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When She Was Bad: Violent Women and the Myth of Innocence

by Patricia Pearson

Sex, Power, and the Violent Schoolgirl

by Sybille Artz

B-film purists will be pleased to note that a literary equivalent of Chained Heat (the women- in-prison series) is being featured in bookstores everywhere. The refrain of these filmic mayhem queens – so young, so bad, so what? – reverberates through shelf after shelf of examinations of everything from Eight-Ball Chicks to Lip Service, Kate Fillion’s exposé revealing that women say terrible things about each other. And while the revival of the key motifs of Girls Town is both timely and apt, the one problem inherent in this critical trend is the simple truth that girls’ and women’s unbridled nastiness has always been a fact of life, literature, and pop.

The writer’s task then, is to say something new about Little Miss Evil, and it is Patricia Pearson, in her remarkable study, who best reveals the ideological and cultural smoke-screens that surround women who are BAD (boldly lipsticked on the book jacket). When She Was Bad attempts, successfully, to “provide…shade and nuance” to the concept of violent women. Pearson argues that our notions of female aggression must be drastically overhauled in order to “understand violence, to trace its causes and to quell them.” And while Pearson covers what is, to most amateur criminologists, familiar terrain, her systematic and pointed examination of penal systems, infamous criminals, and phenomena (such as neonaticide, husband-battering, and Munchausen syndrome by proxy) raises innumerable critical questions about how women are situated within crime and gender theory. According to Pearson, we are sitting in the catbird seat. Deploying statistical, critical, and scientific evidence, she persuades the reader that women continue to be, in the manner of Lizzie Borden, protected by carefully cultivated gender mythologies. Pearson is so persuasive, in fact, I felt convinced, after finishing her book, that I could hatchet murder with impunity.

Pearson’s book, with its brisk pace and sharp, pointed prose style, is a pleasure to read. It is also profoundly disturbing, as it is the first significant sustained challenge against mainstream notions about violent femmes. Like a veteran sharp-shooter, Pearson takes down second-wave feminism’s nurturing of the likes of maniac Aileen Wuornos; the judicial system’s cosseting of pseudo-victim Karla Homolka; the queasy psychiatric evaluations attendant the rash of murderous teen mothers. Her greatest daring is exhibited in her critical position: Pearson stands outside of virtually all known ways of looking at women and crime and asks the reader to find “new words,” a new way of studying this phenomenon. She is in the unenviable position here of breaking a lot of ground, and one hopes that more work of this nature will emerge, work which challenges, with critical violence, the evil that women do.

Sybille Artz’s lengthy analysis poses similar questions. Her qualitative study of violent teenage girls (who are not in gangs or custody) explores social and familial circumstances in search of “motive.” Sex, Power, and the Violent School Girl is, unfortunately, a disappointing and flawed book that reads like a spin-doctored academic thesis – ponderously annotated, charted, and overwrought (an explanation of the word “action” is produced in the introduction).

Artz is competent in outlining the flaws and gender biases in mainstream theories of crime and delinquency; and her work with violent youths is a laudable example of theoretical praxis. As an ethnography, however, Artz’s book is horribly flawed. Most of the chapters in the book are derived from interviews with female “hitters,” girls who damage property, smoke pot and cigarettes, skip school, lie, and engage in petty theft and the odd body-blow. Because I could not differentiate these girls from anyone I went to high school with, I found it very difficult to pathologize them. Obviously, it is not appropriate to hit another girl and say, “Oh ya, wicked!” Equally obvious is the dysfunctional family’s role in these girls’ aggression. What Artz fails to deliver is “motive,” after all – the reader’s motive, that is, for plowing through a series of interviews with a bunch of bratty, snot-faced punks without discovering anything of critical value.

Finally, Artz’s politics are shockingly dated: Madonna, Marilyn Monroe, and Barbie are excoriated here as bad role models (I’m surprised The Spice Girls escaped the lash). Worse, the girls studied are wretchedly categorized as “Rappers,” “Bangers,” and “Skates,” terms that Artz explains with appalling ignorance. Rappers, for example, like to listen to “black ghetto…tribal rhythms;” rap is about misogyny (tell that to Bitches with Attitude); rap musicians, in Artz’s myopic cultural gaze, appear to consist of the Beastie Boys exclusively.

Pearson’s book deserves to face proudly outward on the Babes with Box-Cutters book rack; Artz’s effort, I’m afraid, is more suited to reside wanly with the gyno-anomie overstock in university book room stacks.


Reviewer: Lynn Crosbie

Publisher: Random House


Price: $29.95

Page Count: 281 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-394-22430-2

Released: Sept.

Issue Date: 1997-9

Categories: Politics & Current Affairs

Reviewer: Lynn Crosbie

Publisher: Trifolium


Price: $29.95

Page Count: 272 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 1-895579-41-4

Released: Nov.

Issue Date: September 1, 1997

Categories: Politics & Current Affairs