- Violent Women in Print: Representations in the West German Print Media of the 1960s and 1970s by Clare Bielby
Clare Bielby’s monograph takes as its primary object representations of West German terrorism in the 1970s that foreground women’s participation in political violence. To that end, it examines representations in the print media of nonpolitical, violent women since the 1960s alongside representations of political violence in the 1970s, arguing that the press did not distinguish among differently motivated acts of violence. Bielby considers the coverage of three trials of women for murder or incitement to murder, most prominent among them Vera Brühne’s 1961–1962 trial for incitement to double murder. According to Bielby, all of these representations must be understood within a media climate engaged in shoring up public anxieties about changing gender roles and public sexuality.
In producing “visual demonizations of the supposed paradox of women taking rather than giving life” (29), print media, she argues, pursued social agendas that marginalized second-wave feminism and undermined women’s political agency. They alternately infantilized women, collapsed political dissent and allegedly aberrant sexuality, and transformed threatening women into desirable women. Bielby organizes the book’s four main chapters around the exclusion of violent women from motherhood and the nation; the equation of violent femininity with hysteria; the sexualization and masculinization of violent women; and the language of “filth” and the abjection of the violent woman. In each chapter, she shows how media effectively contained and minimized the symbolic threat of women’s violence to established social orders.
By looking at continuities and ruptures in the representation of violent women in postwar West Germany, Bielby takes an important step toward recontextualizing the portrayal of women terrorists in the media. Yet much work remains to be done to address the numerous stumbling blocks that such an analysis poses and which Bielby seems at times to intuit, but not address. One example is her reference to dramatic [End Page 236] changes in visual sexual content in the media between the time of the Brühne case and the height of media attention to women terrorists, a development she attributes to the sexual revolution in West Germany. While she suggests that such changes might account for substantial differences between her nonpolitical and political examples, more work is needed to push this potentially fruitful yet speculative argument even further.
All in all, some elements of her argument about an enduring iconography of the violent woman remain too broad to offer real historical or cultural insight into the material. Sexist and heterosexist discourses in nineteenth-century criminology, psychiatry, and psychoanalysis persist as commonsensical ideology, but it is unclear how her recurring references to these discourses support her argument about 1970s West Germany. Indeed, there are moments when her invocation of iconographic types masks other crucial elements of the images in question. For example, treating photos of Ulrike Meinhof and Gudrun Ensslin in uniform, walking the prison yard, as “sculptural” and legible within a tradition of aestheticizing female madness obscures an alternate set of readings that could just as well associate the same photographs with images from Nazi concentration camps.
Along similar lines, prioritizing as a key discursive frame the nation writ large, and the role ascribed to women in bourgeois nationalisms all over the world, fails to elucidate representations of violent West German women and nationalist narratives in the more complex way they deserve. Reference to Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (London, 1983) and the role it ascribes to print capitalism would require us, at a minimum, to consider the vast differences between infrastructure, authorship, and readership in the Americas of the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-centuries, on the one hand, and postwar West Germany on the other. The gesture is there; the argument is not.
The same holds true when Bielby relies on other theorists. The analytic yield of Julia Kristeva and Mikhail Bakhtin on the “abject” in her chapter on filth and the exclusion...