On the Violent Lesbian: Part 1

Collage 5
Rosie Dahlstrom: Digital collage from ‘Delphyne’ series (2018)

I’m going to write some short pieces tying together some thoughts I’ve had on the image of The Violent Lesbian as she pops up in our collective consciousness of the world. She’s a character I have thought a lot about over the years, as I think the transgressive and conservative ways in which she is represented tell us a huge deal about the perception of the relationships between violence, sexuality and femininity in wider culture.

This discussion is prompted by the recent TV phenomenon, Killing Eve, which has as its central plot a cat and mouse game between international assassin Villanelle and MI5 agent Eve. Between the two characters there is an interesting sexually charged dynamic involving shifts in power, the invasion of the private (Villanelle going through Eve’s suitcase), the uncovering of past secrets, and betrayal. Eve is obsessed with Villanelle in a way that goes far beyond wanting to catch a killer; Villanelle becomes intrigued by this game and reciprocates playfully and violently.

Jodie Comer as Villanelle in ‘Killing Eve’ (2018)

What I wanted to draw attention to is the almost immediate portrayal of Villanelle, female psycho-killer assassin, as sexually aggressive, and queer. In the first episode you see her casually in bed post-threesome with a male and a female playmate; she callously initiates sex with a neighbour; her history involves an unreciprocated love affair with a female teacher (whose husband she murders). You get the feeling with her that sex, like killing, is just a fun way to pass the time, to delay boredom, and she’s good at it; the marked exception to this is her infatuation with Eve and her predecessor Annie, who share the same hairstyle which she fetishizes. In Villanelle, there is an intriguing mix of motivations and at the heart of it a mystery: what really drives her? Survival, power, sex, revenge? Is there anything behind the mask but another mask, or a void?

But again, we can’t seem to ever have a psychotic or violent female character without the association of lesbianism. This is an ancient association: women who kill must be un-feminine, as violent is un-feminine, so they must be masculine by default, so they must be lesbian. Assertiveness is also a masculine trait, so a sexually aggressive woman is also a lesbian. It’s a simplistic misogynistic equation that essentially denies female characters and by extension women the ability to be complex, three-dimensional, ethically questionable, ambiguous; as every female character has to fit nicely into a little box.

Villanelle’s box is that of The Violent Lesbian, and she’s in there with Thelma and Louise, Aileen Wuornos, Lisbeth Salander, Basic Instinct and many, many more real or fictional characters from over the decades. I am unsure how much Villanelle subverts the restrictions of this box: she definitely plays excitingly with feminine masks (see pink dress above) and remains essentially unknowable, which is very queer. The show falls down by not permitting Eve, the goody, to commit to her lesbian feelings. In the final scene of the first series, it seems that the pair are confessing their feelings of desire to each other (Eve: “I think about your eyes, and your mouth, and what you feel when you kill someone.” Villanelle: “I think about you, too. I mean, I masturbate about you a lot.”) But when Eve stabs Villanelle, I read it as queerbaiting; how are we to know that Eve really feels sexual desire for Villanelle when she was probably lying to get her revenge?

Killing Eve is a very good TV show, well-acted, well-written, enjoyably frantic, and it’s not up to one piece of art to fix everything that’s wrong with all culture, even if it could have gone farther. I see that its main success is in depicting sexual desire as being comprised of many complex factors, such as power, intimacy, mystery, fear and obsession, which can transcend gender and other ‘restrictions’. So, what it may not do for the cause of LGBTQ+ representation in the media, it does ‘queer’ and complicate the depiction of more general sexuality.

Aileen Wuornos, female serial killer (b. 1956 d. 2002)

The archetypal violent lesbian is of course Aileen Wuornos, who in mass culture represented firstly the clear relationship between killer women and sexual deviancy, cementing the pairing in the right wing mind as indisputable fact. Aileen, the only woman serial killer in modern times, who murdered 7 men around 1989 and had a female partner, made it very easy for the dodgy American media to insinuate into the minds of the public the projection of a whole range of homophobic and misogynist slurs onto her image (man-hater, dyke, whore, bitch), thereby thoroughly de-humanising her and making it extra pleasurable to see her executed. Aileen, from day one of her story breaking, became so much more than an individual: she became a monstrous symbol of female dissent that had to be destroyed … but she also became a symbol of the marginalised, abused and brutalised that was just beginning to have its own voice heard.

Aileen is the subject of two very good documentaries and a film called Monster (2003) starring Charlize Theron (which wasn’t as bad as I was expecting), as well as countless interviews and books, all of which allowed her, despite whatever bias the authors may have intended, to speak for herself and allow her own story to be heard. This didn’t help her much as she couldn’t escape execution for her ‘terrible’ crimes, but gradually I think the repetition of her story and the larger contexts of her life started to sink in. She was the subject, since birth, of unimaginable sexual and physical abuse, completely unloved, utterly impoverished, prostituted from childhood, passed from rapist to rapist and then discarded. As Ann Jones says in Women Who Kill, behind every violent woman is a lifetime of ignorance, degradation and abuse; and when you take into account Aileen’s unimaginable existence and complete lack of autonomy and education, you totally understand why she snapped. Ultimately, the easy answer to why Aileen Wuornos exists is to blame her defective character and sexual deviancy, to see her as a freak occurrence; the hard answer is to address the systems of child protection, education and state benefits that failed her. It’s much cheaper to opt for the former.

The word ‘monster’, used to describe Aileen and eventually as the title of her biopic, comes from the Latin meaning ‘a warning’. A monster is a symbol of destruction and deviancy that has to be ultimately killed as a warning to other transgressive agencies, in order to safeguard the smooth running of society. However, while Aileen represented the most vile man-hating dyke that ever lived that was inevitably destined for Death Row, she also, in a sub-plot that slowly came to dominate her story, became re-humanised; she became the object of empathy, a victim of a life that should never have happened; the responsibility of a defective society. When you take all this into consideration, the dual meanings raise even more questions: to whom does the word ‘monster’ apply? To the punters who raped her, to the lover who betrayed her, to the government that failed her? Who is being warned by her story, and what is the warning? In the age of Trump and #MeToo, it’s clear how these two narrative strands continue to battle; and I think Aileen’s story continues to bring this tension to the fore.


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