Chicago, Ill—Do women deserve preferential treatment under the law, with judges assuming that female-instigated murders are the product of the repressive patriarchal machine? If the comments by a recent Modern Language Association (MLA) panel are any indication, feminists desire to color criminal issues with “relational” justice instead relying of on “abstract” male-centric reasoning.
In a new twist on criminal sympathy, Professor April Miller of the University of Northern Colorado argued during her presentation that murder may serve as a means of female resistance against the “patriarchal machinery” that is the law. “In fact, the media spectacle inspired by these times [the 1920’s] often encouraged readers to engage in a highly controversial debate: Can a woman be held to the same legal responsibility for murder as a man?,” said Miller. She analyzed the 1920’s Broadway hit, Machinal, and the short silent film, Red Kimona using gender theory. “I argue that, despite their different intentions, both narratives expose the patriarchal violence that often motivates women’s crimes and present their female characters’ violent responses as subversive gestures that undermine a repressive legal system,” she writes in her abstract.
The theatre play Machinal, “suggests that the line between the murderous young woman and theatre spectators is one of fine degree, rather than kind,” said Miller. She quotes the heroine’s last words to her priest as an example of how the murderous heroine was freed from repressive social norms, a paradox which leads the heroine to declare “…I’ve been free, Father. For one moment down here on Earth, I have been free…free and not afraid.” “Though she is stripped of the right to life by the patriarchal machinery…the heroine of Machinal seems yet determined to maintain some sense of dignity and her punishment becomes a commentary on the gendered inequity of modern society,” concludes Professor Miller. “These narratives seem to ask if a woman is not truly equal before the law, is she obligated to play by the rules?,” she said.
During her analysis of Sue Grafton’s A is for Alibi and Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Professor Caroline Reitz of the City University of New York referred to feminist theories which assert that women are relational creators and that the “male idea” of the “rational subject” may not adequately fit female justice. Modern “male” conceptions of morality require “the subordination of relationships to rule, and then rule to universal principles,” and feminists decry this approach as placing “excessive weight on hierarchy or abstract rule” and inadequate emphasis on concrete relationships, Reitz argues.
As a possible example of such alternative reasoning, Reitz argues that A Is For Alibi “shows that concrete relationships, specifically personal relationships, are indistinguishable from justice, at least from the female perspective.” However, she was disappointed that Grafton’s novel makes the heroine’s mission “the restoration of a happy family” which she characterized as an unfortunate “throwback” to a bygone era. Reitz characterized The Big Sleep as “a rejection of the traditional ideology of justice,” even though Chandler’s writing is sometimes “sexist.”
Reitz took time out of her analysis to joke that Chandler’s fictional city—where it was “always raining” and featured cops who “shoot when they don’t have to”—reminded her of Rudy Giuliani’s New York.
For some feminists, it seems, there remains a dilemma within the goals of female law theory that parallels a paradox within the overall discipline, noted Reitz. “Is the goal equality at the risk of assimilation into an intrinsically male standard, or acknowledgment of difference at the risk of [legal] discrimination?,” she asked. Although she said she would require her students to draw a conclusion on such issues, Reitz said that she cannot decide.
Bethany Stotts is a Staff Writer at Accuracy in Academia.