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Colloquium 2 Abstracts 

Women killing: violent women and murderous mothers


Feminine subjects, psychoanalytic structures
Kath Swarbrick , Edinburgh

This contribution aims to present key aspects of psychoanalytic theory which are appropriate to the understanding of mythical and cultural constructions of femininity. Emphasising Freudo-lacanian models of psychoanalytic thought, I shall first address the significance to our debate of the universal versus the historical dimension of these models, as well as the current dialogues between psychoanalytic and feminist approaches to culture. An exploration of the radicalism of the Freudo-lacanian conception the body, the locus of subjectivity, the assumption of gender, the place of the mother, the relation between the sexes, and the interpretation of death will lay the groundwork for discussions of the powerful fascinations and fear surrounding representations of female violence. Classical instances of the latter will be analysed briefly in conjunction with more contemporary cases, and my presentation will then move to a discussion of the uses of Lacan’s notion of structure in determining the causes of western culture’s conceptualisation of woman, and potential explanations for the impact of the murderous feminine from early modernity to the present.


Incorporated memory and violent mourning: Kriemhild as an archetypal killing woman
Bettina Bildhauer, St.Andrew's

Kriemhild in the legend of the Nibelungen is one of the archetypal violent women and murderous mothers in German cultural memory. This paper shall argue that she can be considered a projection of human fears of killing (neglected but as strong as those of death), but in the Nibelungenlied (c. 1200) cannot be fully understood as traumatised or grieving in the sense of the psychoanalytic models of Freud, Bronfen and Butler: instead, the epic shows that her violence comes from the material expulsion of a memory that is literally incorporated, taken into the body. This is not a purely medieval conception of violence and memory, as will be shown with brief reference to Fritz Lang's 1924 film version of the legend.


By Sword or Poison:  Women as Murderers in Greek Tragedy
Laura McClure , Madison

This paper examines representations of female killers in Greek tragedy, focusing on Clytemnestra in Aeschylus' Agamemnon, Deianira in Sophocles' Trachiniae, Medea in Euripides' Medea, and Creusa in his Ion.  Although female characters are far more likely to kill themselves or be killed by others on the tragic stage, murder was considered "the womanly deed" (E. Ion 843).  Yet in only about a quarter of surviving tragedies do women plan or execute a murder, and in even fewer cases do they actually carry out their crimes, in part because ancient Greeks considered them incapable of physically overwhelming men.  Their victims are almost always relatives, in some way connected to the households of their husbands or fathers (if unmarried), or, occasionally, to their natal homes, while their weapon of choice is typically poison.  Their actions defend some aspect of the oikos—motherhood, marriage, or the continuity of the paternal line—that has been violated or devalued by the male.  Although tragic fantasies of female violence portray women as powerful agents of male destiny, I will argue that this agency is often compromised.  Murderous wives like Deinaira and Medea are represented as unable to control eros or regulate their passions while others, like Clytemnestra, serve as vehicles for divine retribution.  In all these instances, tragic representations of female violence reflect cultural anxiety about marriage, motherhood, and the conflicting loyalties of women within the male-governed oikos.   


From Evil Eye to Poetic Eye:  Witch Beliefs and Physiognomy in the Age of Reason
Susanne Kord, London

The paper will provide an overview over witch beliefs in the eighteenth century. It will analyze a specific witch trial and show how it incorporated the Enlightenment discourse, among others, in its own denial of witch beliefs and re-definition of its own judicial language. The second part of the paper will show up similarities between the discourse of this trial and that employed in physiognomic analysis.


Cutting-Up Rough: Dismemberment Murders as Narratives (1600-1800)
Mary Lindemann, Florida

This paper examines how contemporaries constructed narratives about murdering-women, in particular, those women who killed and dismembered their husbands. Drawing on studies of Gattenmörderinnen from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century France (and elsewhere) and from my own work in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Hamburg, I argue that the ways in which such stories were told and how "dismembering" women, their husbands, and their sex were characterized changed significantly over the course of some two hundred years. In the sixteenth century, Flugschriften described such women as monsters and their crimes as "Verbrechen gegen die natürliche und göttliche Ordnung par excellence." By the mid to late eighteenth century, such portrayals had given way to probing psychological studies of flawed human beings. I demonstrate that the reasons for these transformations can be located in specific political circumstances as well as in new fashions in reading tastes and publishing styles.


German Media Representations of Vera Brühne as femme fatale
Clare Bielby, Edinburgh

In June 1962, Vera Brühne, a tall, attractive blonde who loved the high life, was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of her rich lover, Dr Otto Praun. Brühne and her trial captured the Federal Republic’s postwar imagination, generating much media discourse and popular indignation and fascination. Striking in media representations of Brühne is the fact that she arouses indignation not so much because she committed a violent crime but because of her sexually decadent lifestyle.  This paper will consider German mass media representations of Vera Brühne, looking in particular at the way in which, typical of the femme fatale, Brühne’s violent crime becomes redefined as a crime against gender and German womanhood. Furthermore, in the context of woman’s role as the bearer of the nation, it will investigate the way in which Brühne’s gender crime is styled as a crime against the Federal Republic of Germany.


‘Eine besondere Verrohung der weiblichen Natur’: the portrayal of KZ-Aufseherinnen in postwar texts
Geraldine Horan, London

Of the war criminals put on trial at the end of the Second World War, the women concentration camp guards became the focus of particular attention. These women committed heinous crimes, including torture and murder, yet unlike their male counterparts, they stood doubly accused: of crimes against humanity and of crimes against ‘womanhood’. Using analytical concepts from feminist sociolinguistics and discourse analysis, the paper will examine how KZ-Aufseherinnen were characterised as gendered perpetrators in witness statements and evidence given in war crimes trials, as well as memoirs of concentration camp survivors and contemporary newspaper reports. The analysis will explore how the authors of the texts reversed the victim-perpetrator dynamics, drawing upon dominant discourses and ideologies on gendered behaviour. Those describing KZ-Aufseherinnen and their actions employed a range of strategies including metaphor, word play, vulgarisms, and engaged in objectification and depersonalisation of their subjects.


TäterInnen +/- 1914
Kathrin Hoffmann-Curtius, Berlin

In meinem Referat über die weibliche Version des Lustmordmotivs untersuche ich, wie gegen Ende des 19. Jahrhunderts Schönheit und Tod zunehmend in eins gesetzt,  sexualisiert und kriminalisiert werden. An Bildern von Sphinx und Salome werde ich zeigen, dass diese Repräsentationen der femme fatale eng mit dem Diskurs der gleichzeitig entstehenden Kriminalanthropologie als der Wissenschaft von dem sichtbaren Bösen verknüpft sind. Die Untersuchung führt zu einer neuen Lesart des für die deutsche Avantgarde Weimarer Zeit brisanten Themas Lust- und Frauenmord und deckt deren ursächlichen Zusammenhang mit dem jähen Ende der Bilder grausamer Weiblichkeit auf.


Murder, She Sang: Fatal Women in German Opera
Lawrence Kramer, New York

The standard repertoire of German opera contains several women who are killers but almost none who are murderers.  The distinction is telling.  Women who kill in German opera generally do so by proxy; another hand, always a man’s hand, wields the weapon and does the deed.   Focusing on two cardinal works, Mozart’s Don Giovanni (1787) and Strauss’s Salome (1905), with brief reference to a third, Berg’s Lulu (1934, the exception that discloses the terms of the rule), this paper will ask how these proxy murders happen musically as well as theatrically.  The music involved will be understood as a primary, not a secondary, source of meaning: as a means of producing, not merely of expressing, the significance of these acts of violence and of the women who set them in motion.  The pertinent musical details are not arcane, nor, given their need to address opera audiences directly and effectively, could they be; no music-analytic expertise is necessary to describe or grasp them.  Tracking their effects will help clarify both the nature of feminine agency in relation to law in post-Enlightenment Europe and the specific bearing of the trope of the murderous woman in the German-speaking milieu.

 Love and the murderous woman: Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Tom Tykwer
Joanne Leal, London

Rainer Werner Fassbinder in Martha (1974), Chinesisches Roulette (1976) and Die Ehe der Maria Braun (1979), and Tom Tykwer in Die tödliche Maria (1993) and Heaven (2002) locate female violence within a discourse of love. Fassbinder’s politically engaged cinema reveals the socially constructed nature of conceptions of heterosexual and parental love and their potentially fatal effects: his heroines’ murderous actions are an explosive response to the unbearable pressures exerted on them by idealized notions of love. By contrast, love in Tykwer’s (postmodern) films is a justification and even a potential reward for the murderous actions of his female characters: it allows them to transcend normative restrictions, providing them with a chance of freedom and happiness beyond social constraints. Particularly, the post-feminist heroines of Tykwer’s later films have substantially more agency than Fassbinder’s oppressed women but his cinema nevertheless explores women’s propensity for both love and violence in terms surprisingly redolent of traditional patriarchal understandings of femininity. Fassbinder’s presentation of violent women, on the other hand, questions far more radically essentialist notions of female behaviour and, for all their bleakness, his films offer potentially more liberating perspectives on gender construction.


Murdering Mothers in Bible stories and Fairy Tales 
Ruth B. Bottigheimer, SUNY Stonybrook

Western European literary history provides two significantly different brief narratives contexts in which mothers murder their babies. The first is religious and comprises edited Bible stories that provide narrative units from a canonical original that are adopted, adapted, or sometimes -- ignored. Murdering mothers also surface in Marian legends, whose narratives are often hardly credible to modern sensibilities. The second, secular, context consists of brief and amusing narratives printed for mass consumption in the early modern period. When large numbers of classical motifs were resuscitated and re-introduced into operas, paintings, and literary works in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, enduring models for fairy tale motifs emerged. Giambattista Basile,classically educated like the majority of his peers, composed short narratives in which he inverted well-known Ovidian images. Story components from his tale collection, the Pentamerone, made their way into the far more influential French fairy tales and tales about fairyland and fairies by Charles Perrault, Mme d'Aulnoy, Mme de Murat, Mlle de la Force, and Mme Leprince de Beaumont, from whose works these same images spread throughout Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Medea, the West's prime consciously murderous mother figure, entered fairy tale narratives only belatedly.

‘die scheusliche Flut von Kindesblut’. Images of Infanticide in eighteenth-century Germany
Helen Fronius, Oxford

In the late eighteenth century, a plethora of texts featuring infanticide appeared in Germany. Over twenty plays and poems dealing with infanticide were written in the 1770s and 1780s. In 1780, a prize competition invited written responses to the question ‘What are the best and most practicable methods to curb the incidents of infanticide, without increasing lewdness?’. It attracted ten times more answers than similar prize questions of the day (around 400 responses), many of which were published in journals. These texts, both literary and pragmatic, often depicted infanticide in ways which were significantly at odds with historical reality. This paper aims to draw attention to common features of infanticide representations, and asks why the discourse surrounding infanticide developed seemingly without close reference to actual real life cases. It suggests that discourse about infanticide is less to do with dead babies and more to do with sexual politics.