Wednesday, July 4, 2007

The Subtleties of Sexism

This entry might make me sound like I'm verging on hyper-feminism, but it's something that has been bothering me for quite a while. I'm talking about a show on the Oxygen network, called Snapped. The first time that I saw this show, something about it made me feel uncomfortable. I watched it again another time and my feelings of discomfort continued.

Here is the premise of Snapped, taken from Oxygen's website:

Each year, approximately 16,000 people are murdered in the United States. 7% of the killers are female.*

Who are these women and what drives them to kill? Oxygen's hit true crime series Snapped in its 5th season, profiles the fascinating cases of women accused of murder. Did they really do it? And, if they did, why? Whether the motivation was revenge against a cheating husband, the promise of a hefty insurance payoff or putting an end to years of abuse, the reasons are as varied as the women themselves. From socialites to secretaries, female killers share one thing in common: at some point, they all Snapped.

The show begins with various images of women across the screen, many of them mugshots or family polaroids. Text flashes alongside the images: greed, lust, adultery, etc.
The show produces a very anti-feminist discourse: women are dangerous. Women, when given the taste of freedom or independence, will "snap" -- they will become decidedly unwomanly. The show, when watched, almost seems to be like a warning to men (and to the world). Women are becoming too independent and too ambitious. They are no longer content to be wives and mothers -- they want more. And this desire to have more leads them to "snap." It is strangely similar to the "hysteria" myth of the Victorian period -- women who have too much autonomy or education will suffer from hysteria. In Snapped, the women are almost consistently portrayed as manipulative and calculating -- bordering on sociopaths, while the men are shown as unassuming, innocent victims of their malicious partners. Never mind the fact that a huge number of women on the show were victims of years of intimate partner abuse -- both emotional and physical. Many of them were married to wealthy, controlling and womanizing partners. I'm not trying to make excuses for murder, but to shove something as complex as battered woman's syndrome into a half-hour television show is demeaning and exploiting to these women.

The show itself has earned much criticism from organizations such as Free Battered Women and the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women who explain that the show sensationalizes and trivializes the lives of women. They cite the facts that over the past 30 years, the number of women who have killed their partners has declined (perhaps due to the increased amount of resources for victims of domestic violence and the abilities of women to free themselves from dysfunctional and abusive relationships), while the same is not true the other way around. Currently, about one third of female murder victims were killed by an intimate partner, whereas only 3 to 4 percent of men are killed by their female partners.

But instead of the focus being on the many women who are victims of controlling and violent men (because is that really interesting to anyone?), we get a show like Snapped which places men in the role of victim and leaves everybody feeling more ready to restrict women's freedoms. Rather than portray the women as desperate, isolated and abused (which most of them were), the show portrays them -- as I said before -- as manipulative, calculating and sinister. So maybe some of them are. But is that any different from men who kill? Why is it that when women murder someone they've "snapped"? "Snapped" means that they have become unwomanly -- they have deviated from their gender's acceptable standards. Women are not supposed to kill. When a man kills, no one says that he "snapped." Violence and aggression is not so surprising in men. In women it is more scary. The show plays on people's fears of the "maternal" figure turning on her husband and children and becoming violent. It is also in line with the anti-feminist discourses of the 1980s which showed the "free woman" as castrating, infertile and abortion-loving.

For a network that claims to "put a fresh spin on television for women", its portrayals of them are surprisingly offensive and archaic.

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