Jo Knowles explains how the media’s demonisation of Maxine Carr is symptomatic of stereotypes often attached to women: either Angels or Monsters, not flawed human beings.
Maxine Carr is currently the ‘most hatred woman in Britain’. There’s a strong case for saying she’s the most hated person in Britain, but woman seems to be the favoured word. This tells us a number of things about why there is such strong hatred being expressed for Carr, who as I write has just been released from her prison sentence on parole, into the care of parole officers. Police officers have apparently advised Carr to wear a bullet-proof vest, such is the risk of someone trying to harm her.
While I’ve felt sorry for Carr in the past as details of Ian Huntley’s behaviour and relationship history emerged, it’s only recently that I have taken a closer interest in what the media are saying about her and why. While many reports demonise Carr, there are also intelligent and humane media articles discussing the way Carr’s actions have been obscured by her associations with Huntley and by sensational media coverage of the case. Media coverage may be extremely skewed but has not yet been dominated by the anti-Carr view. It remains, though, a saga over which newspapers can express righteous anger on a daily basis.
However, the media treatment of Maxine Carr is worth considering more closely as part of a feminist awareness of discrimination and prejudice against her as a representative of women associated with, or accused of, violent acts. My view is that Carr is receiving extreme and unusual treatment because she is a woman, and that this has wider implications for all women in Britain in terms of how we are or might be treated as convicted or suspected criminals.
On 13th May, the day before Carr’s projected release, GMTV ran a feature on the rights and wrongs of this, with a Daily Mirror columnist, Sue Carroll, as the guest of hosts Fiona Phillips and Eamonn Holmes. Fiona and Eamonn were clearly there to play good cop and bad cop to the righteous fury of Sue Carroll, but even though I could see the staged nature of their respective positions, the conversation that followed enraged me. Fiona Phillips kicked off by observing reasonably that though Carr had in some quarters been described as “Myra Hindley Mark 2”, this seemed excessive given that she had not killed anyone. Sue Carroll responded with the charge that Carr was dangerous because she was a ‘consummate liar’, citing evidence that “She lied and misled a major police investigation” and “She lied to get the job in Soham, saying she had 10 O-levels when she had none. That’s not a little lie, that’s a big lie”.
Now, while it’s true that Carr did both those things, I felt that Sue Carroll undermined the seriousness of the first charge by insisting that the lie about Carr’s qualifications was “not a little lie, a big lie”. Wherever you stand on this morally, lying on a job application is something that most of the population indulge in, according to an April survey by the Risk Advisory Group; two-thirds of the applications they examined were “inaccurate” in some way. So even if we think it’s a significant crime, it doesn’t stop many of us doing it; I also doubt many people would think it worthy in itself of being sent to prison. Yes, Carr initially misled a police investigation; however, this “consummate liar” didn’t actually manage to throw the police off the scent for very long. In spite of this, Huntley was caught, tried and convicted. Questions still remain, too, about the extent to which Carr was either directly coerced or indirectly pressured into saying what she did. It’s accepted by now that many women in abusive relationships feel that they have no other choice than to support the misdeeds of their partners, and that this at least explains, if not exonerates, what they do. As details have emerged about Huntley, a picture of him as a deceitful, manipulative and violent man has been built up; one likely to have carried out acts of abuse towards his current girlfriend just as he apparently did towards his previous girlfriends and numerous other young girls and teenagers.
Nevertheless, many media representations of Carr continue to impress on us all that she is a Evil Woman, who though she has been punished, should continued to be punished for the various sins they outline. These often rest on pretty flimsy material too – Sue Carroll’s insistence on the heinousness of Carr’s lies about her qualifications simply serves, in my opinion, to trivialise the actual events surrounding the deaths of two young girls. As Carroll finished this diatribe, Eamonn Holmes helpfully chipped in about Carr that “She’s had numerous boyfriends, too”. Aha, I thought, at last we come to that old chestnut: a woman who’s had numerous (anyone want to estimate what number is actually intended by ‘numerous’? More than one?) boyfriends is obviously what would once have been called a ‘person of low moral fibre’, evidently capable of all sorts of other unspeakable horrors. Sexual women = evil women, though it’s the first time I’ve seen this used as a excuse to lock someone up indefinitely since I last read a Victorian novel.
This demonisation of Carr has been going on since she and Ian Huntley were charged with their respective crimes. What disturbs me about this is the creeping increase of attributed responsibility on Carr’s part for things done by Huntley. Fiona Phillips suggested during the GMTV discussion that people’s anger over the murders was displaced onto Carr because Huntley will be permanently unreachable, whereas she will be free and, in some people’s eyes ‘getting away with it’. Media discussions of the events leading up to the Soham murders included suggestions that a row between Huntley and Carr provoked the murders – to the point that Carr’s disclosure to him in a telephone call from Grimsby that she was going out that evening was the trigger for Huntley’s behaviour, and that somehow this action of hers made her jointly responsible for it. So remember, next time you say to your partner that you’re off out tonight with some old friends and not to wait up, you’ll be morally responsible if they embark on a killing spree as a result. No, I’m not keen on that idea either.
Elizabeth Wurtzel’s book Bitch has a great chapter on Amy Fisher, the teenage American girl who in 1992 shot the wife of her married lover. Wurtzel dissects the lack of sympathy there was for Fisher, what scant attention was paid to the mitigating circumstances relating to what she did, and the double standard applied to her actions, comparing treatment of Fisher’s crime to some committed by teenage boys. This substantiates what can be seen in many other instances: that women are punished more harshly than men for the same, or even lesser, crimes. What’s more, Wurtzel points out the need of women like Fisher for feminist support, and the unfortunate consequence that women like Fisher are not seen as worthwhile recipients of this support:
“But what can the women’s movement offer Amy, who really needs [it]? The challenge that Ms. Fisher poses to feminism is […that] nothing she says or does is particularly good for the cause, but she is a grim and healthy reminder of what the women’s movement must do for her, how it needs to make the world safe for Any Fisher and so many girls who have gotten the worst of the promises of liberation”. (Bitch, p.138)
Amy Fisher was seen as an Evil Woman by sleeping with a married man at a young and impressionable age; circumstances that might, with a different turn of events, have painted her as a victim, instead framed her as the villain. The same is true of Carr. While it’s likely she was a victim (albeit one who still has her life) of Huntley just as Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman were, she has become a partner in crime, her name permanently associated with Carr and with Myra Hindley, both actual child murderers rather than an unwitting conspirator in a cover-up. One of the key points in Carr’s case, too, was the role played by her gender. While it’s now sadly commonplace to unmask men as abusers, rapists and murderers, even the association of a woman with that crime invites harsh condemnation – so much so that her link with the crime she didn’t commit has made her, in the eyes of many, as bad as Huntley himself.
One of the major issues when considering Carr’s guilt during the Soham trial was the unthinkable idea that a woman could be complicit in violence and abuse towards children. Carr’s legal team shrewdly used this as part of her defence, posing the rhetorical question of whether a woman who knew her fiance had attacked two young girls could have allowed him to touch her ever again. This implied that disgust – specifically sexual disgust – would be the natural womanly reaction of anyone who knew her partner had committed such a crime. This is the starting point for a barrowload of stereotypes about feminine sensitivity and womanly feeling to be wheeled out into the courtroom, and indeed the media. From this point, the argument extends beyond the imputed sexual and ethical high-mindedness of women, compared to the animalistic nature of men, into the similarly exalted notion of maternal feeling, something often attributed to all women, whether or not they have or want children.
The nature of crimes involving children, especially where sexual abuse or murder are concerned, inevitably evoke strong reactions in the public; their perpetrators are probably the most unpopular group of criminals in existence. Huge attention is always focused on women involved in these cases, whether they are the grieving parent (such as Sara Payne, Sarah’s mother) or someone deemed to be complicit, such as Marie Therese Kouao, the aunt of murdered Victoria Climbie – or Maxine Carr. Extreme responses result, with one considered a heroine, one, perhaps understandably a monster. These views are derived from underlying beliefs that the worst thing that can happen to a mother is to lose her child, and that the potential for motherhood in all women makes them, or should make them, incapable of abusing a child or even of tolerating abuse. This, at least is the ideal.
In fact, women’s tolerance of abuse against children, if not active involvement in it, is more common than any of us would like to think. A few years ago I spent a short time working in child and adolescent mental health services, where I found many cases where it was known to the police or care services that a child or teenager was being abused, often by their (biological) father or by their mother’s partner, but that nothing could be done since neither child nor the mother was willing to take a complaint forward. Often the mother knew what was going on, but let it continue, presumably because the alternative – breaking up the family and her relationship – seemed worse. There’s also evidence of this in popular women’s magazines. Anyone who’s read the magazine Take a Break will have noticed the frequency of stories about women who are complicit in their child’s sexual abuse, either because they do nothing or are actively involved: the 13th May edition carries the story of a girl whose mother held her down to be raped by her stepfather at the age of 15. You may or may not believe the validity of everything you read in Take a Break, but the regularity with which the topic features suggests that it’s common currency, and also that not all of it can be fabricated. Statistics say that you’re more likely to be murdered by a family member or friend than a stranger; children are actually more at risk from someone within the family circle than from any member of staff they encounter at school, Brownies or karate class. As a result, more mothers are guilty of more serious crimes of abuse than Carr, but never get found out. Marie Therese Kouao is not so unusual a figure as might be thought, even though the Climbie case was an extreme one.
As it happens, there’s been a spate of criminal women in the news and other media lately. Monster, the film presenting the life story of Aileen Wuornos, a prostitute who became a serial killer, has earned a high profile due to Charlize Theron’s Oscar win for her role as Wuornos. As with Amy Fisher, Wuornos’s circumstances – a life of poverty, loneliness and degradation that started in childhood – might be seen as deserving sympathy rather than the death sentence. However, Nick Broomfield’s documentary Aileen, recently shown on UK TV, showed Wuornos sabotaging her own appeal in order to die, having embraced religion and stating that she deserved death. She had evidently been persuaded during her time on Death Row of her own incurable evil, appeaseable only by death, and was happy to become complicit in her own condemnation, in spite of the years of deprivation and suffering that brought her to commit murder.
More recently, the role of female American soldiers Lynndie England and Sabrina Harman in the torture of Iraqi prisoners has been reported as one of the most shocking aspects of an already horrific occurrence. England has described the abuse as “kid’s stuff” and “pranks”, while Harman has claimed unconvincingly she was actually gathering evidence to expose the torture. The violence carried out against the prisoners would be shocking no matter what, but the idea that women might be capable of participation, even if that amounted to grinning and posing for photographs, was received as particularly abhorrent. After all, the vast majority of violent crime is committed by men; serial killers, rapists and child abusers are almost always men. Surely female perpetrators must be deviant beyond what we could imagine? A woman capable of such violence must be both rare and deserving of the severest punishment available, newspapers imply.
Not so long ago, the idea of a woman’s capacity for violence like this would not have been taken seriously. A number of factors – the development of weapons that do not need massive physical strength to wield, women’s access to cultures and environments where violence is treated more casually, and the acceptance that women do not have a fundamentally different psychology to men – all diminish the idea that a violent woman is a rare breed. Perhaps we have to face the fact that violence by women is still so rare because they get so little opportunity to participate in it: they are often still the victims, still a minority in male-dominated groups like the military, and usually still conditioned to be pleasing, selfless and caring. On occasion, women with the opportunity – those dealing with vulnerable children, prisoners, and especially those who are victimised themselves, and then potentially encouraged to join in – strike out themselves. Now, I’m not saying that this is necessarily the case, or that any abusive actions are right and justified – just potentially attributable to an understandable cause. All abuse is wrong. But if a dog, kicked, beaten and abused, finally snaps back and bites, it would seem odd to say that it shouldn’t be in the nature of dogs to bite. This may give some insight into the (still relatively small) number of violent women.
We expect these to be unusual events. It would be traumatic to think that the actions of England, Harland and Kouao were relatively common, and this makes it easier to demonise women like Carr; she’s seen as one of society’s true, and few, monsters. These polarised representations of womanhood are a legacy of the Victorian image of the Angel in the House, whose opposite is the demonic Fallen Woman. The logic behind the Fallen Woman is that one sin makes you capable of others, leading on and on to an ever more shocking chain of crimes. Thus little sins add up to big ones, and the fact that Maxine Carr lied about her O-levels is suddenly indicative of a profound capacity for evil – conventionally forgetting that in that case, half the UK population have that capacity, and the majority of those are women, since more women (according to the Risk Advisory Group) feel they will not be given a fair crack at the jobs they are applying for on the basis of their CV without a little GCSE grade inflation. The lesson is that one moral slip redefines you; if not an angel, you’re a potential monster.
This angel/demon dichotomy may be behind another timely announcement on women and crime. While Sue Carroll and other media columnists were making the cases for Carr being kept in prison indefinitely, or at least for a lot longer, the Prison Reform Trust have stated that the number of women prisoners has now reached a record high, and described the devastating effects of women being imprisoned on their families. Half of all female convicts are held in a jail more than 50 miles from their hometown; only 5% of their children remain in the family home after they are imprisoned. What’s more, most of these women have committed relatively minor and probably non-violent offences, and are, like Maxine Carr, not considered a danger to the public. Yet so many of them are locked up that the female prison population is at crisis point.
Cherie Booth spoke out on their behalf, saying, “We are not helping society, victims, offenders or their children by holding so many women in prison.” It’s hardly high on the political agenda, though, and I can’t help thinking that the constant attention to Carr and the media-fuelled desire to punish her further is likely to hinder the cause of her female fellow prisoners. One high-profile Evil Woman only extends the feeling that such deviants from the smiling angelic ideal must be punished harshly to get them back on the straight and narrow, and certainly don’t deserve such things as family love, leisure activities or freedom. Carr certainly doesn’t, according to the newspapers who criticised her for flicking through fashion magazines in the prison gardens and discussing her future appearance in letters. Painting this as vanity typical of the Evil Woman, yet also as the kind of feminine pleasure she should have given up a right to, they ignore the fact that a change of appearance may save Carr’s life, given the level of the threat to her safety. Denying someone who’s been advised to wear a bullet-proof vest the opportunity to adopt a new hairstyle as part of their disguise hardly seems reasonable when you think about it. Neither does the idea that Carr should be ashamed of herself for reading up on summer fashions and new hair colours support Sue Carroll’s claim that such things amount to huge crimes. Were Carr really guilty, as many people still seem to assume, of murder, then depriving her of women’s magazines is hardly a punishment to fit the crime. But of course, society’s proper approach to the Evil Woman is to forbid her from any form of enjoyment or pleasure, however small, ever again in her life. Aileen Wuornos finally succumbed to this logic; Maxine Carr, from her letters about hairstyles and a possible new life, seems to have retained some resilience, and she’ll need it.
So, petty and not so petty punishments are frequently doled out to women, which are nevertheless far beyond the level that might seem appropriate to their crimes. The price paid by the average woman in prison extends to her family and indeed to society, in the form of the taxpayer (the media never lets you forget the burden being borne by the poor taxpayer in all this) since their punishment is costly and symbolic rather than effective in preventing crime or rehabilitating the criminal. The same could be said of Aileen Wuornos, and indeed Maxine Carr.
Women in fear of partners or other men shouldn’t have to sacrifice themselves, but neither should they be complicit in sacrificing others. They should do the right thing. Sometimes that may be hard to define; more often that not, it’s clearer than we might be comfortable with. Until doing the right thing is more widespread, though, we’d all do well to be aware of the unfair judgements borne by transgressive women. We should ignore newspaper sensationalism about the cost of protecting people like Maxine Carr, and instead count the real cost of punishing women to excess.
- ‘Cherie Booth: keep women out of jail’ The Guardian, 13 May 2004,
- ‘CV fibbers warning for employers’ BBC News Online, 14 May,
- “Take a Break”, 13 May 2004.
- Elizabeth Wurtzel, “Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women” (London: Quartet Books, 1998)