- Wanted Women: An American Obsession in the Reign of J. Edgar Hoover
Wanted Women is an exploration of several real-life female criminals who were immortalized on film in various incarnations. Though the quality of these films varied, according to Mary Elizabeth Strunk, all would play a part in shaping how the public viewed American women who turned to lawbreaking and violence. There are ten female criminals discussed here, and they come from two different eras: Ma Barker, Bonnie Parker, and Kathryn “Mrs. Machine Gun” Kelly represent the Depression era; and Patty Hearst, Assata Shakur, and five women from the Symbionese Liberation Army, cover later decades of the century. One man is also a central character in this study: J. Edgar Hoover, whose tenure as director of the FBI spanned the entire era studied here. His attempts to bring these women to justice and turn public opinion against them are a central aspect of this work.
At the end of her introduction, Strunk writes: “The truth is that every person who encounters Assata and others like her will take away something that they want or need. Such has always been the public response to U.S. women outlaws and to the specter of women’s violence more generally. The folklore and popular culture entertainments they inspire are very much like dreams, inviting us to sift through the symbolism and dross for those uncanny insights we could not find anywhere else” (15). Strunk’s great achievement in this book is to eloquently explain how audiences have responded to crime and violent women in different manners.
Strunk walks a fine line when she analyzes the women outlaws and their fictionalized counterparts. She expresses a certain level of empathy with her subjects; she explains, for example, how some of them developed a belief that the legal and social systems were oppressing them. Nevertheless, Strunk never defends or justifies their actions. Bank robberies or the murder of innocent victims are never casually dismissed or treated here as understandable adventures.
At the same time, Strunk refrains from attacking her subjects. It would be easy to demonize a multiple murderess, and to berate the fans that elevated such women into cult heroines. It would be wrong, however, to say that Strunk’s tone is relativist or amoral. Perhaps the book’s greatest weakness is that the victims of crime are not given more space. There is one scene in the superb British television series Cracker where the title character, played by Robbie Coltrane, confronts the female half of a couple inspired by Bonnie and Clyde, and berates her for sympathizing with the killers in the movie rather than the victims. This scene is not mentioned in Wanted Women, nor is any other like it, but references to such scenes would have added a missing perspective on the cultural and social legacy of these crimes–that of the victims.
Strunk is not trying to make her readers love or hate her subjects, but only to understand them and why their contemporaries had such contrasting feelings towards them. She succeeds at that as well as at explaining why the filmmakers made certain artistic and dramatic choices.
Aside from a few famous examples from films such as Bonnie and Clyde and Network, many of the films referenced in Wanted Women are relatively obscure. As it is difficult to replicate films or their characters using only words, people who have not seen some of the latter movies might be at a disadvantage. Thankfully, Strunk succeeds spectacularly when she attempts to make little-known movies accessible to [End Page 69] her entire reading audience, and her summaries are also sufficiently concise so as not to be too much for those who are already familiar with the films.
Wanted Women is a valuable text for studying gender and the history of American crime, as well as gaining a better grasp of how Hollywood has the power to twist shocking acts in order to the suit its own entertainment and artistic ends. Strunk’s...