Manhunting: the female detective in the serial killer film.
During the early 1990s, however, mainstream film saw a shift to "sensitive men" heroes (1) in a negotiation of changing social attitudes towards masculinity that was mirrored in the detective film by the appearance of protagonists defined by brains instead of brawn. Because detective-heroes no longer had to be gun-wielding, law enforcement types that embodied a heroism defined as white, muscular, working-class, and male--like Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) in Lethal Weapon or John McClane (Bruce Willis) in Die Hard (McTiernan 1988)---the detective film explored new kinds of heroes who were a more realistic size, shape, and age. The detective-hero did not need to be tough so much as smart to bring the new highly intelligent criminals of the 1990s to justice and this included African-American men, for example Denzel Washington in The Bone Collector (Noyce 1999); older men, including Clint Eastwood in Blood Work (Eastwood 2002); and women, such as Sandra Bullock in Murder by Numbers (Schroeder 2002).
Following the success of The Silence of the Lambs (Demme 1991), Hollywood film saw an increasing presence of the female detective on screen. This shift away from white hypermasculinity would suggest a more liberal and feminist approach to the definition of law enforcement heroism. However, while the detective genre has brought women to the center of the narrative with a seemingly greater degree of agency as the protagonists who drive the narrative action forward, this agency is tempered and contained. The male detective is empowered in the contemporary detective film through his identification with the serial killer--the man who has the desire and ability to inflict violence on women--while the female body remains a site of objectification and powerlessness. This is not, however, necessarily due to the cinematic serial killer's tendency to seek out female victims, but because the female detective succumbs to an over-identification with the killer's victims and often is a former or potential victim of violence perpetrated by men.
In the serial killer film, masculinity is still regarded as the embodiment of strength and heroism and the female body, weakness and victimization. Thus, the female detective is portrayed as competent and successful only as a masculinized or defeminized woman; when she exhibits feminine traits--usually emotional--she is branded as a professional failure. While The Silence of the Lambs was generally regarded as "a profoundly feminist movie" (Taubin, "Grabbing" 129), the reviews of 1995's Copycat expose the possibility of dual readings of the serial killer film with a female protagonist (or two in the case of this film). Lizzie Francke of Sight and Sound praised the casting of Holly Hunter and Sigourney Weaver as the film's protagonists--detective and the potential victim--as "enhancing its status an instant post-feminist classic" (51); conversely, Kenneth Turan of the L.A. Times argued that the casting led the filmmakers "to believe that they'[d] made a significant feminist statement, the movie's two hours-plus of almost continual sadistic abuse of women notwithstanding" (1).
Similarly, more recent serial killer films offer some of Hollywood's toughest and attractive female stars appearing repeatedly in the genre--for example, Ashley Judd and Angelina Jolie--offering strong female characters while, simultaneously, undermining their agency through casting them as the former or potential victims of male violence. While the male detective is given a position of stability and agency through his identification with the perpetrator of the crimes, the female detective is presented as objectified and victimized. The female body--of the detective as well as the victim--thus functions as a site of the working through of masculine anxieties incited by a female presence in the traditionally masculine profession of law enforcement.
A NEW KIND OF DETECTIVE
Hollywood has been obsessed with murder for the last decade and even more so with serial murder. Films like The Silence of the Lambs (Demme 1991), Copycat (Amiel 1995), Citizen X (Gerolmo 1995), Seven (Fincher 1995), Just Cause (Glimcher 1995), Serial Killer (David 1995), Kiss the Girls (Fleder 1997), The Bone Collector (Noyce 1999), American Psycho (Harron 2000), Along Came a Spider (Tamahori 2001), Blood Work (Eastwood 2002), Insomnia (Nolan 2002), Red Dragon (Ratner 2002), Murder by Numbers (Schroeder 2002), Twisted (Kaufman 2004), and Taking Lives (Caruso 2004) focus on a detective's investigation of serial murders. The serial killer has captured the popular imagination because he--and the serial killer is most often male (2)--is the most violent, most gruesome, and most elusive of criminal types. He does not kill for the traditional motives of jealousy, greed, and power but because he is psychopathic--often resulting from a traumatic childhood experience related to a mother or other female figure--and cannot refrain from killing until he is stopped by the law. Hollywood may be obsessed with the serial killer as the perpetrator of contemporary crime; however, this is a misrepresentation of the reality of criminal behavior as serial killers account for only a fraction of the national murder rate: murder accounts for only 0.27% of felonies in the FBI's Index of Serious Crime (Livingstone 40). (3)
The crimes of the serial killer strike fear in the popular imagination because they appear motiveless; he does not necessarily choose people he knows as his victims but strangers--innocent people. The detective's investigation of the killer's crimes functions to demystify the seeming motiveless and random killings by attributing to them a pattern--and thus a motive. The motivation for the killings is often attributed to an abusive childhood or major trauma that then has been repressed and resurfaces in the compulsive need to kill. The killer's pattern or MO (modus operandi) functions as a "signature" that can identify the seemingly invisible and elusive killer and, as Richard Dyer argues, the appeal of the serial killer for film audiences is the attempt to discern this pattern (16). However, the serial killer narrative is merely the formalization and simplification of a pattern established in classical detective fiction by authors like Agatha Christie: the killer only means to dispose of one victim but then is forced to kill others who stumble onto the truth of the crime and threaten to reveal the killer's identity. The pleasure for the viewer of the serial killer film is, thus, to identify the pattern and, therefore, the killer before the detective does. The detective narrative, however, also offers reassurance to its audience: the pattern of the killings, in a reflection of the killer's psychological state of mind, produces a motive so that even seemingly "motiveless" crimes can be understood and resolved. No matter how chaotic and dangerous contemporary society seems to be, the contemporary detective film assures audiences that there is a hero who can restore order or normalcy to the society disrupted by the killer by identifying and removing that "abnormality" through death or incarceration.
Real-life serial killers are often described as "abnormally normal" (Seltzer 10): in other words, they appear normal to those who know them but obviously are abnormal in their need to commit multiple murders. According to novelist Patricia Cornwell, "the most distinctive and profound characteristics of all psychopaths is that they do not feel remorse. They have no concept of guilt. They do not have a conscience" (27). (4) As a society, we label serial killers as pathological, insane, and abnormal in order to differentiate them from us and our supposed normalcy. The detection of the serial killer in the contemporary detective narrative, thus, functions to identify the abnormal that masquerades as normal so that it can be extracted from society and presumably contemporary crime with it. According to Patrice Fleck, the serial killer film is Hollywood's response to the national conversation about crime--a conservative discourse that points to a degeneration of morals as the cause of this kind of violent crime (35). As Woody Haut argues, contemporary crime fiction turns "the fear of violent death into a narrative subtext while investigating the society from which that fear derives" (207). Haut identifies that fear as an end-of-the-millennium obsession with personality disorders, sexual deviancy, and AIDS (209). The serial killer is a silent one--he is not easily recognizable and it takes the trained eye of the detective to identify him. As Steffen Hantke notes, the killer's evil is not written on his body (36); instead it is the body of the victim that becomes the abject one, written upon by the killer and thus becomes a text to be read by the detective-and a spectacle to be beheld by the audience.
It is also our increasing reliance on technology and the isolation of contemporary urban living, however, that makes us vulnerable to the anonymous killer. As Suzanne Hatty explains, films centered on serial killers can be regarded as a cinematic response to the contemporary fear and anxiety about victimization and public safety that has been evident since the 1980s (83). And as Gerard Collins discusses in relation to Patricia Cornwell's novels, serial killers are "the embodiment of a disease that permeates modern western society: isolation" (159). Our growing cities produce increasing proportions of crime and, at the same time, individuals are more isolated despite the burgeoning of electronic technology. While that technology may improve global and instantaneous communications, it deters interpersonal interactions especially with the people who we are surrounded by everyday: our increasing reliance on voicemail, e-mail, cell phones, and text messaging decrease our face-to-face communications.
The serial killer plays on this fear of alienation by suggesting that the greatest threat to the individual is the anonymous "other" who may be a neighbor or a stranger but whose evil is imperceptible to us. However, the contemporary detective film assures us that, while science and technology may be responsible for our vulnerability to the serial killer, the detective has mastered the science and technology to track, identify, and stop him. These films rarely offer the "pleasure" of alignment with the killer in his perpetration of violence--as the horror film does--and, instead, focus on the post-mortem examination of the killer's violence and align audiences with the detective-hero and the pleasure of detection.
The serial killer is both incredibly intelligent and brutally violent, and what is needed to stop him is a very special kind of detective-hero: "the 'profiler,' the genius like investigator able, on the basis of clues at the scene of the crime, to narrow down the social and geographical location of the killer as well as his psychological make-up" (Dyer 17). Whether a forensic scientist, psychologist, medical examiner, or homicide detective, the hero of the contemporary detective film is the "criminalist." He/she must possess a diverse range of skills and specialized knowledge--an expert not only of forensic science, behavioral science, and profiling, but also culture in general. As the criminalist expert, Lincoln Rhyme, explains in the novel The Bone Collector:
A criminalist is a renaissance man. He's got to know botany, geology, ballistics, medicine, chemistry, literature, engineering. If he knows facts--that ash with a high strontium content probably came from a highway flare, that faca is Portuguese for "knife," that Ethiopian diners use no utensils and eat with their right hands exclusively, that a slug with five land-and-groove rifling marks, right twist, could not have been fired by a Colt pistol--if he knows these things he may just make the connection that places the [unknown subject] at the crime scene. (Deaver 120)
The criminalist is an expert in analyzing "trace" evidence but, more importantly, an expert in human behavior and that is how he/she tracks down the killer: he/she is--as the title of Michael Mann's 1986 film suggests--a "manhunter." The appeal of the criminalist is his/her knowledge and use of science and technology in an era defined by information technology and there has been a proliferation of criminalists in all forms of the detective genre--fiction, film, and television. (5)
Although the fictional serial killer has become a popular trend in mainstream film since the early 1990s, America's obsession with serial killings is far longer than its dominance in mainstream film would suggest. The 1980s saw the proliferation of the serial killer narrative in fiction, most notably in the novels of Thomas Harris, at the same time as American society began to note the burgeoning of real serial killers. A fascination with real killers led to a barrage of TV movies beginning in the 1970s and snowballing in the 1980s as real-life cases became fodder for the mass audience. (6) What distinguishes the big screen version of serial killing since the early 1990s is that the majority of the serial killers on screen are fictional and the violence they commit exponentially increased. The TV-movies of the 1980s--whether dramatized accounts of the real-life killers or documentaries--offered the stories of brutal murder but not the image or violence of it because they were aimed at prime-time audiences. In contrast, the serial killer films from the 1990s on have relished in lingering close-ups of mutilated corpses whether at the scene, in autopsy, or in crime scene photos.
THE SPECTACLE OF THE "GROSS"
In her discussion of the "body genres" of porn and horror films, Linda Williams argues that there is a "system of excess" with a "gross display of the human body" (3). Similarly, the serial killer film (as an offshoot of the horror genre) offers a visceral pleasure for the audience and something that the serial killer narrative in fiction can only achieve to a degree: a spectacle of the gross in relation to the representation of the human body. Mark Seltzer identifies this impulse as a product of our contemporary "wound" culture, "a culture centered on trauma (Greek for wound): a culture of the atrocity, exhibition, in which people wear their damage like badges of identity, or fashion accessories" (2). Wound culture is evident in Western culture's obsession with the violence of death perpetrated on the human body--with the penetration of the body and the making visible of the inside of the body through wounds, violence, and autopsies. This obsession with bodily trauma is evident as passers-by rubberneck at car crashes and as people patronize controversial art exhibitions, such as the "Sensation" exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999, which included Damien Hirst's collection of dissected and preserved livestock displayed in glass cases. Even the public autopsy has made a reappearance recently: in London in 2002 Professor Gunther von Hagens of Germany invited 500 spectators to view the first public autopsy in Britain in 170 years (Wardell A16). The emphasis during the autopsy was less on the scientific or the medical and more on the performative as Professor von Hagens wore a black fedora and blue surgical gown; the autopsy was shown on giant screens inside the gallery; a television network said they would broadcast edited footage; and the organs of the deceased were passed amongst the spectators in trays. Similarly in film, violence is no longer merely shown exacted and somebody killed, but is lingered over in close-up as bodies are dissected and innards exposed in autopsies.
Our desire for trauma is manifested in our cultural texts through the spectacle of the gross. The visualization of death and mutilation has escalated in frequency and detail in the last decade or so in popular culture as our alignment--as spectators and consumers--has shifted from the perpetration of trauma to its investigation. The committing of the violence tends to be withheld, leaving such horrors up to the imagination of the viewer--for example, the atrocities committed by Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs are not revealed; instead, the mutilated corpse and its relevance to the investigation of a crime have become the focus of cultural narrative. At the time when Seltzer was writing Serial Killers (1998), ER was the most popular series on television and the prime example of what Seltzer describes as "pure wound culture." The most popular show in 2003 and 2004 was CSI and, it too, is representative of the same impulse to indulge in the gross. ER offers its audiences "an endless series of torn and opened bodies and an endless series of emotionally torn and exposed bio-technicians" (Seltzer 22)--the spectacles that make up wound culture. Seltzer argues that the appeal of wound culture seems to be its spectacle where private desire and public fantasy intersect; because it offers a private motivation for public violence, for example childhood abuse, wound culture gives comfort to viewers that there is a reason for violent trauma (257-58).
Similarly, the criminalist narrative (including the serial killer film and shows like CSI) offers cadavers as spectacular bodies with gaping wounds that repulse and attract simultaneously. The cadaver is read as a text to determine what caused the body to pass from life into death and, on CSL this reading leads to an oral--accompanied by a visualized--reconstruction of the crime in which the cadaver is seen alive and then killed again. These sequences are done with digital and / or computer generated effects; for example, the camera / viewer follows the passage of a bullet through a wall and into the head of a sleeping child or witnesses the impact of an axe into a skull from beneath the blade.
In the serial killer film of the last decade, the horrors perpetrated by the killer that were hidden in films like The Silence of the Lambs are not only exposed but indulged in as cameras offer these extended and hypergraphic scenes of mutilation. In Murder by Numbers, the young killers in eerie, astronaut-like suits choke the life out of a panicked victim and blow the brains out of another; in Twisted, a victim's face is so viciously battered that the detective only recognizes the corpse by a tattoo on his hand; and in Taking Lives, the disfigured faces of the victims, their wrists sawn off at the hands, and the photos of the crime scenes are given lingering and detailed close-ups. As Amy Taubin notes, in The Bone Collector, the foregrounding of the investigation "allows director Phillip Noyce to display hideously mutilated corpses and to fetishize the details--skin carved, burnt, or bitten down to the bone--in giant digitized close-up. We've come a long way--technologically speaking--since Blow-Up" ("Death" 136). This embodies a kind of pornography of violence, a fetishization of the body--especially the female body--in death rather than sex. Rather than necessarily being offered as an erotic object, the female body becomes a text to be objectified, analyzed, and probed in order to identify the real enigma of the narrative-the male serial killer. While this spectacle of violence, death, and disfigurement of the female body as a victim of male violence facilitates a working through of contemporary anxieties about crime and law and order, its coupling with the representation of the female detective also allows a contemplation more specifically on gender roles in contemporary society.
The detective film of the 1990s saw a repositioning of the female body from fatal or absent to ever-present following a shift of the central relationship of the narrative. The neo-noir detective film, like Basic Instinct (Verhoeven 1992), focuses on the relationship that develops between the hero and a femme fatale, and the cop action film, like Lethal Weapon, on one between the hero and a buddy. On the other hand, the serial killer film with a male protagonist sees a focus on the relationship that develops between the detective and his adversary. The spectacular body of the neo-noir was that of the erotic and dangerous femme fatale, for example Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct; however, it is the white male--muscled, stripped off, and violent--that was the body of spectacle in the cop action film as the space for the expression and negotiation of masculine crisis. Whereas the neo-noir films of the 1980s cast the woman in the role of the criminal--as the desire but also potential demise of the male hero--the serial killer narrative reconfigures the female body as the victim-not unlike the horror film. Rarely is a romantic relationship the focus or conclusion of the serial killer film with a female investigator or her body presented as erotic spectacle; instead, the work of bodily spectacle is relegated to the female corpse.
The diegetic world of the film is one that is saturated with signs and, from a self-awareness of the text, it follows that those signs are loaded with meaning and should be read as such. As Walter Burket argues, human beings "create perceptible signs which act to stabilize the common world as it has been formed by language and cultural tradition" and one such system of signs to reveal meaning on the surface, at a visual level, is the marking of territory and the body (165). The main spectacle of the serial killer film is the "work" of the killer--a code or language--that, if analyzed and interpreted correctly, gives clues to the killer's identity and his moral project as exhibited through the body of his victim (Fleck 39). Just as the serial killer is almost always male, so too is his "work" almost always performed through the female body. The female body, thus, rather than offering a visual opposition to the manly physique of the hero or being a sexual object to be desired and dominated by him, functions as text. A "literacy" between the serial killer and the detective is established whereby the killer produces a system of symbols through his victims that the detective must decipher in order to stop and capture the killer (Fleck 35): the female body then becomes a mode of communication for the two men--one as author (the killer) and the other as reader (the detective). The detective's reading of the text, or profiling, is "an attempt to appropriate the text's language in order to identify the author" (Simpson, Psycho 80). In reading the text, the detective--like a semiotician--tries to discern the patterns of the author's "writing" and, through unraveling and recognizing those patterns, discern the identity of the killer.
Fans of the criminalist narrative are rewarded for their devotion to the genre as they are invited by the text to read the signs alongside the detective and to try to solve the mystery before he/she does; however, the genre has also reached a new level of self-consciousness due to audience familiarity with the conventions / signs of the genre as well as its increasing popularity in fiction, film, and television. The language, rules, and ritual of investigation in the criminalist film or show include the crime scene kit, the "Luminol" and ultraviolet light that exposes blood, the "cracked" chest and weighing of organs in the autopsy, the lifting of "partials" (fingerprints), the magnification of fibers and hair "tags" (skin on the end of the follicle), the killer's MO, and "unsubs" (unknown subjects) at the scene. The ritual is so familiar that more recent films like Murder by Numbers engage in a postmodern play with the audience who knows the language of the criminalist narrative.
The high school student killers in the film, Richard (Ryan Gosling) and Justin (Michael Pitt), plan the "perfect murder"--i.e. motiveless--to prove the "freedom" that Justin discusses in his in-class presentation, an allusion to Nietzsche's concept of the "Superman." In doing so, the film references Hitchcock's 1948 film Rope in which two young men kill simply to prove that they can get away with it. Hitchcock's film as well as two others--Compulsion (1959) and Swoon (1992)--were inspired by the real-life murder of Bobby Franks committed by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb in Chicago in the 1920s (Fuchs 117-18). Justin and Richard read up on forensics, plant false evidence, and attempt to construct an MO that will lead the police away from them as suspects. However, the detective on the case, Cassie (Sandra Bullock), recognizes the inconsistencies of the falsified MO and Richard and Justin's real or unconscious MO In other words, the profile they try to establish through the killing and trace suggests an unorganized and impulsive killer while their own profile, as organized but inexperienced killers, is also apparent--to the trained eye. Where once the killer unintentionally left behind clues to his identity through his killings, now he often stages his "work" in order for it to be read in a specific way with its audience--the detective-hero--in mind. The popularity and familiarity of the genre with audiences has lead to new incarnations of the genre in order both to capitalize on its popularity and also to make individual films seem different and innovative.
It is this last point that is most likely the motive for the current trend of serial killer films starring female detectives. The younger white male detective gave way to the African-American male and older detectives and now to the young, white, female detective. While this would suggest that the genre is attempting to offer a feminist message, as Barry Keith Grant argues, film's presentation of black, female, or gay characters is often merely a substitution for the white, male hero and does "little or nothing to challenge the sexist or racist assumptions that inform the myths by which they operate" (196).
VICTIMS IN A MAN'S WORLD
In terms of the representation of the female detective, some early serial killer films of the early 1990s--like Blue Steel (Bigelow 1990), The Silence of the Lambs, and Copycat--were praised for their feminist narratives that saw empowered women at the center succeeding in the male world of law enforcement and putting a stop to the violence perpetrated against women by the killer. While the female detective has remained a staple of the serial killer genre and the presence of a women in the role of protagonist (or partner to a male detective) should articulate a positive image of women onscreen, the serial killer film tends to contain or overturn a feminist theme through two strategies: the over-identification between the heroine and the victim, and her "masculinization" (and related problematic relationships with men). The male detective tends to be presented as a stable and self-controlled individual--for example, Morgan Freeman's Detective Somerset in Seven or Alex Cross in Kiss the Girls--or, if presented initially as traumatized or in crisis--for example, Denzel Washington's Lincoln Rhyme in The Bone Collector, Al Pacino's Will Dormer in Insomnia, or Clint Eastwood's Terry McCaleb in Blood Work--then the hunt for the serial killer and his eventual demise at the hands of the detective function to restore and revitalize the hero's self-confidence and prove his masculinity.
On the other hand, the "problem" of the female detective is that she has had to become masculinized in order to succeed in the male sphere of law enforcement--a masculinization that occurs because of trauma stemming from her relationship with her father or to her previous victimization at the hands of a violent man. Her salvation--i.e., "re-feminization"--occurs by the end of the film, not so much through her pursuit and execution of the killer, but often through her acquiescence to a "healthy" / heteronormative relationship with a male love interest. Hillary Radner argues that the masculinized or de-feminized "psychofemme" of the 1990s--for example, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) of Terminator 2: Judgment Day (Cameron 1991) and Margie Gunderson (Frances McDormand) of Fargo (Coen 1996)--offered a strong and independent model for women, one not dependent on sacrifice, acceptance, or re-education demanded in melodramas and comedies (248). In a continuation of this strong female model, the contemporary criminalist is also masculinized or de-feminized and offers a resistance to male violence by tracking and bringing to justice the male serial killer. While detective films with a male protagonist focus on investigating the masculinity of the hero, those with a female protagonist are concerned with examining their heroes struggle as women in a man's world trying to balance a professional and personal life--and losing.
The representation of the female detective in the 1990s and 2000s serial killer film follows on from the themes of the 1980s detective film with a female lawyer as a detective figure, including Jagged Edge (Marquand 1985), Suspect (Yates 1987), The Accused (Kaplan 1988), Class Action (Apted 1991), and Guilty as Sin (Lumet 1993). As Cynthia Lucia explains, the female lawyer appeared to be a feminist model--as a professional, powerful, central female character--but her representation was in truth a result of the glossing over of reactionary impulses to feminism. Despite her alliance with the law, the female lawyer--like the femme fatale--was presented as "dangerously ambitious"; however, this masculine trait and her independence were denied by her presentation as "personally and professionally deficient" (Lucia 33). In terms of her professional life, the female lawyer was not necessarily competent and was often forced to defer to male authority or was proven wrong by a male colleague; in terms of her personal life, she was not whole but flawed and tended to be married to her job, unable to attain happiness or fulfillment until she found a child and/or love interest.
Similarly, the contemporary female detective has risen through the ranks because she has sacrificed the traditional female roles of wife and mother to pursue a career in the male sphere of law enforcement. Rather than being a nurturer to a man, she is a threat to him as competition in his professional life. While she may excel at her job, she tends to dress like a man (or not in a feminine manner), is sexually aggressive, and has no desire for a committed relationship. Whether or not this is acceptable behavior for a woman in American society in the twenty-first century is beside the point as for Hollywood this can signify nothing other than that she is neurotic and unhappy even if she believes otherwise. In other words, the female detective can only succeed at her professional life if her personal life suffers. While this is not necessarily a new trope for the genre, it is certainly highlighted in the contemporary detective film as this representation of women seems out of date in today's climate of female advancement in professional circles.
Her struggle to operate in a man's world is more acute in the case of the serial killer narrative as the detective often has the potential to become a victim of the man she hunts. The films of the last decade with female detective-heroes explore two issues or conflicts related to her sex and her presence in two male dominated worlds: that of law enforcement where the majority of detectives are male, and that of the serial killer where the killer is male and the victims are almost always female. (7) The female detective appeared with increasing frequency along with the shift from the action-cop to the criminalist detective; however, the female detective presents a problem in the genre because of her appropriation of the male position in mainstream film. Linda Mizejewski argues that
the "problem" of the female investigator is most easily resolved through familiar heterosexual strategies: the excessive fetishization and domesticization of the female detective in V.I. Warshawski (1991); the imposition of a romantic subplot [...] in The Stranger Among Us (1992); the glamorization in Impulse (1990); the heterosexual partnership in Rush (1992). An alternative resolution of the female dick problem in cinema has been to represent her as a Hollywood version of the lesbian, thereby associating her with another kind of "illegitimacy." (6-7).
There seems to be a need in mainstream film to contain the representation of women in the same instance as giving her voice expression. (8) In the action and detective films of the late 1980s and early 1990s--for example, Blue Steel, The Silence of the Lambs, and Point of No Return (Badham 1993)--the woman's fear is that, through the appropriation of the male position as detective (i.e., "dick") and male weapon of the gun (i.e., phallus), she suffers a loss of femininity--or at least the ability to perform it successfully. In Blue Steel, Megan (Jamie Lee Curtis) looks uncomfortable and out of place in her evening dress when out on a date compared to the confidence she exudes when in her masculine uniform; in Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) undermines Clarice (Jodie Foster) and her self-confidence when he identifies her cheap shoes and perfume; and in Point of No Return, while Maggie (Bridget Fonda) is proficient in street-fighting and firing a gun, she needs lessons in how to walk, dress, and present herself convincingly as a woman. This construction of female heroism in the early 1990s through signifiers associated with established notions of male heroism may account for what Mizejewski sees as the "lesbianization" of the female hero--aligning her with "illegitimate" notions of femininity in order to mediate her accession to heroism.
The female body is constructed in mainstream cinema almost always in terms of sexual display for the male gaze, but, in many of the detective films of the 1990s, the female body is presented less as an erotic object and more as spectacular--either in death as the female corpse or in action as the female detective. The Bone Collector opens with a familiar scene: a woman sits at the window while a man is shown in bed and a police officer's uniform, gun, holster, and boots lay on the floor beside the bed. The implication is these tools of the law enforcement trade belong to the man in bed; however, in a reversal of gender roles, it is Amelia (Angelina Jolie) that is the cop and her lover who complains that she is commitment phobic. He accuses her of not being emotionally involved enough in their relationship and that the night they just spent together was "another slam bam thank you 'mam'--he being the one who has been used. This reversal establishes Amelia as masculinized, and, therefore, it is not surprising that she turns out to be a tough and competent cop who readily dispatches the killer when he attempts to kill the male detective, Rhyme. Similarly, in Murder by Numbers, Cassie (Sandra Bullock) is presented as more masculine than feminine: she wears gender non-specific clothes, most often a turtleneck or T-shirt with trousers and a black "pleather" jacket, little make-up, and her long hair is usually tied back for functionality. Cassie and her new partner, Sam (Ben Chaplin), represent a role reversal: she is the sexual predator in the relationship and he is the one who asks, "What about what I want?" Cassie's nickname given to her by her male colleagues on the force is "The Hyena"; the female hyena has a mock penis and Cassie acts as if she possesses a phallus.
In Kiss the Girls, Kate McTiernan (Ashley Judd) is originally one of the killer's captives but later becomes his hunter and is also somewhat masculinized. She is shown in kickboxing class: her muscles gleam and flex under the stress of her combat as her fists and feet find their marks; her body is revealed in a sports top and shorts during these sequences of action rather than stripped off or in feminine garb and in positions of passivity. In fact when she is held captive by the killer--drugged up and tied to the bed--her body is disguised beneath a baggy sweater. In Twisted, Judd plays a homicide detective, Jessica Shepard, who investigates a string of killings to which she is intimately involved--all the victims are men that she has had sexual relations with. Like Bullock's Cassie in Murder by Numbers, Jessica's uniform is jeans and turtleneck sweaters under a leather jacket. Her hair is short and she is presented as pretty--but also pretty tough. She is a sexual predator, roaming bars for passionate one-night stands with strangers. In Taking Lives, the film begins with Special Agent Illeana Scott (Angelina Jolie) portrayed as a smart and skilled behavioral scientist and her self-control and confidence is echoed in her put-together outfits--dark slim-fitting shirts, dark trousers, and a blazer or leather jacket--and her hair tightly wound back. Even her name--she answers her phone with her surname, "Scott"--and her cool handling of her black Mustang convertible in a car chase suggest she is masculine. Like, Jessica and Cassie, Illeana is a highly sexualized woman and she develops what she describes as a "favorable reaction" to the lead witness, Costa (Ethan Hawke)--eventually having a night of passion with him. Although she wears a wedding ring--suggesting that, unlike the majority of female detectives, she has found a balance between her professional and personal life--she confesses to Costa that it is a prop, worn to ward off male advances.
The female detective is often presented as a masculinized woman; however, the most effective strategy to contain the agency of the female hero is to place her in the position of victim, or potential victim, at the same time as that of hero. In Kiss the Girls, Kate is one of Casanova's victims: she was stalked, kidnapped, drugged, and would have been raped and / or killed if she had not escaped. She uses her strengths to gain not only her freedom from his dungeon, but also the ability to face him again. As such a strong and admirable character, Kate defies the traditional representation of a woman in this type of film where women tend to be the helpless victims; however, in her showdown with the killer, it is the male detective, Alex Cross (Morgan Freeman), who must come to her rescue and shoot the killer as Kate lies helpless on the floor. Kate--despite her strength and martial arts skills--is ultimately a victim rather than a successful "manhunter." Kate is also not a professional detective; she is a medical intern who gets involved in the case after being the only victim to escape and this allows greater latitude with her representation.
In Taking Lives, Illeana in introduced as a very successful and talented profiler from the F.B.I. The Montreal detectives--Duval and Paquette--to whom she has been assigned to assist find her, not at the airport, but in the grave where the victim was buried. One of the problems with the film is that it never fully develops or explains this and other aspects of what the film's official website identify as her "intuitive, unconventional approach" and "unorthodox methods" (takinglives.warnerbros.com), like the posting of crime scene photos above her bed, in the bathroom, and on the chair opposite her at dinner; however, the process of lying in the grave would suggest that Illeana is attempting to align herself with the victim. Similarly, at Martin's childhood home, Illeana discovers a basement room where it is implied Martin was confined and she lies in his bed. She tries to identify with Martin, whom she begins to regard as a victim himself--a victim of an obsessive and cruel mother--only to be attacked by Martin who is hiding under the bed. Her renowned abilities as a profiler are called into question by her fellow detectives and herself as, to her horror, Illeana discovers that the witness--and the man she has fallen for--is, in fact, the killer she seeks. With her realization that she has been seduced by the killer, she begins to unravel emotionally, a loss of confidence mirrored by her increasingly disheveled appearance with her long hair loose and in tangles, and her eyes red and rimmed with tears. Although the film begins with her as a strong character, her inability to identify the killer correctly and his ability to seduce her so easily portray Illeana as a woman successful in her profession but weak when it comes to men; it is her femininity that makes her vulnerable and almost one of Martin's unfortunate victims. However, the usual cause of the female detective's inability to be both professionally and personally successful in the serial killer film is most often cited as a past trauma involving violence perpetrated by men.
In Murder by Numbers, Cassie's single-minded pursuit of the killer and her abandonment of a personal life in favor of doing her job may mark her as a masculinized woman, but they are identified as a result of her past as she was once the near-victim of a killer herself. Her former abusive husband stabbed her seventeen times in an attempt to kill her and this attack haunts her life in every aspect. In her private life, she sabotages any relationship that brings any man too close--"That's Cassie's MO" her ex-boyfriend explains to her new partner Sam. In her professional life, she over-identifies with the victim and, as her boss explains, the detective must identify with the killer in order to catch him, not with the victim. Cassie's close alignment with the murdered woman (indicated by Cassie's referral to her by her first name) leads to her being pulled off the case. Cassie must deal with her own victimization in order to move on with her life, but she avoids it at all costs. When asked by Sam why she became a police detective,
she lies and says it was because someone she knew was killed; and, when later she recounts her traumatic past, she refers to herself in the third person. She also uses a nickname and her maiden name, Cassie Mayweather, to differentiate herself as a detective from the victim she was as Jessica May Hudson. By meeting face to face with the killers in this case, fighting them, and bringing them to justice, Cassie is able to rewrite her past with a new sense of herself as a survivor. However, it turns out that her own experiences did cloud her judgment as she was convinced that Richard (the boy who reminds her of her husband) was the real villain, and killer, rather than the loner Justin with whom she self-identified. She concludes her rehabilitation by facing her former husband as a witness at his parole hearing and, when called as "Jessica May Hudson," Cassie answers.
Whereas Cassie used Sam for sexual gratification at the beginning of the film before literally kicking him out of bed, the film suggests that with her coming to terms with her past as victim, she will now embrace a normal relationship with Sam. This concern with "deviant" sexuality is also made explicit through the "unhealthy" relationship that emerges between Richard and Justin. The real-life killers, Leopold and Loeb, were rich, young men, and also lovers; while Murder by Numbers does not suggest that Richard and Justin engage in a homosexual relationship, it does imply that had Justin's teenage exuberance been channeled in the more usual direction of sexual interest girls, he would have never turned to murder as a hobby. He says suggestively to Lisa, the girl he likes, "If only I had met you first." She comforts him saying that, left to his own devices, he would not have killed--that Richard "seduced him" into it.
While Cassie is haunted by her near-fatal experience at the hands of her abusive husband, the masculinization of the heroines of The Silence of the Lambs, The Bone Collector and Twisted is blamed on the violent deaths of their policemen fathers at the hands of criminals. In The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice (Jodie Foster) successfully navigates the patriarchal men who test or challenge her presence in law enforcement, brings the killer that eludes the male police and agents to justice, and concludes the film without abandoning her career and / or taking a more socially prescribed role as the "significant other" of a man, a role that would lead to marriage and motherhood. In the classic horror movie, Diane Dubois notes, the female protagonist is often recovered through being "rescued" from her career by the hero through marriage and motherhood or through her "abandonment of career-based ambition," but that The Silence of the Lambs demands its protagonist does neither (305). On the other hand, The Bone Collector ends with Amelia recouped into this more traditional role. She effects Rhyme's emotional rehabilitation as he does not carry out his plans for his "final transition" (commit suicide) and is reunited with his long estranged friends and family by Amelia. More importantly, Amelia has suppressed her masculine sexual appetites apparent at the beginning of the film to be Rhyme's non-sexual companion. He is a quadriplegic and sexual intimacy between the two occurs only through the stroking of his finger that maintains feeling. The conclusion of Twisted also sees its heroine's femininity recovered as it is suggested that Jessica will embark on a meaningful and exclusive relationship with her police partner, Mike (Andy Garcia).
NEW TWISTS IN THE GENRE
The more recent contributions to the genre, Taking Lives and Twisted, present a shift from the majority of serial killer films with female detectives that preceded them. Both films present a serial killer that preys on male rather than female victims and this, in turn, should present a shift in the representation of the female detective away from being the potential victim of the killer and male violence. In Twisted, Jessica is not a potential victim but a suspect in the case as the victims were men with whom she had intimate relations. The past trauma that haunts her is that her father--also a police detective--committed a series of murders that concluded with her mother's murder and his own suicide. It is revealed by the end of the film, however, that it was not her father that committed those atrocities when she was a child, but her seemingly benevolent guardian and police commander (Samuel L. Jackson). He did not like the men that her mother was pursuing and dispatched them; similarly, he does not like the men that Jessica sleeps with and is killing them. Jessica does not suffer from an unhealthy alignment with the victims--fearing that she may become one; instead she develops an unhealthy alignment with the killer--fearing that she may be the one committing the murders, not unlike her father. Once she discovers the truth that it is her guardian not herself or her father who is / was the murderer, Jessica is "cured" of her neurosis--and, thus, her masculinity. She is able to become feminized--i.e., vulnerable--and fall in love with Mike.
In Taking Lives, the victims of the killer are men because the killer wants to be someone else with a life different from his own; he, therefore, kills in order to take their place and live their lives like a hermit crab, as one of the detectives notes in the film. Illeana does not suffer from a childhood trauma; she appears to be confident and stable. She does not over-identify with the victims and remains professional in her following of the case; however, she does form an attraction to the killer--although unbeknownst to her. While she appears masculinized in the first half of the film, her traumatic realization that her lover is the killer sends her into a self-destructive spiral signaled by her increasingly "feminized" appearance. At the end of the film, she comes to embody hyperfemininity as she appears to be seven months pregnant with Costa/Martin's twins. He confronts her in her farmhouse hideaway and viciously attacks her--beating her, kicking her, strangling her, and ultimately stabbing her in the belly. What was interesting about this scene is the effect it had on the audience. At the screening I attended, the audience--myself included--was visibly and audibly disturbed at the sight of a heavily pregnant young woman being beaten so viciously. For Illeana/Jolie to engage in a fight with the killer seems to be acceptable to the audience only when she is masculinized; when she is feminized to this extreme degree, an incompatibility arises between her role as mother-to-be and "manhunter." However, this image of the detective as feminized--the horrifying image of a pregnant woman being attacked and beaten--is only a masquerade; Illeana is not pregnant but only pretends to be in order to lure Costa/Martin to her so that she may exact justice by killing him in self-defense. Thus, the disturbing nature of the scene dissipates with the realization that Illeana is still a masculine woman merely utilizing the masquerade of femininity to achieve her desire--to kill Martin outside the bounds of the law.
These more recent additions to the serial killer film offered new "twists" in order to attract viewers now familiar with the subgenre's conventions: Taking Lives and Twisted offer male killers who pursue male--rather than the usual female--victims. Twisted also attempts to surprise viewers by directing suspicion onto its female detective-hero who is, of course, revealed to be innocent of the crimes. One film of recent years, however, has broken with the conventions of the trend not only by presenting a serial killer who is a woman but also by making the killer--rather than a detective--the film's protagonist. Monster (Jenkins 2003) stars Charlize Theron as real-life killer Aileen Wuornos and, rather than having a detective's investigation as the driving force behind the narration, the film focuses instead of the desires and crimes of the female killer. The film's critical success--Theron won both the Golden Globe and Academy Award for Best Actress--and box-office success as an independent film--earning over $34 million (www.imdb. com)--may cause Hollywood to reconsider the focus and formulation of the recent serial killer film. However, much of the interest in the film, no doubt reflected by the awards the film won, was in the film's success at transforming the female body at the center of the narrative. Rather than the bodies of Wuornos's victims, the film offers Theron's as the spectacle of the narrative. Theron--hailed as one of Hollywood's most glamorous actresses--was successfully transformed into the Florida prostitute-turned-killer with the help of make-up, greasy hair, crooked teeth, thirty pounds of weight gain, and a dramatic change in her physical posturing to disguise her years of ballet training. In other words, Wuornos/ Theron is masculinized not only because her inattention to her looks, her unfashionable clothes, and her physical carriage are non-feminine, but also because she commits what is traditionally male violence--i.e., serial murder--and engages in a non-hetero-normative relationship with another woman. However, at the same time, the film presents its killer as sympathetic--and, to some extent, justifies her actions--because she is the victim of male violence herself. Thus, while Monster deviates from the current mainstream trend with its focus on the killer--and a female killer at that--it does retain an emphasis on the female body, the masculinization of the female protagonist, and depicting women as the victims of male violence.
WOMEN CAN'T HAVE IT ALL?
The female detective tends to be presented initially as extremely successful at her job: she is an intuitive and astute observer and tracker. Her failing tends to be in her personal life; she is unable to develop a satisfying and committed relationship with a man because she is married to her job or because she or her father was the victim of male violence. However, a shift occurs during the film whereby the female detective's inability to form a normal relationship with a man comes to impede her ability to perform her job--as in Murder by Numbers and Twisted--or she becomes the intended or potential victim of male violence--as in Kiss the Girls and Taking Lives. Her personal life intersects with the professional and leaves her vulnerable and/or unable to do her job well. In Murder by Numbers, Cassie is pulled off the case because she develops an unhealthy identification with the victim and dislike for Richard; in Twisted, Jessica is regarded as the most likely suspect as her father was a killer and she slept with all the victims; in The Bone Collector, Amelia is pulled off the case by the police chief as she attempts to play detective instead of keeping to her place as a beat patrol cop; in Kiss the Girls, Kate has escaped from the killer once but becomes his target again at the end of the film; and in Taking Lives, Illeana misreads the case and embraces the killer as a lover instead of recognizing him for the serial murderer he is. Like the female lawyer protagonist of the 1980s, the female criminalist is still plagued by the seeming inability to have both a healthy personal life as well as a strong professional one, most likely because her function in contemporary film is still to process and negotiate male anxieties centered on the proliferation of women in traditionally male spheres of public life.
The majority of Hollywood serial killer films that have populated the big screen for the last decade do not present a necessarily challenging message and, instead, tend to offer the serial killer as a sacrifice to the detective to restore order in society. As Philip Simpson explains,
While sensational depictions of violence can radically subvert cultural ideology, the latest serial killer films typically construct their sensationalism from a conservative political stance that allows for commercial success. Thus, while the films radically appear to transgress taboo, especially in their depiction of violence, they actually serve to uphold a patriarchal, law-and-order status quo derived in large measure from a repressively patriarchal heritage. ("Politics" 119)
In the serial killer narrative, a sense of community and consensus is created by the sacrifice of a few victims when the abnormal element of the society--the killer--is identified and removed from that society--through death or imprisonment. The detective is also redeemed through the sacrifice of the victims as the male detective is able to validate his masculinity and/or competence as a detective through hunting and identifying the killer; the female detective, on the other hand, has the added pressure of having to be successful in both her private and professional lives--and is unable to do so. Through the tracking and killing or bringing to justice the serial killer, the female detective is able to prove her abilities as a detective and affect her own "cure" for her neurosis that has plagued her adult life, stemming from the childhood trauma of losing her father to violence or being the victim of male violence herself. The symptom that she is cured--or at least partly responsible for her cure--is that the female detective has given up her obsession with the loss of her father or the violent men of her past to pursue a healthy, normative relationship with a good man--often her partner from work. The films leave the heroine at this moment of balance--success in both her professional and personal lives--i.e., a happy ending.
One cannot help, however, but suspect that having dealt with the traumatic past event that drove her to be a detective, our heroine may lose her ambitious--and "masculine"--drive in terms of work. Similarly, now that she has found romance and stability with her partner, the female detective will no longer be able to indulge in the single-minded pursuit of the killer. The lone male detective of the serial killer film remains unattached at the end of the narrative; like the Western hero, the detective must remain unencumbered by romantic and familial entanglements if he is to remain effective as the detective that operates on the margins of society--on the thin blue line between crime and the law. The female detective, on the other hand, is expected to give up her independence and work with the team--especially her partner. The sacrifice of the serial killer's victims--and ultimately the serial killer himself--functions to highlight and work through many contemporary anxieties of women in the traditionally male workplace. While the female detective may prove her abilities as a "manhunter," she is ultimately contained or her success devalued through a reinscribing and containment of her professional ambition and aggressive sexuality in the contemporary serial killer film.
The author gratefully acknowledges that financial support for this research was received from a grant partly funded by Wilfrid Laurier University (WLU) Operating funds and partly by the SSHRC Institutional Grant awarded to WLU.
(1) For an in-depth discussion of this movement toward "sensitive men" heroes see Susan Jeffords, "Can Masculinity Be Terminated?" Screening the Male: Exploring Masculinities in Hollywood Cinema, Eds. Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark (London: Routledge, 1993), or Fred Pfeil, White Guys: Studies in Postmodern Domination and Difference (London: Verso, 1995).
(2) As Christian Fuchs notes, the FBI assume that less than 5% of all serial killers are women, and those that are mainly kill direct relatives: Aileen Wuornos is "the great exception" (188). Similarly, the cinematic serial killer is almost always male and there are only a few exceptions, including Eye of the Beholder (Elliott 2002) starring Ashley Judd as a fictional serial killer and Monster (Jenkins 2003) starring Charlize Theron as real-life killer Wuornos.
(3) For further discussion of the liberties taken in representing the fictional serial killer in film see Carl Goldberg and Virginia Crespo, "A Psychological Exaimination of Serial Killer Cinema: The Case of Copycat," Post Script 22.2 (2003): 55-63.
(4) Emphasis in the original.
(5) The criminalist is the protagonist in the fiction of authors like Thomas Harris, Patricia Cornwell, James Patterson, and Jeffrey Deaver; in films like Kiss the Girls and Blood Work; and on television with series like McCallum (1995 to present), Silent Witness (1996 to present), and Prime Suspect (1990 to 1996) in Britain, Da Vinci's Inquest (1998 to present) and Cold Squad (1998 to present) in Canada, and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2000 to present), CSI Miami (2002 to present), Crossing Jordan (2001 to present), and Law and Order: Criminal Intent (2001 to present) in the United States. Several documentary series have also cashed in on the popularity of the serial killing and forensic investigations, including IR: Cold Case Files (part of the Investigative Reports series [1991 to present]), American Justice (1992 to present), Medical Detectives (1998 to present), and City Confidential (1998 to present). Unlike the criminalist narrative in fiction and in film, the ones on television rarely present investigations of serial killers and instead bring the contemporary fascination with forensic investigation to the traditional cop show.
(6) These TV-movies include The Deadly Tower (Jameson 1975) about Charles Whitman, Helter Skelter (Gries 1976) about the Manson Family, Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones (Graham 1980) about Jim Jones, The Executioner's Song (Shiller 1982) about Gary Gilmore, Out of the Darkness (Taylor 1985) about "The Son of Sam" killer David Berkowitz, The Deliberate Stranger (Chomsky 1986) about Ted Bundy, The Case of the Hillside Stranglers (Gethers 1988) about Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono, Manhunt: Search for the Night Stalker (Green 1989) about Richard Ramirez, To Catch a Killer (Till 1992) about John Wayne Gacy, Murder in the Heartland (Markowitz 1993) about Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate, and Citizen X (Gerolmo 1995) about the Russian killer, Andrei Chikatilo. For more details about these TV-movies, see Christian Fuchs's Bad Blood: An Illustrated guide to Psycho Cinema (New York: Creation Books, 2002).
(7) In Twisted and Taking Lives the serial killer's victims are men. This seems to be the newest evolution of the genre and this gender twist enacts a shift in the relationship between the detective and the killer but also the victims and is a theme I will explore later in the paper.
(8) This is a trend or need similar to that of containing black masculinity in the contemporary serial killer film. The black detective may outwit the evil serial killer, but his sexuality, race, and ability to perform heroic action--unlike those of the traditional white hero--are held in check or left undeveloped. For further discussion, see Philippa Gates, "Always a Partner in Crime: Black Masculinity and the Hollywood Detective Film" Journal of Popular Film & Television 32.1 (Spring 2004): 29.
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Twisted (2004) Dir. Philip Kaufman. Perf. Ashley Judd and Samuel L. Jackson. Prod. Paramount Pictures, Blackout Productions, Intertainment AG, and Kopelson Entertainment.
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