Satu Venäläinen is a doctoral student at University of Helsinki, Finland, in the department of Social Research. She is currently working on her PhD thesis in social psychology, focusing on ways in which violence committed by women is made sense of both in tabloids and in narratives by women serving a prison sentence. In this work, Satu looks at how media descriptions of women accused of violence are based on gendered expectations, and how women imprisoned for violent crimes negotiate the cultural conceptions that emphasize their deviance and abnormality.
Violence committed by women has become a hot topic in public debate in Finland over recent years. Some cases in which women have been accused of violent crimes have been followed extremely closely in the media. The reactions that these cases have aroused among the general public have been intense. For many, to think of women as perpetrators of violence feels unnatural and repulsive. Some, however, have seized the opportunity that talking about women’s violence seems to offer, using it to challenge feminist views about violence against women as a serious social problem. In this thinking, the idea seems to be that women can be either victims or perpetrators of violence, but not both.
In my PhD research I have analysed how women accused of violent crimes are portrayed in Finnish tabloid news stories. I have been particularly interested in ways in which these portrayals are gendered, since such patterns have been observed in several other studies outside Finland as well. And indeed, what I found was that women accused of violence are often portrayed as abnormal deviants in Finnish tabloids. Their evil character is often emphasized, or they are seen as having an otherwise flawed personality. Sometimes they are portrayed as completely insane. While men accused of violence are often portrayed in the media in ways that allow society to view them as normal men despite their violent deeds, a much more condemning stigma is attached to women and their violence. Especially for tabloids that seek to compile stories with shock value, women’s violence often seems to offer ingredients for sensational news reports.
When looked at from a gender perspective, it therefore seems that women accused of violence are often put on trial—not only due to the crimes of which they are accused, but also due to their crimes against femininity. Women’s violence is not compatible with traditional assumptions that women are nurturing and passive by nature. In light of these assumptions, women who act violently seem to be acting in an unnatural, manly way. If gender is seen as a social system that is based on assumptions about differences between women and men, then women’s violence poses a threat to this system. Therefore, “violent” women are dangerous because they threaten the naturalness of gender.
To assume that women and men are naturally different when it comes to violence usually works against feminist views on violence. Feminists have long tried to show that violence against women is linked to gendered power relations between women and men. These kinds of feminist views are however seldom visible in tabloid news. This means that women’s violence is seldom made sense of in tabloids in ways that would allow readers to see it as happening in a gendered context, where women who commit violence may often also be victims of violence themselves. Furthermore, some, especially advocates of the men’s rights movement in Finland, think that feminists want to maintain an image of violence as solely perpetrated by men. Here, the assumption seems to be that to talk about violence targeted at women by men automatically means that violence committed by women becomes unspeakable. Ironically, however, women’s violence poses a much bigger problem for those who wish to maintain the idea of gender as a natural phenomenon than to feminists who aim to make the workings of gendered power visible.
One interesting aspect in tabloid stories is that they often portray women accused of violence as not only ill-willed deviants but also as deceptive. These stories may for example emphasize how those women have led investigators, along with the wider public, astray with their lies or by their unwillingness to confess to their crimes. Their feminine, ordinary kind of appearance is sometimes even taken to be merely a façade meant to hide what is assumed to be their true, violent character. However, what also caught my attention when I analysed the remarks of some of the commentators of these cases was that they occasionally talked about feminists in a similar way. Thus feminists were sometimes also portrayed in these news reports as deceptively trying to hide the truth about women’s violence and its frequency. The knowledge that feminists try to spread about violence was seen as tainted by their ideological commitments and therefore of no value. Feminists, then, appear to be occasionally portrayed in tabloid news as co-conspirators who assist “violent” women in their assumed attempts to conceal their violent natures.
The fact that some groups or individuals feel a need to point out that feminists have gotten it wrong about the links between violence and gender tells us that to see feminists as truth-tellers in this matter is considered a threat. What, then, makes it dangerous to see feminists as truth-tellers when it comes to violence? Obviously, several issues are connected to this. One reason may be that to talk about violence targeted at women by men is not fitting with the assumption that gender equality has already been reached. Finnish society in particular is reputed to have attained high levels of gender-equality in various areas of life. However, despite some changes for the better, vast inequalities still prevail. This is evident for example in high rates of violence directed at women especially in domestic contexts. To remind the public about these existing inequalities is not often welcomed—it challenges the very basis of a progressive Finnish national identity. And for many, this identity is all the more precious in current times, when the risen number of immigrants arriving in Finland is perceived to put it under threat.
Therefore, the high investment that some Finns have in the idea of Finland as a gender-equal country makes it difficult to talk about links between violence, gender and inequality. There is a widespread assumption that women and men have the same opportunities, and that gender therefore is not linked to differences in power. For some, this means that women and men may equally well be perpetrators of violence, and that there is no marked difference in their victimization. Yet at the same time women’s violence is met with abhorrence, and women accused of violence are publicly chastised.
The issue of gender and violence is incredibly thorny and complex. Too often it is talked about in ways that simplify its complexity, and ignore the gendered effects of power. We need ways to talk about women as both capable of violence and also as vulnerable to violence targeted at them by men. This is yet another reason why efforts to positively embrace the possibility of being considered a dangerous woman, who challenges commonplace notions that sustain the status quo, are truly valuable.
Boyle, Karen (2005). Media and Violence. Gendering the Debates. Lontoo: Sage.
Chesney-Lind, Meda (2006). Patriarchy, Crime, and Justice. Feminist Criminology in an Era of Backlash. Feminist Criminology 1: 6, 6–26.
Venäläinen, Satu (2016). “She must be an odd kind of woman”: Gendered categorizations in accounts of lethal intimate partner violence in Finnish tabloid news. Feminism & Psychology, Epub ahead of print, doi: 10.1177/0959353516655370.
Venäläinen, Satu (2016). What are true women not made of? Agency and identities of “violent” women in tabloids in Finland. Feminist Media Studies, 16:2, 261–275.