In an email discussion with a cyberpal who lives in the US about the film Monster, which won Charlize Theron this year's Oscar for best actress for her portrayal of multiple murderer Aileen Wuornos, I mentioned that the film is a real tearjerker. The friend was horrified and said I should cry not for Wuornos because she was a "very bad person" but for the seven men she killed, who were "average and decent human beings".
Despite numerous articles, documentaries and this latest Hollywood production of her life, the image of Wuornos as bad or not human - literally a 'monster' prevails. While the acceptable face of lesbianism is espoused by programmes like The L Word, mainstream media continues to show its bigotry and fear of women who break the mould of expected female behaviour.
Wuornos killed seven men while working as a prostitute in Florida. During her trial she claimed all of them either raped or threatened to rape her and she acted in self-defence. The press immediately labelled her a lesbian serial killer, based on the fact that her current lover was female, even though previous relationships had been with men. Her apparent lack of remorse for her crimes led to her being demonised and her claims of self-defence were rejected. It was a journalist, not police officers, who discovered that Wuornos's first victim Richard Mallory had served 10 years in prison for violent rape, but this crucial piece of evidence was ruled inadmissible as it was presented out of time. No top lawyers came to Wuornos's aide - she had to rely on overworked public defenders to help her. She was found guilty of murder and spent 12 years on death row before being executed in 2002.
A similar scenario took place in Australia in 1991 in the case of Tracey Wigginton. In October 1989 Wigginton, her lover Lisa Ptaschinski and two female friends Kim Jervis and Tracey Waugh lured Edward Baldock into a local park with the promise of sexual favours. Instead Wigginton stabbed him so many times that he was virtually decapitated. During their trial the three other women claimed that Wigginton was a vampire and craved a large 'feed' for human blood. Despite a more logical diagnosis of Multiple Personality Disorder by two prison psychiatrists during the 14 months before her trial, the media tapped into society's fears of the supernatural and went to town with 'lesbian vampire' headlines. A Mental Health Tribunal rejected the MPD diagnosis and Wigginton was deemed fit to stand trial. She pleaded guilty and to this date is serving a life sentence in Queensland.
Kath Armstrong, spokesperson for Justice Action, a community based criminal justice organisation in NSW thinks women like Wuornos and Wigginton are not afforded a fair trial because they threatened the status quo and were subsequently misrepresented by the press. "What the media presents is not true, or partially true," she says. "I know both of these women well, especially Aileen. What I read about them and what they are as people is totally inaccurate. Aileen did not want to be a victim and she was even more victimised because of that. Going through such a public trial where there's such scrutiny - people have no idea what that's like. Because someone is not crying or outwardly showing remorse, people just assume they're guilty, no good and judge them. But it's called a defense mechanism. You put your wall and your defence up because you're under such attack."
Debbie Kilroy, director of Sisters Inside, a Queensland based support and campaign group for female prisoners, agrees. "The way women like Aileen and Tracey are treated by the media and society is appalling. It's like a witch hunt and they're hung out to dry. If you look at Aileen's history, it's horrific. You can understand on lots of levels why she and other women committed the crimes they did if you put their lives in a context, but their lives are never taken in a context - all the focus is on the crime that is committed."
Even more bias is shown towards lesbian women, Kilroy believes. "It's about feeding into people's fear and society's homophobia as with Tracey. She was moved to a low security prison just last year and the media went around the community and asked if they were worried that a vampire lesbian was living near them. It's feeding into that fear that there are actually these types of demon lesbian women running around - it's absolute rubbish. I've known Tracey for 15 years and lived with her for years in prison. I can guarantee she's not a vampire."
Once inside prison, women who engage in romantic or sexual relationships with other female inmates are also often treated in a discriminatory manner, whether they are openly lesbian when they went in or are what is termed a 'gate gay' - straight on the outside, gay when they go through the prison gate. Armstrong, 37, is one of those women. Last year she was released from jail after serving just over three years for drug related crimes. While inside she fell in love with another woman. "When you go through the classification system the officers know whether you've been married and then they see you go with a woman and you get judged for that. Various officers would tease me by saying, 'Oh you're the big lesbian now are you?' And if they don't like you for whatever reason they can make it hard and put your partner in another part of the jail - that happens quite a lot, or they'll send one to a minimum security prison and keep one in maximum security. And lesbians who state they have a female de facto partner when they enter prison are not allowed the same conjugal visits as heterosexual couples."
Failure on the part of prison authorities to recognise same-sex partnerships between inmates can cause difficulties when one gets released and denies her visiting rights. This can sometimes lead to the released partner committing another crime so she will be sent back to prison. This lack of recognition can also lead to serious health and safety issues within the prison. "Women will engage with sex with each other," Kilroy asserts. "There's been discussion about protection such as dental dams but corrective services won't come to the party about anything like that."
While films like Monster may try to undo the damage done by the media to women like Wuornos in portraying her in a somewhat more sympathetic light, they are likely to be more beneficial in getting pretty actresses juicy character roles than helping society understand why women who commit violent crimes do so. Branded 'lesbian serial killers' or 'lesbian vampires', these women are denied their humanity. Even the title Monster, whether meant ironically or not, immortalises Wuornos as just such a creature. It is a cold reminder that while we can celebrate mainstream television's first lesbian drama series, the 'L' word can still just as easily be used against us and carry much more sinister connotations than a bunch of hot chicks in Hollywood making out with each other.
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