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Feminism’s “Limit” Case

In 2002, shortly before Karla Homolka’s proposed release from prison, an Internet site called “Karla Homolka Death Pool: When the Game Is Over, We All Win” was set up solely for the purpose of taking its visitors’ bets on the exact date that someone would murder Homolka should her parole be granted.2 One of the rules of the site stated that players were not allowed to influence the odds by killing her themselves or by arranging her death through any third party. Most of those who bet seemed to think she would live barely a month after her statutory release date. She was released from prison on 4 July 2005. There have been no known attempts on her life to date (June 2006), and the website has now been bought by the Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty and shut down. Several other Net sites have discussed the hour and manner of Homolka’s death, although all proclaim they do not and will not condone violence toward her.3 Karla Homolka has the honour of being one of the most hated female killers in the world. If the death sites are any indi­cation, she has incited more people to want her dead and to be potentially prepared to commit her murder than any other woman still living. Yet, despite her notoriety, Homolka, like Myra Hindley before her, is ignored by most feminist critics writing about violent women; rather, she is subject what Helen

Birch has described as a “deafening silence."4 This silence is certainly not due to a lack of popular interest. Mainstream discourses5 have provided numer­ous and interminable representations that have covered the full spectrum of possible depictions, veering between the most likely condemnation of her as a monster and the least likely depiction of her as a masochistic victim under the control of an evil partner.

In this chapter I argue that the feminist silence surrounding this case has occurred because mainstream legal and media portrayals have frequently con­structed Karla Homolka as a female sadist and, as such, not warranting fem­inist interest or involvement. Incomprehension and silence appear the only “appropriate” feminist responses to this sort of villainy.6 Such silence, although hardly unusual (as I demonstrate shortly), is nevertheless seemingly at odds with the primary aims of feminist legal theory and analyses of cultural con­structions of Woman and female gender performance. In the case of violent women, feminist legal theorists, in particular, have concentrated on breaking down the deleterious effects of the double jeopardy they face, principally through emphasizing contextual factors that may have influenced their actions and diminishing the importance of the conventional stereotypical ways in which women are usually represented. Often it is through subversion of tra­ditional feminine roles and stereotypes that feminist theorists and advocates aim to promote understanding of individual women’s case histories and, hence, to lessen discrimination against women in general. However, in so doing, they seem to have fomented a dichotomizing of cases acceptable to feminist intervention.

Women whose activities betray a feminist or autonomous perspective find themselves the subjects of further feminist legal analysis, as do those who have engaged in violent acts perceived as the consequence of previous abuse. So the selection of violent women acceptable to, and therefore discussed within, feminist legal theory depends upon whether they can inspire sympa­thy as victims or celebration as powerful avengers.7

The lack of response to women like Homolka, who have committed sex­ually violent crimes against other women, tells much, then, about the con­struction of the violent woman within feminist theory, particularly within feminist legal theory.8 Homolka, and others like her, are not included in many feminist discussions of violent women because they cannot be made to fit feminist constructions of the violent female subject. Women who engage in violent crimes against younger women, therefore, form the “limit” cases of feminist theory on female violence.