National Post

Page URL:

Thursday, May 18, 2000

Homolka is an anomaly, not a trend
I do not agree that we are entering a new, frightening age of violent women
Anne Giardini
National Post

Frank Gunn, The Canadian Press
(KARLA) HOMOLKA: She is to women what Bhopal was to the chemical industry.

Never before can so many words have been spilled over a single Canadian woman than over sleek, blond Karla Homolka, who within the next year or so could be discharged back into our midst. How could such a woman -- young and pretty, from a stable home -- commit the grievous deeds for which she and her husband were convicted? How could any woman? Was she a willing participant in the infamous assaults and murders? Was her pleasure in her victims' suffering, captured by the couple on videotape, real or feigned? Does her vacant gaze reflect a void inside, a cavity having the precise contours of the moral centre she seems to have been born without? Was she a puppet, or a puppeteer?

Karla Homolka is to women what Bhopal was to the chemical industry. After a cloud of methyl isocyanate escaped from a plant operated by Union Carbide in 1984, killing thousands in the Indian city of Bhopal, critics argued that since Union Carbide is a chemical company, all chemical companies must be closely watched; and since Union Carbide is a U.S. corporation, all U.S. companies must be intent on despoiling the world.

So it goes with the sordid cipher that is Karla Homolka. Homolka and her ilk -- for she is a member of a small, corrosive sorority that includes Britain's Myra Hindley, who helped to murder several children in the 1960s, and, more recently, B.C.'s Kelly Ellard, convicted this year of killing 14-year-old Reena Virk -- are wafted before us as confirmation that women in general have the same capacity for violence as men do. Earnest commentators raise anxious eyebrows, drum their nails against the keyboards, peer with deep concern into the camera and pour their fretful voices into the microphone. If Homolka is evil, then women must have the same capacity to do harm as men.

Patricia Pearson latched on to this controversy with her 1997 book When She Was Bad, in which she maintains that women make substantial contributions to the violence in our society. "The violent woman," Pearson argued, "differs from other women in character and propensity, but not in modus operandi. Instead of insisting on her innocence, we might insist on the capacity of all women to bring their force of will to bear upon the world."

Pearson is right to the extent that she contends that women who are involved in serious crime should not be treated better than a man who commits the same offence in similar circumstances. There has been a tendency, which has slowed and in some instances reversed the trek toward women's equality, to too readily assume that women are victims rather than actors. And pointing out that not all women are perfect serves as a counterpoint to the assertions of a very few putative feminists that all men are flawed.

But I find one of the not so deeply buried subtexts in the "bad women" theories unsettling. The whispered suggestion (which Pearson avoids) is that this is what comes of granting women greater freedoms; that empowerment of women -- and their unprecedented, unsupervised and unfettered access to the world and all of its many temptations -- has eroded the age-old constraints formerly imposed by master, manners, hearth and kinder. The implication is that if we keep on this course, we can expect to see new levels of violence among women, who will continue to act upon their own innate inclinations.

None of this is new. As far back as 550 BC, Euripides called women "more noxious than the viper, or any fire itself."

I do not agree that we are entering upon a new and frightening age of violent women. Over the millennia that transformed us from Australopithecus afarensis to Homo sapiens, women have been smaller and less powerful than men. Violence has never been a winning strategy for women, and, to compensate, they have evolved skills -- verbal, reasoning, propitiatory -- that help to assure their survival. The scant evidence that women and girls in Canada may be somewhat more likely now than they have been in the past to commit acts of violence probably reflects nothing more than experimentation with power and dominance by a very few women.

As long as men continue to be bigger and stronger than women, the Homolkas and Ellards will be freakish exceptions, not omens, symptoms or trends.

Copyright © Southam Inc. "National Post Online is a production of Southam Inc., Canada's largest publisher of daily newspapers."