Camera Obscura 19.1 (2004) iv-41
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Dead Woman Glowing:
Karla Faye Tucker and the Aesthetics of Death Row Photography
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| Figure 1 |
Protestors at Tucker's execution
On 3 February 1998, the state of Texas executed Karla Faye Tucker by lethal injection for her role in the murders of Deborah Thornton and Jerry Lynn Dean. She was thirty-eight years old, white, and a devout Christian convert who had, in the course of her prison sentence, married a minister. Her execution attracted an unprecedented degree of media attention. In the last few days of her life, she was interviewed on Larry King Live, The 700 Club, and numerous other network shows. The Indigo Girls wrote a song about her, and her unlikely but highly vocal allies included capital punishment supporter Pat Robertson, a relative of one of the victims, Pope John Paul II, and supermodel-turned-Amnesty International advocate Bianca Jagger. Most death row executions never make a headline in the national press, but Karla Faye Tucker featured prominently in the mainstream press for several months before and after her actual execution date (figure 1). Though we [End Page 1] might easily attribute the media's fascination with Tucker to the gruesome and sexual nature of her crime—she pickaxed her victims to death, claiming that she had an orgasm every time the pickax entered her victims' bodies—the newspapers declared that it was Tucker's gender in particular that captivated the public imagination and caused entrenched death penalty supporters like Robertson to rethink their position, if only momentarily.
Tucker was the first woman to be executed in Texas since 1863, when Chipita Rodriguez was hanged for killing a horse trader. (Rodriguez was pardoned 122 years after her death by the state of Texas in 1985.) Tucker was also only the second woman in the United States to be executed since the resumption of the death penalty in 1976.1 Journalists drew loud attention to their own problematic relation to the question of gender in this case, repeatedly questioning their "chivalrous" desire to defend a woman about to die and sensing that there might be an inappropriate gender bias in their attitude. Yet this concern about an overly generous attitude toward women, I will argue, ultimately works to distract us from what Lauren Berlant calls "the violence of sentimentality."2 "National sentimentality," she writes, "is too often a defensive response by a people who identify with privilege yet fear they will be exposed as immoral by their tacit sanction of a particular structural violence that benefits them" (153). The journalists' self-proclaimed excess of chivalry and feeling for Tucker simultaneously mobilized and cloaked insidious fantasies about femininity and, as I will argue later in the essay, about feminism too, which invited the nation to pay attention to the "beautiful" female body for the ultimate purpose of its eradication. As I analyze the stylized and purportedly sympathetic photographs of Tucker in the context of the antifeminist rhetoric that emerged in discussions of her execution, I will ask how femininity, whiteness, photography, and death intertwine with mainstream fantasies about what feminists really want.3 But on what aesthetic traditions do these images of a "beautiful" woman about to die draw, and to what ends? Can photography serve progressive politics more effectively, and if so, what are the alternatives? Such questions presume that photography plays an active role in shaping, as well as reflecting, [End Page 2] the political landscapes we inhabit, and I pursue them in the belief that by analyzing how individual images are constructed and circulated, we begin to intervene in the often imperceptible work they do to support states in their right to brutally eradicate the bodies they no longer want.
White Beauty, Black Death
The privileged media attention afforded Tucker came under muted attack from various places, including, somewhat surprisingly, from some death penalty abolitionists for whom the question of Tucker's gender was inextricably linked to questions of race and religion. Ajamu Baraka, regional...