- HeartBreakers: Women and Violence in Contemporary Culture and Literature
If violence is a measure of a culture's social stress, then violence by women is an important indicator of unrest. In her illuminating and comprehensive study, Heartbreakers: Women and Violence in Contemporary Culture and Literature, Josephine Hendin analyzes specific forms of violence by women in culture, film and literature, probing their motivations and the social realities of class, sexuality, race, and ethnicity. Recognizing that media coverage of violent acts by women has been sensationalized, Hendin takes pains to treat such occurrences Lorena Bobbitt's nearly lethal knife act on her unsuspecting husband as one of many concrete examples of retaliatory violence that is fundamentally a rejection of passivity as a female style.
Hendin meticulously teases out the nuances of female violence when analyzing specific cases portrayed in narratives. The author begins with the mythological Medea, which introduces female rage on a superhuman scale, and the Coyote Story of Sister, whose reaction to her abandonment sows seeds of retaliation that are far reaching and disastrous. Whether examining real-life events of violent women or those portrayed in fiction, Hendin redefines master narratives of violence in American culture. In doing so, the author skillfully supports the point she makes of contemporary literature when asserting that the violence of women is a Greek tragedy without gods.
Representation theorists such as Jacques Lacan and Jean Baudrillard introduced in Hendin's first chapter have enormously influenced concepts of the feminine and have suggested that women who commit violence do so as men. In her thoughtful analyses of violent women, Hendin explodes French representational theory that declares the feminine position is [End Page 248] without phallic agency to represent itself. Literary realism, with its devotion to selfhood and felt experience, compels a careful reconsideration of the feminine. As Hendin clarifies, "the American literature of violent women constitutes an assault by realism on postmodern unreality and nihilism" (50). Masters of doublespeak, violent women of legend and myth employ a complex verbal style, highlighting covert violence and language as a weapon. Coupled with verbal dexterity is a destructive egotism that supports a grandiose "vision of themselves as agents of retributive justice" (37). Rampage killers in particular demonstrate an extreme form of grandiosity in their refusal to acknowledge any other point of view. Violent women in culture and literature also regularly upset traditional and progressive notions of female behavior. Exploiting such expectations, violent women ultimately undermine stereotypes of docility and self-sacrifice.
Intimate or retaliatory violence examined in Chapter 2 explores those spaces—the kitchen and the bedroom—associated with domesticity and family. Extending and complicating Susan Brownmiller's feminist argument (in Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape) that declared all men rapists, Hendin demonstrates how retaliatory violence is a form of self-affirmation and an inversion of the myth of Persephone, who epitomized passivity and purity. Close analyses of avant garde writers Kathy Acker and Carole Maso reverse the iconography of the innocent girl by presenting young girls as predators, who employ a combination of language control, an Olympian vantage point, supported by intellectualization and obscenity to fight against social proscriptions.
Child murder epitomizes performance anxiety in some mothers as Hendin shows in many examples in Chapter 3. Altruistic child murder, demonstrated complexly in Toni Morrison's Beloved, is Sethe's way of gaining control of her own victimization by a slave-owning society. Crossing class boundaries, the murder of children highlights extreme divides between men and women and between generations. That a proliferation of middle-class white girls have denied pregnancies and killed their newborns attests to a performance anxiety in young women who refuse to "forsake the grandiosity of believing [they are] beyond failure" (147). Women terrorists, the subject of Chapter 4, reject conventional life and fight against their lives as women. Devoted to a rhetoric of violence, whether she is the bisexual Vida in Marge Piercy's novel of that name, or Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, who attempted to assassinate President Ford, these women jettison a...