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Not Rational, Not Feminine: Sexualized Narratives Of
Violent Women

By Akanksha Mehta

16 October, 2011

Women who engage in violence are often depicted through sexualized narratives that view violent behavior as an aberration from normal (‘peaceful') feminine traits. These sexualized narratives deny agency to violent women, excluding them from the realm of rationality and viewing them as non-women.

There has beenrampant coverage of Amanda Knox's appeal trial and her subsequent release from prison in Perugia , Italy . Knox, who in 2009 was convicted of killing her roommate and sentenced to 26 years in prison, has been repeatedly painted as a hyper-sexualized “she-devil” by the media and the prosecution. Since her arrest a few days after the murder, Knox's alleged motives have been embroiled in a narrative of a “sexual game gone bad” wherein she is said to have “lured” two men into being her accomplices for the murder.With selective snippets and photographs of her life, Knox has been portrayed as an “evil seductress” who resorted to violence and cold-blooded murder, as she was obsessed with sex and sexual power.

Knox's case is not an isolated one. Discourses around violent women have often seen women and womanhood as ‘intrinsically' passive and ‘inherently' nurturing and opposed to violence. Women who engage in violence are thus often portrayed as irrational and their actions are labeled an anomaly to ‘the way women are supposed to behave.' To maintain normalized gender ideals, violent women are thus painted as ‘bad women,' whose actions lie outside of natural feminine behavior and must have ‘special explanations.' Sexuality is one such explanation that has been used to justify women's violence in both ancient and contemporary times. Violent women are represented as being sexually deviant and depraved. They commit violence because of their insatiable need for sex and for power through sexual activity. While ‘normal' women have ‘private and controlled' sexual relations, violent women are ‘obsessed' with sex so much so that it drives them to violence.

Consider the case of Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed (1560-1614), who is debated to be “the most prolific female serial killer” and is also known as “Blood Countess.” She has been depicted as a woman who murdered hundreds of pretty and young virgins and bathed in their blood to maintain her own youth and complexion. Her violence has been ‘explained' by her need to be youthful and maintain sexual prowess. In a more recent example, Australian serial killer Katherine Knight, who was convicted for her crimes in 2001, was depicted as a hyper sexualized woman. Her violence was ‘explained' by her sexual dissatisfaction even though her partners were said to have engaged in “sexual relations that would have satisfied a normal woman.”

As Kietnar elaborated in her article “Victim or Vamp? Images of Violent Women in the Criminal Justice System”, the attribution of violence by women to their deviated and evil sexuality reminds us that violent women in addition to their physical crime have also overstepped the boundaries of their gender norms. Thus, while violent men are those who could not suppress their inherently ‘aggressive masculine' nature; violent women are ones that betray their innate nature. Men are predisposed to evil and have to show restraint in order to abstain from it. While women when deviant and sexually depraved, transform into non-feminine evil and engage in violence.

Narratives of sexualized violent women are not restricted to female criminals- they have also encompassed women who engage in political violence- women militants, insurgents, nationalists, and even female military combatants. Depictions of Chechen female insurgents often referred to as “black widows,” describe them as exotic, mysterious, and veiled (hence, faceless) dangerous women. These militant women are denied any agency for their violent acts, and are often described as pawns of (male) Chechen rebel leaders who convince and urge them to use their bodies and avenge the death of Chechen males. These descriptions sexualize and even fetishize their actions. Similar narratives exist in the cases of other female suicide bombers and female perpetrators of genocide. In the context of India 's current Maoist insurgency, counter insurgency narratives have known to refer to female Maoist cadres as “sexually unclean and polluted.” In this case, sexualizing the female militant and portraying her as ‘deviant' not only explains the woman's participation in insurgency but also justifies counter insurgency's ‘civilizing' mission.

Sexualized narratives portray violent women as non-women who are errors of biology and female construction. Violent women are singular exceptions that deviate from “the rest of womankind” and are violent because of their flawed femininity. These narratives therefore reinforce gender stereotypes and norms that inherently prescribe appropriate behavior and boundaries for women, subordinating them to men. For instance, women who are deemed as ‘inappropriately' dressed are blamed for ‘inviting' rape and sexual harassment and ‘enticing' the male aggressor. These narratives thus not only define what violent women are, they also define what all women should be like. Furthermore, sexualized narratives of politically violent women portray them as incapable of making independent and rational choices. They deny agency to violent women, viewing them as non-women whose actions lie outside the realm of rationality. This special accounting and justification for violent women excludes them and neglects the manner in which these women shape and reshape global politics, taking the personal to the political and vice versa.

Violent women have been excluded from global politics for decades, their actions considered insignificant and deviant exceptions. This exclusion has also led to dangerous corollary, wherein a woman who is deemed sexually ‘abnormal' is portrayed as one who is prone to committing violence. After all, in spite of the lack of concrete physical evidence, Amanda Knox spent four years in prison partly because the sexualized narrative that painted her as a femme fatale provided a motive for murder where none existed.

Akanksha Mehta is an Associate Research Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore, where she works on Political Violence and Gender. She can be reached at www.twitter.com/aknksha and www.akankshamehta.com


York, Jodi (1998) “The Truth about Women and Peace” in The Women War Reader, Lois A. Lorentzen and Jenifer Turpin (eds.), New York University Press, New York

Kietner, C (2002) “Victim or Vamp? Images of Violent Women in the Criminal Justice System,” Columbia Journal of Law and Gender, Vol. 11, No. 1, p. 38

Gentry, Caron E. and Sjoberg, Laura (2007) Mothers, Monsters, Whores: Women's Violence in Global Politics, Zed Books, London and New York





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