It’s a Wrap
In the early 1980s there was a shift of focus in feminist thinking from concern with the concept of “woman” to a concern with the concept of “gender”
(Brasher 1999). With this shift, feminist theorists began defining gender as a socially constructed category that encompassed sex rather than constructing sex as a biological condition that determines gender. According to Brenda Brasher (1999), by redefining these concepts many new and important areas of analysis opened up for feminists. Judith Butler(i99oa, 7) tells us that it allowed feminists to critique “the very apparatus of production whereby the sexes themselves are established…[and] the discursive/cultural means by which sexed nature or natural sex is produced and established as prediscursive prior to culture, a politically neutral surface on which culture acts."
In her paper “The Portrayal of Women on Television” Helen Ingham (1995) tells us that “television is regarded by many viewers to be the most real form of media.” This is one of the reasons that everyone in America felt they were at Karla’s execution. I briefly look at how Karla was portrayed on television and try to determine what it was that made people across all walks of life identify with her. In an unprecedented manner, television cameras and crews, as well as talk show hosts and tv evangelists, were given free rein to interview and photograph her. Since men dominate the production side of television, a masculine and, at times, patriarchal representation is presented as the norm. Laura Mulvey (1975) examines this ideology in her well known work in film studies, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” According to Mulvey, the classical sequence of narrative cinema is that the spectator looks, the camera looks, the male character looks, and the female character is looked at. This sequencing lends itself to sex-role stereotyping and contributes to the objectification of women. Although Mulvey specifically refers to films, it is also what happens in live television, as in the case of Karla Faye Tucker. In another study that specifically deals with how women are presented on television, Saveria Capecchi and Cristina Demaria (1997) delineate the ways in which television, as a medium, devalues women. I looked at two of these processes in considering the case of Karla Faye Tucker.
The first way television devalues women, as Capecchi and Demaria mention, occurs in/during personal interviews. According to their study men often interview women, especially when an issue is controversial and particularly when much has already been made of how a woman looks.
When Karla was interviewed by Larry King he began by referring to her looks: “You’re a very attractive young woman. What happened?” Capecchi and Demaria argue that, in this type of situation, the man who does the interviewing often adopts a patriarchal attitude by bringing up gender stereotypes that emphasize a woman’s expected roles. Again we see this in the King interview: “The argument for you gains a great deal of attention because you are a woman. We could dare say if you were a man we wouldn’t be here and you wouldn’t be getting a lot of attention.”8
When Peter Jennings interviewed Karla with a panel of eight male “experts” he continually referred to her gender. In his introduction to the program (which was called “A Closer Look”) Jennings said, “tonight we’re going to take a ‘closer look’ at whether the death penalty is fairly applied. We have been struck by how much attention a woman on death row in Texas has been getting… .Our aim is to understand whether women in the system get a better deal than men.” By making this statement Jennings clearly notified the audience that the main issue would be gender. He kept this issue before the audience with various types of questions, such as:
Jennings: Does a woman have an edge?
Bill Lane (panel expert): No question she does, Peter. Prosecutors time and time again ferret out and weed out cases in which women are involved in potential death-qualified situations and they don’t charge them.9
Capecchi and Demaria (1997) indicate that male interviewers often do not trust women experts or a woman’s answer and seek confirmation from a male expert. Thus, in the Jennings interview with and about Karla, there is a panel of eight men. The only woman interviewed (besides Karla) was a female reporter who made one statement referring to the brutality of the crime.
A second way television devalues women, according to Capecchi and Demaria, occurs when women are framed by the camera so as to highlight their bodies: the whole body or parts of it might be framed via tracking shots that run all the way up a female figure, shots from overhead when the woman is wearing a low-cut dress, close-up shots of the face, or through full-figure shots that reveal a woman’s legs and thighs. The freedom of the camera’s gaze was restricted in the interviews with Karla because she was filmed in a small room in the prison, and we (the public) saw her projected onto a large monitor. Nevertheless, even with these limitations, the camera made it evident, over and over again, that it was Karla’s woman-ness that we needed to consider. The Dallas Morning News described her as the “soft-spoken, curly-haired Mrs. Tucker” (Bruce Tomaso and Lee Hancock, 4 February 1998). Typically, the Associated Press recounted Karla’s execution by beginning with what she was wearing “a prison-issue white shirt and pants and white running shoes” (Michael Graczyk, 4 February 1998). Baggaley, Ferguson, and Brooks (1988) have noted that “a full face shot suggests less expertise and power than a profile shot since in popular broadcasting those who address the camera directly are typically anchormen.” Shots of Karla during the broadcast interviews were always full-face, filling the entire screen in close-up or extreme close-up.
In his book The Hidden Dimension (1966) Edward T. Hall writes that physical distances in face-to-face interaction (on camera) convey various degrees of formality. Hall finds four specific ranges and refers to anything up to eighteen inches as “intimate.” After several weeks of this kind of interviewing prior to her execution, and in keeping with Hall’s thinking, this may be the reason so many people felt they knew Karla so well.
Returning to Capecchi and Demaria’s (1997) point about devaluing women on camera by focusing on body parts, it can be noted that, when Karla was seen on television, aside from the full-face shots, the camera frequently focused on her eyes, her lips, and her hands. In 1975 Trevor Millum did a study of advertisements in women’s magazines and came up with ten categories of female expressions that can be recognized in the eyes. Of the ten, the two that seem to describe Karla’s on-camera look are “carefree” and “kittenlike” (Millum 1975). Karla Faye Tucker most likely displayed some of these qualities before being on death row. After fourteen-years on death row, clean and drug – free, as she described herself, they only became more evident. One can imagine her at the age of twelve travelling with a rock band and turning tricks, appearing somewhat nymph-like. This may have worked in her favour in those days and thus, due to arrested development, may later on have been the only way she knew how to be in a public sphere. Her long, dark hair, which often appeared slightly wind-blown, made her attractive, seductive, and camera – ready. Everyone who came in contact with Karla found her to be friendly, almost “girlish,” somewhat naive, and always smiling.
Ultimately, it seemed most significant that, when Karla was being interviewed, cameras frequently moved from her face to her hands. It was with those same hands that she took a pickax and brutally hacked two people to death. Yet it was her face, her looks, that people found so appealing—appealing enough to even forgive and forget. The Houston Chronicle reported Andy Kahan, the Houston mayor’s crime victims advocate at the time of Karla’s execution, as saying: “The only reason we’re paying any attention is that she [Karla] looks like one of the Brady Bunch girls and not Granny Clampett… she’s being presented as a fuzzy-wuzzy bunny and everybody goes boo-hoo because the bunny is going to get stepped on. Well, this fuzzy bunny stuck a pickax into two people. and left it embedded in a woman’s chest” (Allan Turner and T. J. Milling, 3 February 1998).
Karla did not grow up with traditionally desirable family values (her mother led her into prostitution), and although she was married twice—once before her incarceration on death row and once after, she never had children or set up house in a conventional-style home. The fact that the murders were so brutal, the fact that Karla and her companion were smug enough not to run away afterwards, the fact that Karla bragged of the murders being pleasurable enough to cause an orgasm, all run against female gender stereotypes.
The one thing about Karla that fit morally acceptable gender norms was her religious conversion. By emphasizing her status as being “born again” the media saved her from her transgressions and simultaneously glorified her in the role of the repentant, passive, and sacrificial woman. As spectators, we were privy to her public redemption through a visit with Sister Helen Prejean. Sister Helen later described Karla as “a gentle, beautiful Christian woman” (Houston Chronicle, 1 February 1998). By this visit Karla was immortalized as the poster child of the anti-death penalty movement. The picture of her and Sister Helen together, smiling and hugging as though they were college roommates, is still seen wherever this is a rally today.
On 14 January 1998 Karla appeared on Larry King Live, and the presentation forced us all to identify with her conversion from a gender-role transgressor to a patriarchal icon of femininity.
King: Never were a churchgoer or anything?
Karla: I was never—no. And had never been in jail. I didn’t know that they gave out Bibles free to those who needed them. So I took this Bible into my cell, and I hid way back in the corner so nobody could see me, because I was really proud. I didn’t want anybody to think I was being weak and reading this Bible. I realize now, you have to be stronger to walk with the Lord in here than you do to not walk with Him.. .It’s a whole lot harder, let me tell you. But anyway, that night I started reading the Bible. I didn’t know what I was reading and before I knew it, I was just—I was in the middle of my floor on my knees and I was just asking God to forgive me.
King: How do we know, as a lot of people would ask who don’t know you, that this isn’t a jailhouse conversion?
Karla: I don’t try and convince people of that. For me, if you can’t look at me and see it then nothing I can say to you is going to convince you. I just live it every day and I reach out to people and it’s up to them to receive from the Lord the same way I did when somebody came to me. And then there are fruits in people’s lives. There is evidence, consistent evidence, in a person’s life. And I’ll tell you what, I’ve been in here fourteen and a half years and it can be a pressure cooker. I mean, you have different personalities. You have people who are still violently acting out in here. If I was going to do anything, it would have happened by now, but it hasn’t.10
Despite these serious transgressions against ideological representations of women, in her last days Karla fit another gender stereotype: that of the
repentant woman. The media focus on the stereotypically beautiful repentant bad woman made the image of Karla at the end of her life undeniably appealing. In an attempt to emphasize that expected repentant role, Larry King probed further:
King: Do you think that a part of the anger that the state may have, or people may have, is the method by which the victims died?
Karla: Oh, yes.
King: Because there were axes—axes were involved, a lot of blood. It was a horrible death, right? Do you think that plays into this?
Karla: Yes, I do. And if—if you were to execute me, you could.. .using the.. .brutality of the crime itself.
King: In other words, ax you to death?
Karla: Yeah. it was horrible. It was. And there are people out there who are in pain because [of it]… .They [re]live it every day with birthdays and holidays, and maybe a smell that triggers a memory, so. I realize that. I…think about them all the time and I know that they’re going through pain.11
Later in the interview King returns to the same theme:
King: They were axed and bludgeoned to death. And the victims’ bodies had more than twenty stab or puncture wounds. A three-foot ax was left embedded in Deborah Thornton’s chest, which you did.
Karla: No, I didn’t.
King: He did that?
King: When you hear this and you have come through so much since this, how do you—and you feel new, how do you separate the two for yourself?
Karla: It’s very hard, except to know that—that the—that the things that were in me when I did that fourteen years ago, I guess I would say it this way—that God reached down inside of me and just literally uprooted all of that stuff and took it out, and poured himself in.12
Karla Faye Tucker will be remembered as a woman whose seeming lack of morality directly affected her mortality, as the fallen woman who was born again, as a murderer who, in the moment of death, chooses life. Prison officials decided not to allow the public to see the hearse with Karla’s body driving away, even though it is a custom carried out in every other execution to verify that the state has fulfilled its duty. Karla herself said her gender should not be an issue in the decision about whether she should live or die. And she
was right. But everything we heard or saw before her death was presented in such a gendered way that no one could forget she was a woman. We came to know Karla only as she was presented to us over and over again by the male – directed gaze of the tv camera. Perhaps no one really knew Karla Faye Tucker, but many became enamored of her media constructed image: the repentant murderous woman.
It is ten past nine. I have to assume the execution is over. That Nadean has succumbed and that the prison will begin preparing for its next date with death in two days. Nothing has happened to signal that it is over. One group is still praying, the other talking. Then one of the three guards that have been at the gate all evening goes over to the anti-death penalty group and says something. They begin kissing each other good-bye and pack up their things and leave. The guard does not say anything to the group that is praying.
I don’t know what to do so I sit on the cement ledge out of which the wire fence that encloses the prison has grown. I have my back to the prison. Someone has just turned off all the lights. I tell myself to breathe. I hear a rustle of leaves behind me. Not sensing any wind, I turn to see what might be afoot. And I find myself face to face with a large white cat. I can’t imagine where this cat has come from. It is inside the fence and I am out—but it is staring at me. Our eyes are locked. The cat holds the gaze and I cannot look away. I speak to the cat: “What are you doing here?” The cat doesn’t move. After several minutes the cat runs down the ledge on the inside away from me. It turns once more and looks at me then disappears into the night. I know then that Nadean is gone.