Gender Performatives and Discursive Clashes
Further reasons for the persistent exclusion of cases like those of Karla Homolka from a feminist construction of violent female subjectivity lie in their unsettling of pretheorized notions of femininity. Her transgression rendered overt the constructed nature of both mainstream and feminist performatives of femininity. For when dominant legal and media “scripts” called for complete submission to the demands of Paul Bernardo, Homolka provided evidence of her own desire; when only her spectatorship was required, she gave allegations of her own abusiveness; when remorse was expected, she shed no tears; and, finally, when her partners’ sadism, autonomy, and sole responsibility for the crimes was demanded, she demonstrated that the rapes and murders would and could never have taken place without her.
Likewise, Homolka clearly did not demonstrate the main requirements of feminist performatives. Female autonomy, independence, solidarity with other women and protection of children are all valued in feminist female gender performatives, and women’s oppression and victimization by men are given sympathy and understanding. Homolka’s autonomy was suspect as she acted in concert with, and perhaps under the jurisdiction of, Paul Bernardo; her independence was also debatable as she constantly professed her need to retain her partners’ love; her solidarity with other women and her protection of children were evidently non-existent; and her victimization and oppression by men is also doubtful as, while she insisted she was coerced, her own narratives and video footage tell a different story.
The transgressive character of Homolka’s femininity in both feminist and mainstream legal and media discourses is largely a symptom of a discursive clash as her performance of femininity as willing slave and older dominatrix of younger women is quite well established within the fictional discourse of pornography.20 Homolka’s insertion of her “real” activities into this already extant fictional role demonstrates the availability of such a role for women and the ease with which women in “real life” situations can assume it.21 Nor is she the only woman to so do. Indeed, this role is particularly popular with women who kill and sexually assault in partnership with men.22 Pornographic discourses provide convenient scripts in which couples like Homolka and Bernardo can situate and articulate their desires via particular representations that shape the form and content of their rapes and killings and, hence, the ways they come to understand them (Cameron and Frazer, 1987, xiii). As Patricia Pearson observes, “whatever the accessible cultural rationale is, we will borrow it to explain ourselves” (1998,40).23 This is not to suggest that Homolka consciously shuffled between discourses as fully formed selves to find the performative best suited to her activities. Gender performatives are not roles “which.. .express or disguise an interior ‘self’” so much as acts “which construct the social fiction of (their) own psychological interiority” (Butler 1990a: 279);
rather, she learned to “feel” and to “be” a willing slave and a dominatrix by learning to act as them. The particular corporeal acts required by particular gender performatives reproduce the script while allowing for individual interpretations of any enactment.
Feminist incorporation of Karla Homolka’s enactment of pornographic performatives is deeply problematic as the discourse of pornography itself has often been considered antithetical to feminism’s general aims and values. The feminist critique of pornography instituted in the early 1980s by theorists like Andrea Dworkin, Susan Griffin, and Catherine MacKinnon, although subject to challenge in more recent feminist theory, is nevertheless still cited in popular debates,24 which continue to argue that pornography somehow “causes” violent crime against women.25 Karla Homolka’s narrative of sexual sadism, therefore, could never be acceptable under feminism. For even the most broadminded feminist analyses of pornography rarely consider the slip from masochist to sadist, which is inherent in the beating fantasy and which is narrated so well in Homolka’s tale;26 instead, women like Homolka, who make violent pornography using non-consenting participants, are left to inhabit the unlivable body, or perhaps the unthinkable body, of feminist legal and cultural theory.