In a recent episode on Aileen Wuornos in the docuseries, Catching Killers, one talking head investigator is baffled by her actions. He cannot understand why this woman has committed such brutal crimes against men. He says it’s “like a work of fiction” while the other detective on the case says, “No one can understand why she did what she did.” But I disagree.
The reasons for this killing spree that these men can’t account for are clear to me given America’s history of male violence. In the 2003 film Monster, we see Charlize Theron enter into a trauma response every time she gets into a car with a man: She is paranoid and on guard. From what is insinuated of Wuornos’s long history of experiences of abuse by men, this response is to be expected. A triggered woman is not a mystery. Monster succeeds where this docuseries from the perspective of the investigators fails, because it comprehends the pain and abuse that made Wuornos into someone the Catching Killers detectives can’t wrap their heads around.
In contrast, the cishet male murderer holds a coveted spot in the cultural imagination. He is typically depicted as worldly wise, having great taste in music and art, for example Hannibal Lecter — as played by Anthony Hopkins or Joe Goldberg as played by Penn Badgley on the televised series You. These male murderers have instincts to violence that they cannot resist. They are presented as an inevitable evil; they cannot change their predatory nature.
When I think of Wuornos, I think also of Elisabetta Sirani’s painting “Timoclea Killing Her Rapist”(1659). Timoclea forcing her attacker down the well is a striking image. His legs are spread apart, mimicking a pose perhaps similar to one he may have forced her into when he assaulted her. With this swift movement, Timoclea shifts the power dynamic. Male violence makes way for the revenge of the oppressed woman. Wuornos may not have chosen the right men for the well, but her anger can definitely be understood.
We have too many depictions of male murders, men who kill because they have a compulsive tendency to violence. I want to see more women whose rage knows no bounds, who refuse to turn their hatred into self-destruction. We need to see the cultural history of female violence as a history of retaliation, a fuck-you to the patriarchal violence women consistently experience. We need a space for our anger. Women’s rage deserves to be unpacked and understood as more than bunny boiler hysterics because like Serani’s Timoclea, a woman killing her rapist flips the patriarchal hierarchy, upending the male violence that still dominates perspectives on women in our visual culture.