” or are portrayed as a love interest (i.e. only 5% of video games use female protagonists). We’re so conditioned to view feminine characters as victims that when we find a woman who's not one, we latch on. Female villains on-screen (and in our news cycle) add a welcome balance to the stereotype we anticipate. In a twisted way, it’s kind of refreshing?
It’s possible our obsession centers on the cheap thrill of seeing women exercise power. Recently I’ve caught myself rooting for convicted criminals like Elizabeth Holmes and Anna Delvey. Why? They fascinate me. There’s a high chance it’s because they counter the male sociopaths we see daily in media and news cycles. But could their prominence also be a step toward quelling assumed gendered behaviour? I can’t help but revel in the reality of female “baddies” and the portrayal of female criminals in the media is kind of tantalizing. And it’s not just because of the remarkably sexist reporting that centers on said female criminal’s appearance. Statistically, women don’t incite violence as much as men do, but acknowledging the genderless capability of all humans to be criminal masterminds is a messed up way of demonstrating that women are powerful too.
“Violence is often seen as a heroic attribute of masculinity… whereas when a woman is violent, she is almost always seen as evil.” – Dr Jane Caputi
What about the femme fatale trope? Dr. Jane Caputi points out that, “for decades, powerful, lethal women were characterized as temptresses who exist to entice and then destroy the male protagonist.” As the male gaze wanes in the real world and the media increasingly portrays women as “evil,” I think we’re beginning to relish seeing violent women or women who act on their silent rage. “There is a strong cultural prohibition on women acting violently and what that violence represents,” said Soraya Chemaly, author of Rage Becomes Her, in an interview. “I think it’s interesting [that by watching shows about female killers], women are exploring violence in a medium in which the punishment cannot be exercised on them. It’s an imaginative exercise.”
We aren’t just captivated by female villains—we’re also obsessed with female victims in true crime stories. New research shows that given a choice of “violent reading material” women overwhelmingly opt to read true stories about the death and dismemberment of female victims. Men, in contrast, are more likely to choose nonfiction books about war or gang crime. The reasoning, in hindsight, is obvious and also pretty dark. Researchers associate the female obsession with true crime in part to these stories providing information that female readers feel could help them avoid or escape from a potential attacker. Studies also show that female readers prefer books that included a “clever trick” that led to the would-be victim’s escape.
How are these obsessions connected? Two common threads stand out to me. One—we are socialized to believe women are always the victims vs. perpetrators of bad behaviour or crimes. Two—women are physically less powerful than men. We are fascinated by true crime as it helps us develop techniques to ward off attackers and establish plans to be physically strong (powerful) in dangerous scenarios. We’re fascinated by female villains because of the “newness” of seeing women as perpetrators of bad behaviour—it’s an alternate perspective to witness women “powerful” enough to behave badly. To me, both obsessions are a refreshing, albeit morally questionable, break from gendered identities. What do you think?
What we’re reading…
👀 The beginner’s guide to opening up your relationship. It’s Sex + Power week at Diem, and we’re publishing a three-part guide to open relationships. Buckle up! Author Niki Davis will also be joining us next week in Diem to talk about it all. (The Power Outlet)
👏 12 women who don’t want it all—they want better. A refreshing set of ideas on our pressure-filled era, featuring women talk about the shifts they’ve seen and felt in work life, careers, relationships, parenting and gender roles in recent years. (NYT)
🛑 15-week abortion bans are on the verge of passing in three states. What does that mean? (The 19th)
Who we’re Dieming with this week…
To “Diem with” someone means to candidly exchange knowledge. Here’s a selection of knowledge going live (in the Diem app) this week.
Dear Boss, you need help with Amy Fraser & Rachel Gogel. Live as of MONDAY 5.30PM EST. Listen here.
Let’s Talk Dating Expectations with Dating podcaster Liana Pavane & relationship coach, Eria Weaver. Live as of MONDAY 6PM EST. Listen here.
Navigating Career Changes with Business Casual podcaster & former News Anchor, Nora Ali. Live as of TUESDAY 1.30PM EST. Listen here.
How to prioritize personal growth with Digital Undivided CEO, Lauren Mailian. Going live WEDNESDAY 12.30PM EST. Listen here.
Abortion rights, what you need to know with abortion activist, Paxton Smith. Going live WEDNESDAY 4.30PM EST. Listen here.
Cultivating authenticity & accessibility in web3 with unblcd founder, Dayna Trocki DeStefano & CryptoJo. Going live THURSDAY 10AM EST. Listen here.
I never feel horny anymore, help! with feminist professor & sex therapist, Dr Laurie Mintz. Going live THURSDAY 5PM EST. Listen here.
How to fundraise for your company or organization using NFTs with unblcd founder, Dayna Trocki. Going live FRIDAY 10AM EST. Listen here.
Let’s talk sobriety: Dating Edition with writer Sarah Levy & We Met At Acme podcaster, Lindsey Metselaar. Going live FRIDAY 4PM EST. Listen here.
See you next week,
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