Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 14. Nr. Mai 2003

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly - Literary Representations of Violence by Women

Kathleen Thorpe (Johannesburg)


Violence perpetrated by men against women is well documented in the police files and court records of the world. Of course, whether such crimes against women are taken seriously and punished with sufficient severity differs from society to society and is influenced by the prevailing cultural attitudes with regard to the status of women in the society in question.

I do not wish to challenge the fact that the majority of perpetrators of violence are men and that women are generally the victims of male violence. However, there is the other side of the coin, namely, women as perpetrators of violence - a subject which has not yet received the same amount of attention in any discipline or in literary expression as has women as victims of male violence. On the one hand, numerical proportionality would seem to provide an easy answer - women as victims are, as we know, the common case and should, therefore, receive the most attention. On the other hand, however, facts are beginning to emerge indicating that the incidence of female violence is higher than has been generally perceived to be the case. From the point of view of literature too, there seems to be a disproportionately smaller number of works thematizing female violence, given the fact that woman are indeed capable of perpetrating violence. There would seem, therefore, to be some complex mechanism at work which seems to retard the acknowledgment of the problem in society at large and which is then reflected in the relatively rare thematizing of this societal problem in literature written by both men and women. In keeping with the designation of this section as a "workshop", I would like to present a few aspects of a "work-in-progress" and welcome your comments and suggestions. I will mention a few insights gained mainly from the area of forensic psychology to attempt to outline some of the problems relating to female violence and the forms it can take. Then I will mention some works, mainly by women, that do thematize female violence and try to draw a few tentative conclusions. As a Germanist, my examples will mainly be taken from literature written in German and most often, from the pens of Austrian authors.

Published in 2001, the work by Anna Motz, The Psychology of Female Violence. Crimes against the Body, raises many problems for discussion that have up until now rarely found expression. Anna Motz draws on psychodynamic and criminological perspectives regarding women who have come to the attention of the criminal justice system in the United Kingdom, and it would be reasonable to conclude that many of her findings are not peculiar to British society alone but would have a more general applicability, too. Some of the major topics drawn from her experience as a clinical and forensic psychologist include, for example, self-harm, eating disorders, physical and sexual abuse of children, infanticide, Munchhausen's Syndrome by Proxy and battered women who kill. The central aim of Anna Motz's book is to issue a challenge to the denial of female violence by exploring, as she puts it, "the inner unconscious conflicts which may be reflected in the outward manifestations of violence"(Motz, 2001:4). Anna Motz advances two main reasons for ignoring female violence, namely, "the widespread denial of female aggression and the idealization of motherhood". She also adds significantly that an additional reason for this failure is "the secretive or personal nature of much female violence, perversity or deviance. [...] Female violence is often committed in the private, domestic area as opposed to the traditionally male arena of public life, highlighting important issues about the demarcation of spheres of power in society."(Motz, 2001:4)

As Estella Weldon states in her Foreword to Anna Motz's book, the implications of not facing and acknowledging the existence of female violence are far-reaching:

In purely numerical terms, there are only a few hundred documented examples of perverse motherhood. But the impact of perverse mothers is enormously powerful: on their innocent and helpless victims, on the growing numbers of families and communities corrupted and demoralized, on whole societies in shock, disbelief and bewilderment. These are not just clinical concerns. They are social, moral, cultural, penal, legal and bureaucratic, and as such touch almost everyone in society.(Weldon in Motz, 2001:ix)

An additional interesting point made by Anna Motz is the notion that

it is also essential to recognize the violence which is done to them (i.e. women) through the denial of their capacity for aggression, and the refusal to acknowledge their moral agency. It is possible that the envy which this idealization by others creates is also responsible for the denigration of women, particularly mothers, when they do not fulfil the expectations created by sentimental notions of motherhood and femininity(Motz, 2001:3-4).

Motz further adds that the incidence of female violence, because of its mainly being perpetrated in the private sphere, leads to the suspicion that such acts are generally underreported and that the incidence of violence by women could probably be much higher than first thought.

An important assertion by Anna Motz with interesting implications for literature is the following with regards to the function and meaning of the violent act: "A woman uses her body as her most powerful means of communication and her greatest weapon. In a sense she writes on her body in a gesture of protest and in order to elicit help, to communicate her sense of crisis. [...] what is too painful to be thought about may be enacted."(Motz, 2001:1-2) When one adds other insights of a psychoanalytical or sociological nature to Anna Motz's findings, it becomes clear that female violence is an extremely complex and fascinating area for research. Erich Fromm (Fromm 1980: 215-217), for example, finds that there is no convincing biological reason for women to be less capable of violence than men and points to the socialization of girls in a patriarchal society as a plausible explanation for the lower incidence of violence by women. Sociologists such as Hanna Hacker (Hacker,1998), for example, in her historical studies points to the situation of violent women being stripped of the appellation "feminine" and thus they become "male" in the eyes of society. These are but a few of the problems associated with female violence, but they nevertheless could provide a staring point for discussion.

The lack of high numbers of reported incidents of female violence in reality is reflected in the relatively sparse thematization of the topic in literature. Of course, there are the archetypes such as those from ancient times: Medea, Klytemnestra, Penthesilea and the biblical Judith. There are the warrior women of history such as Boadicea, Joan of Arc and La Passionaria, not to mention the rebels, pirates and terrorists such as Gudrun Enslin and Tamara Bunker, Pulan Devi and Charlotte Corday - cited here in an eclectic mix. In short, there are the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

Although literary texts thematizing female violence are relatively few, there are indications of an increased willingness by particularly female authors to entertain the notion of the violent woman, as for example Herbjørg Wassmos bestseller: Dina's Book, which has also been recently filmed, in what is termed "Belletristik" as opposed to dterctive novels or "Krimis", usually consigned to the realm of "Trivialliteratur" or popular literature. Ingrid Noll, for example, has made a name for herself in this category of literature, lesbian "Krimis" often thematize female violence - usually in a good cause in the defence of women. Perhaps discussion could commence by comparing some of the points made by Anna Motz such as self-harm, abuse and reactions to abuse to literary examples by Elfriede Jelinek generally or perhaps less discussed works such as Die Züchtigung by Anna Mitgutsch as well as the two works of a planned trilogy by Elfriede Czurda: Die Giftmörderinnen and Die Schläferin.

© Kathleen Thorpe (Johannesburg)

TRANSINST       Inhalt / Table of Contents / Contenu: No.14


Czurda, Elfriede: Die Giftmörderinnen. Rowohlt. Reinbek bei Hamburg. 1991.

Czurda, Elfriede: Die Schläferin. Rowohlt. Reinbek bei Hamburg. 1997.

Fromm, Erich: Die Anatomie der menschlichen Destruktivität. rororo sachbuch 7052. Rowohlt Taschenbuchverlag (1974) 1980. Aus dem Amerikanischem von Liselotte und Ernst Mickel. "es (gibt) keinerlei Hinweise [...], die zu der Annahme führen könnten, daß Frauen weniger destruktiv oder grausam sind als Männer." "Resultat der bestehenden patriarchalischen Gesellschaftsordnung", pp. 215- 217.

Hacker, Hanna: Gewalt ist: keine Frau. Der Akteurin oder eine Geschichte der Transgression. Ulrike Helmer Verlag. Königstein/Taunus. 1998.

Mitgutsch, Anna: Die Züchtigung. dtv. München. 1985.

Motz, Anna: The Psychology of Female Violence. Crimes against the Body. With a foreword by Estela Welldon. Brunner-Routledge. Hove. 2001.

Herbjørg Wassmo: Dina's Book. Translated from the Norwegian by Nadia M. Christensen. Black Swan. London .1994 (1989).

For quotation purposes - Zitierempfehlung:
Kathleen Thorpe (Johannesburg): The Good, the Bad and the Ugly - Literary Representations of Violence by Women. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 14/2002.

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