the lawyer writer

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Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Lifetimes of Lizzie

I have the television on while I write. It's usually on pretty low, so I can't quite hear what's going on. The best shows are reruns of sitcoms I like--they have this comforting sense of familiarity that's like being in the room while friends are talking. The voices of people, after all, are why I need the television--the radio is just voices, and I become completely entranced by NPR, so that's out.

Apart from sitcom reruns, my television is most often tuned to Lifetime television--or the Oxygen channel, or WE, the Women's Entertainment Network. This is not because I am trying to catch reruns of The Nanny, but because I am hoping to catch a particularly good Lifetime Movie.

Generally speaking, they are in two categories. The first is the children/disease/family category. This includes abused children, terminal diseases, mental illnesses, rape, and a wide variety of Danielle Steele adaptations, usually starring Jaclyn Smith. These are crap. I am not one of those people who finds catharsis in crying buckets of tears, and anything with "sisterhood" in the title makes me want to gag. My sisterhood is much too cool to watch that tripe. That said, there is a second category of Lifetime movies that I like very much: namely, the murder/sex/betrayal movies. These can include "I Slept With My Mother's Best Friend" starring David Austin Greene or "I Slept With My Mother's Best Friend's Husband" starring Swoozie Kurtz and Meredith Baxter or "I Tried to Sleep with My Contractor, but He Turned Me Down For His Unattractive Wife" starring Susan Lucci. These are, to put it mildly, jolly good fun. Watching mildly realistic people do ridiculous things to each other until fall off the deep end is very entertaining, but not so entertaining that it interferes with my writing. (There is a third category, which is "My Teenager Has an Addiction to Gambling/Prostitution/Cyberporn/Cutting/Anorexia." These vary greatly in quality).

Lifetime movies are a repudiation that of the idea that women are not violent. Tune in day or night, and you will find some woman poisoning, stabbing, plotting, seducing and generally laying waste to society at large. A notable genre is the "Seductive Woman" movie, where boldly sexual women somehow convince able-bodied men to commit murder for them, usually of an inconvenient husband who controls the purse strings. The Seductive Teacher theme is a subgenre of this, featuring actresses as varied as Jennie Garth, Helen Hunt and Ann-Margaret in the title role. The Seductive Teacher preys on gullible, horny teenagers who have access to guns, and successfully convinces them to kill her husband. This was most efficiently done by Nicole Kidman in To Die For. Another notable subgenre is the "Scorned Woman" movie, featuring a one-night-stand gone bad, a la Fatal Attraction. These movies usually feature Virginia Madsen or, most impressively, Courteney Thorne Smith. We are usually provided with brief glimpse of the complicated psychology of the Scorned Woman, which usually consists of "My Daddy Didn't Love Me." These women usually approach their problems with a carving knife, a loaded gun, or a pitchfork.

Sex, in short, is apparently inextricably linked to the violence of women. The exception occurs with teenage girls, who are too busy trying to become cheerleaders or battling eating disorders to actually have sex. Or so Lifetime would have you believe. (Exception: Any one of the Devil in the Flesh movies, about an obsessive, lunatic high school student who gets a crush on her teacher who is Otherwise Engaged). Generally, the idea is that when a woman is oversexed, badly sexed, or using sex inappropriately, violence will follow.

I have watched many Lifetime Movies, and if a woman really does go off the deep end, she usually plots to have her prey arrested, humiliated, impoverished, separated from loved ones. On occasion, she will push him off a tall buliding. If she stabs him, it will be the heat of anger (or passion, according to Joe Esterhas). Most often, she goes after the offending wife or girlfriend first. These women she has no problem butchering--after all, she is motivated by the rage of obsessive jealousy. The man is generally given one last chance to repent, leave Wife/Girlfriend/Family and come away with her. He usually turns her down, and is about to meet his end until the Sheriff shows up and blows her away with a large, phallic-looking shotgun.

Which brings us to traditional weapons of feminine destruction. In order, they are poison, guns, and a carving knife (the domestic implications of which cannot be ignored). Rarely, however, does a woman get herself a hatchet. Even more rarely does she go after members of her family. And still more rarely does she do the dirty work herself.

This, to a certain extent, explains the allure of Lizzie Borden, one of my Wicked Women. She committed the ultimate crime against family and society: she killed her parents. Or many believe. Though she was acquitted of the crime at the time of her trial, Lizzie Borden is forever attached to her hatchet, a weapon that few men, let alone women, would choose. It lacks the immediacy of the knife, which is at least at hand in most kitchen. It lacks the distance, the cleanliness, the impersonality of a gun. And it certainly lacks the femininity, the guile, and the subtlety of poison, long considered the woman's weapon.

Miss Lizzie

No, whoever killed Andrew and Libby Borden chose a hatchet, a weapon you have to go out to the shed for, a weapon that's heavy and messy and difficult to clean. It's hard to think of a spur-of-the-moment crime with the hatchet--I think it would require a great deal of anger and hatred to kill with it. And yet it's also hard to think of a premeditated crime with a hatchet, especially with numerous other killing devices around in a Victorian household.

If the Bordens had been killed in any other way--arsenic, slit throats, the proverbial blunt object--then the Fall River murders might not have been particularly notable. But the hatchet (a lumberjack's tool, for God's sake) coupled with the chief suspect (the proper, church-going, youngest daughter) practically guaranteed that the crime would stand out.

And did it ever. Even acquitted, Lizzie Borden lived under the shadow of guilt. After her death, speculations continued as to whether "Lizzie Did It" or "Lizzie Didn't Do It," (the latter a title of a popular book that claims to prove Lizzie's innocence). But the hatchet, in addition to providing both notoriety and continued mystery, did double duty. In the latter part of the 20th century, the hatchet that killed the Bordens became more than a weapon of destruction. Unwieldy and powerful, taking great strength and anger to use, Lizzie's hatchet made her a feminist icon, and every blow to her overbearing father's head was soon viewed as a collective strike against patriarchy, traditional family, and all those Victorian values that kept women in societal straitjackets. Here, at last, was one woman who wasn't going to settle down and be a slave to her husband, father, sons. Here was a woman who wasn't using sex as a weapon (there is, in fact, little doubt that Lizzie Borden died a virgin) or being rejected after giving in. Here was a woman who wanted OUT of the whole marriage-family-church death trap that sucked up so many women around her. Here, in the end, was a feminist icon angry enough to do what other women wouldn't.

If only it were true.

(Part II tomorrow. If I don't get distracted by another topic).


Blogger the Light said...

If you were talking about a novel, I might understand the symbolism and agree. However, real people were murdered here. I think it confuses the issue to discuss symbols of feminism when talking about a very real crime in which real people died in a horrific way. That this unidentified person (we don't even know for sure if it was Lizzie, since she was acquitted) killed those people in a horrifying manner is all we know. All we really know about the murders are the malice and violence that undoubtedly bred them. All else is speculation. I think I'm a feminist, but if Borden was indeed a murderer of this sort, I wouldn't want to have her as my icon.

3:09 PM  
Blogger the Light said...

By the way, I really liked my Lifetime, when I still had it. Especially Golden Girls. Unfortunately now I'm stuck with network TV.

3:12 PM  
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