The Evil Woman trope

Over-representation of women as perpetrators of violence in crime shows.

Full disclosure: we watch crime shows on TV. Not a real TV, of course.

Over the years, we’ve watched quite a few. It’s a little embarrassing to admit.

Bones. Elementary. Rizzoli & Isle. The Mentalist. Criminal Minds. Blue Bloods. Castle. Unforgettable. Lie to Me. Sherlock. MI5. Numbers.

Some of these are better than others. To be fair, we didn’t watch every episode.

Our favourites tend to be shows where there’s at least one main character who is critical of the police (or FBI, etc.) even if they also work with them. And, of course, when we watch these shows we allow ourselves to enjoy them even as we enjoy being critical of the way they perpetuate problematic ideas about violence, race, policing and police budgeting, guns, mental health, addiction, sexuality. And more.

Take gender, for example.

Something we noticed years ago, while watching Bones, was that many of the bad guys weren’t guys. It got weird. Why were there so many women criminals?

In the real world the vast majority of violence is perpetrated by men. And the vast majority of homicides are also perpetrated by men. Globally, men commit 95% of murders. In the Americas, men commit 96% of murders.123

If a crime show is going to reflect this reality, one in twenty to twenty-five episodes is going to portray a female killer. The women:men killer ratio should be about 1:24. But some popular shows appear to be almost 1:1. And even seemingly better shows present a 1:4 women-to-men split.4

After we named this TV dynamic, we took to making fun of episodes where yet another woman was the killer.

We began to yell out loud, “evil woman!”

It’s not just about reflecting reality though. Shows don’t do that. We know that. But it does reveal an underlying worldview. There’s a narrative.5

This narrative misrepresents the way things are, and perhaps more importantly, it misrepresents how power operates. This is politics. And there are at least two major problems with this worldview.

The first is that it hides major defects in dominant masculinity. Like, violence. It’s the “kids killing kids” problem.6

The second is that it also obscures the social reality of women.

Consider that there is a dramatic under-representation of women in media as writers, directors and producers of content. In addition, there’s a dramatic under-representation of women in lead roles, as main characters, heroes and leaders. Hence the need for the Wolfe-Wallace-Bechdel test. That women are then over-represented in roles as psycho killer, homicidal maniac, and criminal mastermind, is an especially bitter pill. Women are also over-represented as victims of violent crime, but being over-represented as evil agents is hardly a solution.

Taken together, the impact of these stereotypes harms the public imagination. It’s symptomatic of a sexist culture, but it also perpetuates it. Women are often not believed, for example, when they disclose abuse or harassment or assault. And women are too often failed by the criminal justice system when attempting to seek justice. And while public policy is shifting in interesting and important ways right now, it’s not doing so quickly enough.7

  1. Men are also the most common victims of violent crime, making up 88% of victims of homicides in the Americas. See this U.N. Data PDF.
  2. What is also true is that women who are convicted of murder, are often killing abusive male partners. In New York, for example, 67% of women who are convicted of killing someone they are close to, were being abused by their victim.
  3. Just to be clear, we’re not saying that all, or most, men are killers. We’re saying that stats are fun. And important. And helpful to understanding social realities and patterns.
  4. We have no data. We kept meaning to keep track when we started watching something new. But it’s actually not straight forward how to code shows along these gender lines. We’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader, or a peer reviewed study, to corroborate.
  5. The shows have varying degrees of whiteness and racism as well. It’s something that, as white people, we take seriously, and need to keep thinking about, writing about, and doing stuff about.
  6. Other problems with dominant masculinity include a lack of willingness to be vulnerable, narrow definition of toughness, self-centredness, tendency to see themselves as superior to women. Remember to distinguish masculinity from men. Naming defects in dominant masculinity is not saying that all (or even most) men are violent. But that violence is an expected part of masculinity.
  7. It’s important to us to make note of the fact that people of colour and Indigenous people are misrepresented and under-represented in movies and television, and are also over-represented in the criminal justice system. These are also important overlapping dynamics that need to be examined when we’re talking about gender and violence.