Geelong may seem like a world away for city slickers. At first, I was going to let its distance prevent me from attending the city’s latest exhibition, Femme Fatale: The Female Criminal, at the National Wool Museum. But if you take some friends and a good book (though not both at the same time. Take it from me; you’ll be stuck on the same page for the duration of the trip!), the hour’s train commute is worth it.
The exhibition juxtaposes “glamorous depictions of female felons in literature” with “the grim reality experienced by real women criminals”, such as Janet Wright, who was prosecuted for performing an abortion on a teenager who, after becoming ill, reported her, in 1928. Or “Sydney’s most beautiful prostitute”, Dulcie Markham, who probably got her fake name from Alfred Hitchcock’s Murder!, and whose real identity was never revealed. Or Louisa Collins, who poisoned—“poison was considered a particularly feminine murder weapon”—her husband in order to marry a boarder in their home just two months later, in 1887. She was sentenced to hang on 8th January, 1889, but the execution was botched by the hangman, “who was unable to open the trapdoor”. The execution was eventually carried out.
These were just some of the individuals profiled in the exhibition, which dealt with the supposed “empowered, cunning, unemotional woman who commits crime and uses her sexual allure to persuade men to sin on her behalf”—the quintessential “femme fatale”—and today’s understanding “that a wide range of factors may influence criminality including difficult childhood environments, mental illness and drug addiction.”
But back in the day, it was believed that “women lack moral fortitude and are easily tempted”, which allegedly stemmed from Sigmund Freud’s “penis envy” theory.
In 1893, Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso wrote La Donna Delinquente (The Criminal Woman), in which he contended that masculine features, such as a “mannish jawline”, noticed in his photographical portraits of female criminals, were the “stigmata of degeneration”. Factors such as the menstrual cycle and the fables of Eve in the Garden of Eden, Medusa, and the Biblical Delilah, of Samson fame, were also taken into account when women “sinned”.
As was written in relation to the Salem witch trials in the early 1690s, “the fear of wicked women, whether real or imagined, can have horrific consequences.”
In Australia, though, in recent years “the number of female offenders incarcerated… has risen dramatically”. In the early days of female incarceration in Australia, psychological punishments such as head shaving were preferred to physical punishment. But at the State Reformatory for Women in Long Bay, Sydney, which opened in 1909, “the women were encouraged to reconnect with their ‘femininity’ and to adopt more refined, ‘ladylike’ behaviour.”
The abortion section, which I briefly mentioned above in relation to Janet Wright, was quite affecting but, as my friend Eddie pointed out, perhaps seemed out of place in the exhibition. Sure, abortion was (and still is in some parts of the country) illegal for a long time, but it kind of felt like a certain agenda was being pushed via its inclusion. Still, it is “one of the few crimes that always involves a woman”.
My favourite part of the exhibition, by far, was the genre of “femme fatale” paperbacks and films, which lured me to it in the first place. There was a highlight reel of some of the silver screen’s greatest female villains, such as Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, next to this Italian proverb: “woman is rarely wicked, but when she is, she is worse than a man.” Another quote, from Raymond Chandler in Farewell My Lovely, which really resonated with me and my love for femme fatales, and which I posted last week: “I like smooth shiny girls, hardboiled and loaded with sin.”
But as much as the femme fatale is lauded, in her heyday the American Production Code stated that “ ‘the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime’. Censorship led to many implausible endings and a high level of mortality among femmes fatales.”
The exhibition finished up with crime memorabilia, which has reached fever pitch in recent years, with action figures, calendars, trading cards and true crime publications. (I, myself, have a penchant for true crime. Dominick Dunne, anyone?) This is a far cry from the assertion that “most people find it repellant that an individual can become a celebrity simply for being very good at being bad.” Reminds me of a certain Rihanna song…
Overall, while each individual aspect of the exhibition was fascinating in its own right, Femme Fatale: The Female Criminal as a whole was a bit clunky and disjointed. I would still recommend seeing it, if “evil” women are your thing. But get in quick! It finishes next Monday.
Related: Cherchez la Femme (Fatale).
Image via Art Geelong.