The Sexes: When a Man Kills a Woman | Essay | Chicago Reader

The Sexes: When a Man Kills a Woman 

The media would have you believe that it's always madness, never misogyny. But when was the last time a woman cut a man into little pieces?

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It is a sign of our dim-wittedness, no doubt, but violence seems to have this one positive effect: it makes things clear. We know that blankety-blank percent of America's blacks live in poverty, and that another x percent are unemployed, and that some mind-numbing number lack adequate prenatal care, but when a gang of white kids chases a black man into the path of an oncoming car--the "Howard Beach incident"--that's when we sit up and take notice, for a moment, that we still live in a racist society. And when a few college guys get together late one night, put on some white sheets, and scare the shit out of a black classmate by pretending that they're going to hang him--this recently happened at the Citadel in South Carolina--we don't need to argue about it: only students reared in a racist culture, we acknowledge, could have transgressed civility in such a fashion. Violent incidents like these have their use: they put racism on the media map periodically; they force us to confront one of our society's ugly parts, one that thrives on ignorance and apathy.

Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to work the same way with sexism. Women, who suffer the legacy of their own kind of servitude, find no such silver lining in the violence that besets them. When men torture, rape, and murder women in ways that women never do to men--when was the last time we read about a woman kidnapping four men, keeping them naked, sexually abusing them, murdering them, and cooking their flesh?--the incidents are understood as the works of crazies. Period. Of course we recognize that the good ol' boys who hang blacks are social perverts acting out a sick ideology, but somehow that recognition does not becloud our understanding of their political backdrop. The severe abnormality of a group of people stringing up another individual does not blind us to the historical meaning of lynching. Before we label the murderers weirdos, we call them racists. Sexism, however, is still too much a part of our culture's fabric for even its more hideous outbursts to appear politically deviant. If you doubt it, you'll find the proof on the front page of your favorite newspaper. Lately you can also find it back among the movie reviews.

"Captive Woman, Body Parts Found in House." The story that accompanied this headline in the Washington Post of March 26, 1987, was written the day after police found, in the North Philadelphia residence of a man named Gary Heidnik, "three half-naked women chained in the basement . . . and chopped-up human body parts in the kitchen." It is possible, theoretically, that the crime was unrelated to the gender of the victims. One would assume as much from reading the work of any of the reporters who covered the story. The same journalist who described Heidnik as a "self-styled playboy" never connected the crime to the nationwide epidemic of violence against women, even though the Washington Post, only weeks before, had covered every gory development when police discovered the raped and tortured remains of six women in a D.C. suburb. They too died alone.

There's no doubt about the insanity of an ax-murderer. But is it happenstance that some men express deviance by hacking off women's arms, as in the case of Californian Larry Singleton, while women seem somehow to refrain from such brutality against either sex? Lisa Thomas, who is 18 years old, was according to the Post "forced to have sex daily with Heidnik and fed only dog biscuits." "He took me down to the basement and put chains on my legs," she told the reporter. "He beat me with a wooden stick. There were two other women down there. They were chained, too."

There were no men in Heidnik's basement.

Two weeks after the Heidnik story broke, the San Francisco Chronicle ran an article headlined: "Killer Tells How Wife Taunted Him About Sex." "Peter Cooper told a San Mateo Superior Court Jury yesterday how he killed his wife with a sledgehammer after she called him a 'queer.'" The story concludes, "The key issue before the jury will be whether Cooper was provoked by his wife's remarks." The theory of his defense, in other words, will be that a taunt about male identity can be considered a mitigating circumstance in a woman's murder.

On the same page, the Chronicle told the story of a 17-year-old girl in Sebastopol, California, a small town about 50 miles north of San Francisco. The girl, Stephanie Rice, "had fought with her boyfriend and went to . . . seek treatment for bruises and cuts." She called her mother from the hospital and asked to be taken to her parents' home, where she thought she would be safe. Her father, William, then stabbed Stephanie and she died. He was, according to the Chronicle, "apparently upset because his daughter was living with a boyfriend." Two men, each invoking his historical role as master of the house, had made Stephanie Rice a victim--twice. Yet unlike the young man in Howard Beach, who died in the footsteps of Martin Luther King Jr., Stephanie Rice was involved in a mere "family matter." There was no outrage on the op-ed page, no handwringing on Nightline. Just a dead girl.

These latter two cases involve "domestic violence," of course. Surely they must be treated differently from the outrages in Philadelphia. We all know that most murders are crimes of passion. Still, it's interesting to note that family squabbles don't inspire similar aggression in women. There is no tit for tat. More American women receive emergency medical services for injuries caused by violent partners than do because of rape, mugging, and auto accidents combined. Between 1981 and 1984, about 32 percent of the female murder victims in the United States were killed by husbands or boyfriends. How many male homicides were attributable to a female partner? Two percent.

On May 8, 1987, convicted rapist and attempted ax-murderer Lawrence Singleton, the recently paroled California fellow who's been having such a hard time finding a hometown, offered the following aphorism in an interview: "I was raised that you treat a whore like a lady and a lady like a whore." This, it must be pointed out, is not the wild ranting of a man beyond the pale. Larry Singleton was "raised." His comment is no more than a simply worded observation about how male-dominated culture perpetuates itself.

Every day women must confront the consequences of Singleton's motto, every time a construction worker whistles, a television advertisement sells a woman with a car, or a male classmate interrupts. (A number of studies reveal that men do 90 percent of the talking in the average college classroom.) The media, however, seem to presume that the time of postfeminist nirvana has arrived; they would have us believe that women who do not yet acknowledge it are either whiny consciousness raisers or man haters who are willfully impervious to their recently corrected status of equality. Over the past few months, following the release of two films about prostitution, the liberal film criticism community has made this point quite ferociously.

The directors of these films, both feminists, present two very different interpretations of Larry Singleton's ugly macho motto. For all the wrong reasons, the critics have invariably preferred the postslasher, revisionist story in Lizzy Borden's Working Girls over the "feminist-realism" of Marleen Gorris's Broken Mirrors. Borden treats women's oppression as an aspect of capitalism, while Gorris produces a more direct attack against male domination and the widespread violence that perpetuates it.

Certainly the questions of sex, gender, sexuality, and power are complex, and feminists may therefore use a variety of ways to dramatize the systematic subordination of women to men. It is unfortunate, but not contradictory, that there are enough sources of oppression to fuel a multitude of feminist approaches. Still, many critics reveal more than they intend when they pit Borden the "feminist" against Gorris the "man hater." It is easier for everyone to live in a society of confused individuals (one reading of Borden's film) than to acknowledge the possibility that we are warriors and captives in a guerrilla war against those we care for most.

In a low-key way, Working Girls tells about an average day in the life of some normal women doing nothing special in an ordinary brothel. Borden's point is that selling a hand-job is the same as selling shorthand, except that hand-jobs pay better. At a screening of the film in Washington D.C.'s Kennedy Center, Borden said she wanted to show the parallels between the prostitute's bored, there-in-body-only demeanor and the status of the Everywoman Service Worker. Men buy smiles, and then some, from both. The small difference between the two is that prostitutes don't have to give favors; they are paid well for having their asses pinched. In other words, men treat whores like whores, and they treat ladies like cheap whores.

Against Working Girls's massive canvas of capitalist relations, men's responsibility for all this may appear relatively puny. Cash is the chief culprit, and it bonds customer to working girl, and prostitution to society as a whole. Borden's madam--a mix of high-society bitchiness and den mother protectiveness--enjoys as healthy a financial statement as the next guy. The message is that women can pimp as well as men; women can exploit as well as be victims.

Liberal film critics just love this kind of picture, in which men's particular responsibility vanishes into the seemingly unfathomable murk of economics. Vincent Canby, film critic for the New York Times, appreciates the film's credo (which he invents): as long as there is commerce there will be prostitution, whether we like it or not. "Sex is a natural resource that, as long as the society remains as it is, might as well be exploited."

(Canby is the kind of critic who, when he praises women's films, feels compelled to add that he does so "despite explicit feminist themes." In addition he must see himself as the sole torchbearer in the crusade to preserve "Miss," after even the slow and stodgy Times changed its stylebook.)

Canby writes, "Miss Borden, whose Born in Flames (1983) was militantly feminist, here adopts an entirely different approach." Insofar as men can view Working Girls as an apologia for prostitution, they have found a feminism they can live with. They don't see Borden's indictment of women's miserable status and lack of choice in capitalist societies (just look at who buys and who sells if sex is "exploited"); this element disappears into a Rorschach camouflage, undetected by men who are conditioned to see some patterns and ignore others.

Stanley Kauffman, film critic for the New Republic, approves of Borden's "tacit yet strong protest against prostitution. There is no hortatory call for immediate action." Between the lines we almost hear Kauffman sigh, "Thank God." In any case, Borden's "protest" is so "tacit" that not even she hears it, since she says that she made the film out of respect for prostitutes, such as those in the San Francisco-based organization COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics)--and that this group in particular thought it was fantastic. Borden's point is not that it is good for women when "sex is exploited," as Canby states, nor is it that prostitution is bad for society, as Kauffman concludes. As things stand now, she seems to be saying, men's relations with prostitutes are of the same exploitative genre as their relations with their secretaries. That both hooker and stenographer maintain their dignity despite these involvements is a feat for which they deserve our admiration.

Marleen Gorris allows no such confusion about what she's saying. Her Broken Mirrors develops disturbing connections easily overlooked when we watch Working Girls. While Lizzy Borden points two fingers--one at capitalism and another at patriarchy--Gorris focuses exclusively on misogyny. Where Borden intrigues, reviewers say, Gorris "oversimplifies" (Canby). The critics find Gorris's work to be a one-dimensional understanding of prostitution. But that's because they cannot abide her multifaceted construction of women's oppression. Men may subjugate women in a variety of ways, Gorris tells us, but we can be certain that it is always men subjugating women.

Broken Mirrors opens with a man dumping a dead woman into a body of water, just after he takes a Polaroid photograph of her. Gorris then cuts to a brothel, just before its doors open. The two scenes are apparently unrelated, but as the film unfolds the story of the psycho who stalks anonymous women begins to parallel the stories of the johns and husbands who control the prostitutes. Eventually the separate plots converge.

Each small drama in Broken Mirrors reinforces the film's overarching message that men fear and hate women. The film's one apparent exception to the rule that all men are creeps turns out to have starved a woman to death. The psycho-killer character is revealed to be a brothel regular. He is a "normal," happily married office worker whose hobby is to kidnap, torture, and kill women.

Critics in weeklies from east to west cannot accept the fundamental connection that Gorris draws between "normalcy" and misogynistic violence. A couple of months ago Kelly Vance wrote in the East Bay Express that "Broken Mirrors comes across as a lurid anti-male goon show, in which [the] workaday premise [of life in a brothel] is overstuffed with grotesque and dangerous men, including a customer who kidnaps and tortures women in between trips to the brothel." The concept that the individual freak's psychopathic violence against women is consistent with the more casual, i.e., "workaday," exploitation of the prostitutes just doesn't work for Kelly Vance. It's too much. It distorts. It's unrealistic. Yet the man who kidnaps women off the street and locks them up until they die is not a creature from some overblown melodrama, but a character we can read about in the newspaper.

J. Hoberman in the Village Voice calls Broken Mirrors "heavy handed," as he ridicules Gorris's scenes that show "a middle-aged housewife abducted by a misogynist psychokiller and chained to a bed in a fetid cell. . . . Overstating her case with grim purposefulness, Gorris is nothing if not didactic." The split personality of the psycho-killer means, however, that Gorris's streets are not filled strictly with Mr. Hydes. We see a lot of Dr. Jekyll. Gorris reveals the latent personae of the men who, in Borden's New York brothel, are simply depicted as ill at ease. The women in both films maintain a semblance of control that makes the men uncomfortable. Hoberman admires Borden's description of average, shlubby men who are awkward in what Borden calls the "women's space" of a brothel. He cannot, however, bring himself to believe that such male fragility may have a violent underside.

It is appropriate that despite the melodrama for which Gorris is maligned, most critics fail to "get it." The violent events in Broken Mirrors, writes the New Republic's Kauffman, "detract from the real point of the film: Even without knifings, suicides, and murders, prostitution is a blight." Gorris's real "real point" is that the two violences against women are not even possible independent of each other. A society that trades in female flesh depends on other brutalizations of women, and vice versa. It is telling that Kauffman describes the subplot's murderous protagonist strictly as "maniacal," without reference to the scenes in which Gorris shows him as a reliable worker and family man. Kauffman's inclination to hermetically seal prostitution away from other atrocities women endure is an unsuccessful attempt to evade responsibility.

The Voice's Hoberman has a similar blind spot as to Gorris's intentions. "The humorless Broken Mirrors has an undercurrent of Puritanism--Gorris's whores are punished after all." Hoberman completely ignores the fact that none of the "maniac's" victims are prostitutes and that there is no sexual contact between the kidnapper and his prisoners. Women are not punished for having sex, but for having a sex. It is not easy to accept that the interest in power and humiliation, rather than titillation, may extend beyond the individual pervert. When Gorris collapses the maniac/normal distinctions she finds all men participating in a silent partnership that oppresses all women.

Men who are sympathetic to feminism recoil at the suggestion that male violence against women benefits them as well as the male chauvinists. Were they not deprived of child care from their fathers? Are they not also oppressed? This reaction is as sincere as it is disingenuous. Sure, after the revolution, as Marx put it, the "capitalists lose their chains." But in the meantime all capitalists reap benefits at the expense of a standing army of the unemployed. Whether or not one agrees with Gorris's radical description of all men as playing variations on the theme of hating all women, her characterizations deserve to be treated seriously. Gorris reveals a society in which men get away with murder. No wonder the critics are carping.

The sad truth is that the men in the life of Stephanie Rice, the above-mentioned teenager who was allegedly abused by her boyfriend then stabbed by her father, were baseball and apple pie kinda guys. They were "normal." It would be much easier to dismiss the circumstances of her death as a "goon show," the way that reviewers mock Gorris's film, but in fact Stephanie lost her life precisely because it was "overstuffed with grotesque and dangerous men." Every woman's life is.

The extraordinary tales of the violence men do to women usually amount to no more than juicy grist for New York Post banner headlines. Even mainstream journalists tell these stories as though they are results of a sickening, but inevitable, human pathology, as if these deaths--and those of women who are killed by angry "lovers" and the rape of hundreds of thousands of women each year--are random detours from the otherwise forward march of our civilization. There will always be a few bad apples, these one-column wire stories seem to remind us. It is merely coincidence that in the case of macabre "sexual" assaults the criminals are men and the victims are women.

Perhaps if there were a general recognition of men's not yet resolved misogyny--the way we recognize the still lurking evil of racism--it would not have been so easy for the Philadelphia police to ignore a woman named Mrs. Perkins when she led them to Gary Heidnik's doorstep last December, more than three months before he was finally arrested. Mrs. Perkins's daughter, Sandra, was missing; she told police that girls and women were going into this house and not coming out. Though Heidnik had been tried for rape (and acquitted) three times previously, police told Mrs. Perkins that they lacked a compelling reason to search the premises. A later concession by authorities, that indeed Sandra had been kidnapped and murdered by Heidnik, did little to assuage her mother's grief. The police speculated that the funny odor that neighbors had reported several months earlier was Sandra's burning flesh. So is it Marleen Gorris's work, or the media's ignorance of our country's rape culture, that is out of step with reality? If it were openly acknowledged that ours is a society in which one woman in three has been sexually assaulted in some way, perhaps one of the juries that released Gary Heidnik would have put him away before he'd had the chance to progress from rape to murder.

I do not mean to say that all men are, but for successful socialization, sadistic ax-murderers. But I do mean to say that violence against women lies on a continuum. Those who seek to deny the more horrific moments of the women-hating spectrum are comrades-in-arms with the "crazies" who rape, torture, and murder. Without knowing it, American critics make an ironic point when they argue that Gorris's work lacks a "real life" quality. In her native country, the progressive and relatively pacific Holland, where prostitution is legal, the events depicted in her film do indeed constitute a mythic representation of male aggression; but here in the U.S. (and this reveals Gorris's brilliance as well as the importance of her message), her film passes as an apt characterization of everyday, "workaday" events. The violence she shows us comes right off our front pages. How much more "real life" do the critics want?

The similarity, and even identification, between Gorris's men who physically assault women and the "innocent" men who are not-so-mere helpmates in these crimes provokes us to think about an important question, one that makes most men (and some women) nervous: what would men have to do, how would they have to change, what privileges would they have to renounce, once they chose to take responsibility for their complicity in a world that causes such pain for their mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters? When those with a stake in the status quo offer easy solace in contrived denial, responsible people have a duty to see and tell the truth.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tom Herzberg.

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