Cultural Studies, Feminist Values: Strange Bedfellows or Sisters in Crime?

by Terry Threadgold

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My title was constructed to make some obvious connections. It resonates with the title of John Frow’s recent book Cultural Studies, Cultural Values (1995) 1 and the second half of it has, quite deliberately, several connotations. I intended these to raise the issue of the question of cultural policy studies viz-a-viz feminisms, to engage with the ‘crime’ raised again in John Frow’s book, of writing the ‘other’ from a position of considerable cultural capital and symbolic value without acknowledging that position, and to indicate that this paper is about murder, about women who kill their husbands.

I want to take up John Frow’s suggestion that cultural studies is still in a process of becoming, by quoting from the preface to the book called Sisters in Crime , a collection of feminist detective fiction:

The puzzle element, of course, is still strong, but the sole criteria for evaluating today’s mysteries are not how cleverly the author has devised a new means of murder or how artfully the identity of the culprit has been concealed. While these remain singularly delicious components, the contemporary mystery is judged by the same standards as all good fiction. Are the characters complex, mutli-dimensional, intriguing? Is the setting finely rendered and palpable? Is the plot engrossing? Is the voice convincing and consistent? 2

It seems to me that this quotation locates quite remarkably well many of the things that might be said, and the questions that might be asked, about contemporary cultural studies in Australia. The quotation also happens to support my own conviction (as an only partly reconstructed textualist), that all of our cultural studies knowledges are constructed fictions, gendered fictions (and certainly raced and coloured) and that we had better acknowledge that too. I am interested in asking questions that resonate with Frow’s concerns.

How do you speak and for whom, about whom and why? What is the relationship between cultural criticism, textual work and policy? And who is the ‘other’ of whom you want to speak? Does that ‘other’ really lack all that you have, need your voice? And are you as different from her as locating yourself in ‘the knowledge class’ might suggest?

Issues of domestic violence are gendered issues relevant to all ‘fractions’ and ‘combinations of fractions’ within our society. Knowledge is no antidote to the violence men and women do to one another. And here I turn to the question of Battered Woman’s Syndrome (BWS), to the issue of violence against women, and to women who murder their battering husbands. I do this because these women who murder raise, it seems to me, all of the questions that a feminist cultural studies needs to be thinking about.3

BWS as it is called, is a defence that has been developed for women who kill, an advance in some ways on murder or manslaughter. It highlights however the simple fact that it has hitherto been possible for a group of enlightened men, the legal profession, to allow a situation in which there could be no mitigating defence for women who kill their husband to protect themselves or their children from his violence. Such killings can rarely be described as ‘sudden’, occurring as they do often after long periods of abuse and violence, so that they do not fit the pre-ordained category of ‘self-defence’. This is in stark contrast to men who are cuckolded and kill – whom, it seems, everyone understands (if we are to believe the judiciary). Men it seems can kill in justifiable anger, women only because they have lost their faculties. These are issues of semantics and narrative, of the need for textual analysis and for the telling of different stories, stories lived from different positions of embodiment. They are also issues of history, of profoundly entrenched legal modes of storying and positions of enunciation. They are issues the interdisciplinary tools of a cultural studies that has not forgotten textual and historical analysis can help with. We are after all used to dealing with fictions and even to rewriting them with different plots.

In this case while the story is a murder story there is only one position the woman victim can occupy, that of agent/murderer. Nothing much changes when we rewrite her as mad, or hysterical, which is what the medical profession has done. A good deal changes when we refuse to allow the elision of the story of the battering man and rewrite the story as the story of a woman held hostage by a madman, a violent one at that. She ceases to be a murderer and becomes someone who has every right to defend herself. It is interesting, if not shocking, that generations of enlightened men have been stuck in the first story and more recently the second. There is something here to be said about the body too, about difference in embodied experience, about the way ideology (the beliefs and attitudes you hold) is connected to the kind of body you have lived and the ways others have viewed and valued that body.4 And there is something to be said about the narrowness of what Goodwinhas called ‘professional vision’, 5 the trained habitus which cannot see beyond the end of its nose – we might call this with Frow ‘regimes of value’.

Let me give you just one single example from the two legal cases I have explored in depth elsewhere. What follows are extracts from a much longer judgement:

Court of Appeal, Supreme Court of Queensland, CA No 221 of 1993, The Queen V Robyn Bella Kina, 29/11/93, Judgment, Reasons for the Judgement by the President and Davies JA jointly. McPherson JA separately. All agreeing that the order be made. Appeal allowed. Set aside the conviction. Order a new trial.

In summary, Robyn had a number of medical problems including a number that could have affected her mind at the time of Tony Black’s death. She had uncontrolled diabetes. She had suffered from depressive illness over the years. Alcohol abuse, the inability to fall pregnant, obesity, poor social circumstances, heavy painful periods would all have tended to worsen her tendency towards depression and therefore cloud her judgement.” (Dr. Orth’s report, p. 16)

…During my years with the ALS, I found that Aboriginal clients were often extremely difficult to interview. They usually presented as reticent and uncommunicative, (p17)…The Appellant presented to me when I visited her at the prison as a woman in a state of deep depression. She was extremely reticent when discussing the circumstances which led to the murder charge against her. She volunteered no information without being asked, and appeared passive and uninterested in the entire process of the preparation of the defence.” (p.18)

In this matter there were, insufficiently recognised, a number of complex factors interacting which presented exceptional difficulties of communication between her legal representatives and the appellant because of:

(i) Her aboriginality

(ii) the battered woman syndrome; and

(iii) the shameful (to her) nature of the events which characterised her relationship with the deceased. (P.35) (McPherson JA).

The example comes from the judgement in the Queensland Court of Appeal which set aside a conviction of murder and ordered a new trial for an Aboriginal woman Robyn Bella Kina who had killed her husband. When the case first came to trial well-meaning members of the Aboriginal legal service had advised Robyn Kina against giving evidence. Traces of their anxiety about her Aboriginality and her ‘inability to communicate’ are still evident in the transcript above in paragraph 3. What this led to (with the best paternalistic will in the world) was a gross injustice. Had a woman journalist not produced a television documentary about spousal murder and interviewed Robyn that injustice might never have been undone.

It is worth noting that Robyn Kina had no great difficulty speaking articulately during the television interview. It is also important to understand that there was ample evidence in affidavits by witnesses and in other forms, that Robyn Kina had been violently assaulted by the deceased on many occasions. One wonders then why the medical evidence has first to hystericize her (see paragraph one – she was depressed, alcoholic and her periods were painful), completely eliding the violence to which she had been subjected, and then to make her mad, a sufferer from a syndrome (see paragraph three). That the syndrome might be a socially produced violent masculinity never enters the discourse. Nor is her shame understood: and that too is typical of what happens to these women’s stories when they are made public – “Oh! He forced a bottle up your vagina, he forced you to have anal intercourse, he forced you to have sex with his mates – how odd! You were ashamed ?” I point to the judge’s summary in the final paragraph: ‘The shameful (to her) nature of the events etc.’

It is high time these were matters of shame to whole communities, not just the women concerned and that the ‘regime of value’ within which this judge typically tempers his remarks (hearsay, rules of evidence etc.) be changed. In many important ways these women are not ‘aberrant’. While they continue to be treated as such, and the violence of the men who batter them is unspoken, unacknowledged, nothing will be done to deal with the civil body, the body politic, which continues to foster the kinds of human relationships which systematically produce these kinds of violence. 6

The Battered Woman Syndrome defence at least allows sympathetic or feminist lawyers to provide a defence for these women. In such cases it is a form of pragmatic ventriloquism that is involved — making mad to save — for the problem with the defence it that it continues to pathologise the woman and to ignore the pathological behaviour of the battering man — and it does this with the full compliance of Psychiatry, Medicine and the Law.

The knowledge class, it seems, has a fairly limited repertoire of available narratives despite its considerable cultural capital. Its members are not therefore very good at hearing other people’s stories — and that raises again questions of speech and silence, of legal categories which expect a ‘unified’ community and serve to construct and entrench processes of ‘othering’. The separation of public and private consequent upon the sexual contract being written as a social contract 7 is largely responsible for this deafness and the double violence to which women are submitted in courtrooms.

In the cross-examination of these women and the judgements that are made about them what you see are discursive communities, regimes of value, hard at work ‘othering’. A characteristic of these women’s stories is that they cannot communicate, cannot tell their trauma – indeed often cannot remember how they killed. But telling and remembering are precisely the kinds of speech acts the courtroom demands. In Robin Bella Kina’s case, her silence is finally attributed to her Aboriginality, although white women are neverassumed to be silent, inarticulate, in such cases because they are white . What such cases demonstrate is how little we can even begin to understand what these women have experienced. But we can come to a realisation that we do not understand, and we can bring others to that understanding, and that can change policy and law.

Those are the understandings with which women working together as feminists against judicial bias in courtrooms actually work. Those involved include a number of men but the impetus is feminist jurisprudence, feminist community and social workers and feminist work in cultural studies and other disciplines which contribute to processes of education designed to draw attention to historically unquestioned assumptions, to position members of the legal profession in other people’s stories, to encourage questionings of uncritical judgements and of aspects of the legal regime of truth (never uncontaminated as it would like to believe by the lived experience of the everyday) within which those judgements are made.

Feminist work in cultural studies, in law, in the community, textual and cultural theory, can and does go together with social justice agendas, policy change, and social change — but never without an understanding that the political is and cannot be other than personal, that we cannot separate ourselves from the embodied histories we have lived and the ‘ideologies’ which have branded and produced our bodies as well as those of the women whose lives we attempt, if distantly and through changes in law, policy and habitus, to make a little better, a little less at risk.

This is what I would like to leave you with — a new, a different discursive space in which we may begin to understand how the members of the ‘knowledge class’ are gendered and have, still, different relations to the body politic and the role of citizen depending on that engendering, how too it is impossible to unify that community, and how it connects in unacknowledged, often unspoken ways with the communities it others.

There are many professional women I know — academics, members of the legal profession, teachers, doctors — who have themselves been the victims of domestic violence. I wonder how many of my male colleagues know those same stories. It is part of our silencing that they are not told, that the civil body is not disturbed, that business is allowed to go on as usual.

This account cannot altogether dispense with the polarisation of black and white, men and women, us and them, the knowledge class and its others, but it can, I think, show how lines of difference are drawn through multiple sites of power. It can help us to understand how family and cultural memories, memories that are in the body, that the body performs and enacts on a daily basis, contribute to the making of culture, and how subjectivity is formed through gendered and radicalised difference. It is a different space in which to try to understand the networks that connect the body, the personal, the pedagogy, the political, the policy and the popular in the making of this thing we call culture and in the doing of these things we call cultural policy studies and cultural studies.


Terry Threadgold is Professor of English at Monash University, This is an extract of a plenary paper given at a Cultural Studies Conference at Charles Sturt University in 1996.

Notes and References

1. Frow, J, Cultural Studies and Cultural Values, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.

2. Marylin Wallace ed., Foreward, Sisters in Crime, Berkley Books: New York, p.xi.

3. Threadgold, T, “Regulative Fictions: Translations and Performing Subversions”, Plenary Paper given at the International Law and Literature Association Conference, Berkeley, October 1995. (To be published in Law/Text/Culture) forthcoming.

4. Threadgold, T, “Critical Theory, Feminisms, The Judiciary and Rape”, The Australian Feminist Law Journal, Vol. 1, pp. 7-26, 1993.

5. Goodwin, C., “Professional Vision”, American Anthropologist Vol. 96, No. 3: 606-33, 1994.

6. Gatens, M, Imaginary Bodies: Ethics, Power and Corporeality , London: Routledge, 1996.

7. Pateman, C, The Sexual Contract , Cambridge: Polity Press, 1988.

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