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Spectacular Expectations: Women, Law and Film


This article explores the contradiction between the ingrained belief that justice should be “blind” and the filmic tradition of positioning woman as spectacle. Recognizing that a law film does not offer a direct translation of material reality, it explores how these representations of the law work with and against popular understandings of femininity – and feminism. The article offers a reading of selected screen adaptations of real legal entanglements to show how a focus on appearance marks a woman's trial (and subsequent filming of it), before focusing on the case of Barbara Graham, immortalized in the award-winning film I Want to Live!

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1 Richard K. Sherwin, “Framed,” in John Denvir, ed., Legal Reelism: Movies as Legal Texts (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996), 70–94, 71.

2 I want to thank the anonymous reader who recommended this phrase for my article.

3 Chris Bohjalian, Midwives (New York: Vintage, 1998; first published 1987), 247.

4 Jane Hamilton, A Map of the World (London: Black Swan, 1996; first published 1987), 133.

5 Stephen Greenfield, Guy Osborn and Peter Robson, Film and the Law (London: Cavendish, 2001), 4; italics in original.

6 Lola Young, Fear of the Dark: “Race”, Gender and Sexuality in the Cinema (London: Routledge, 1996), 8.

7 See the US Bureau of Justice figures at and a special report, revised in 2000, which offers a much fuller picture of women offenders at, accessed July 2005.

8 Sarah Wight and Alice Myers, Introduction, in Sarah Wight and Alice Myers, eds., No Angels: Women Who Commit Violence (London: Pandora, 1996), xii–xiii.

9 In one random example, ITV's schedule for 11 January 2006, almost half of the 21 hours of programming were devoted to crime and law serials. These included three hours of Quincy, two hours of LA Law, and one hour of each of the following programmes: Kojak, The Bill, The Practice, Poirot and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. ITV3 also regularly airs repeats of Kavanagh QC and Rumpole of the Bailey, as well as contained miniseries such as Frances Tuesday.

10 Internet discussions of the trial are perhaps the most revealing of these split views, with “comments pages” offering explosive – and contradictory – views of from the general public. The fact that the case has been referenced in over a hundred law journal articles available on Westlaw is evidence of the continuing fascination this trial has for legal practitioners, and in virtually all cases Yates's mental illness is linked to her belief that she was possessed by the Devil.

11 Yates has been linked with the itinerate preacher Michael Woroniecki (also known as Michael Warnecki) and his particular perspective of isolationism and withdrawal from organized religion, as well as his misogynistic views.

12 Lisa Teachey, “Yates' Fate Hinges on Which Psychiatrist Can Sway Jury,” Houston Chronicle, 4 March 2002,, referenced 14 July 2002.

15 Pam Easton, “Husband Testifies during Texas Mother's Murder Trial,” Associated Press, Houston Chronicle, Accessed 14 July 2002.

16 Ayres, Susan, “[N]ot a Story to Pass On: Constructing Mothers Who Kill,” Hastings Women's Law Journal, 15 (2004), 39110, 106, 102.

17 Lisa Teachey, “Jurors Say They Believe Yates Knew Right from Wrong,” Houston Chronicle, 18 March 2002,, accessed 15 Feb. 2006.

18 Carol Christian, “Detective: Yates Aware She Killed Her Five Kids,” Houston Chronicle, 3 December 2001,, accessed 15 Feb. 2006.

19 Yates vs. Texas (NOS 01-02-00462-CR/01-02-00463-CR). Yates was retried in July 2006 and found not guilty by reason of insanity.

20 Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace (London: Bloomsbury, 1996) traces the story of the real-life trial of Grace Marks; contemporary accounts judged Marks guilty on the basis of her appearance, and newspapers variously described the defendant as plain or pretty, with red or brown hair, short or tall, well dressed or plainly dressed (23). In writing about her experience of literary historical research, Atwood notes, “I discovered as I read that the newspapers of the time had their own political agendas” and that this had much to do with “received climates of opinion, about politics, but also about criminality and its proper treatment, about the nature of women – their weakness and seductive qualities ...” Margaret Atwood, Curious Pursuits (London: Virago, 2005), 226.

21 Carolyn Heilbrun and Judith Resnik, “Convergences: Law, Literature, and Feminism,” in Jacqueline St. Joan and Annette Bennington McElhiney, eds., Beyond Portia: Women, Law, and Literature in the United States (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1997), 11–52, 33.

22 Ibid., 34.

23 Helen Birch, ed., Moving Targets: Women, Murder and Representation (London: Virago, 1993), 1–2.

24 The titles are: The Amy Fisher Story, Amy Fisher: My Story and Casualties of Love: The Long Island Lolita.

25 Stephanie Savage, “Women Who Kill and the Made-For-TV Movie: The Betty Broderick Story,” in Wight and Myers, No Angels, 113–29, 124.

26 Ibid., 126, 127, 120.

27 Aileen Wuornos: The Selling Of A Serial Killer (1992) and Aileen: Life And Death Of A Serial Killer (2003); the television movie was Overkill (1992).

28 Christine Holmlund, “A Decade of Deadly Dolls: Hollywood and the Woman Killer,” in Birch, 127–51, 128.

29 Witness Nicole Kidman transformed into Virginia Woolf by way of a prosthetic nose in The Hours (2002), Renee Zellwegger gaining weight in the Bridget Jones films (2001 and 2004) and Gwyneth Paltrow sporting a fat suit in Shallow Hall (2001).

30 Prod. Walter Wanger, dir. Robert Wise, I Want to Live!, MGM, 1958.

31 Mary Ann Doane, Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis (New York: Routledge, 1991), 2; italics in original.

32 Bingham, Dennis, “‘I Do Want to Live’: Female Voices, Male Discourse, and Hollywood Biopics,” Cinema Journal, 38, 3 (1999), 326, 11.

33 Ibid., 14.

34 See Miranda vs. Arizona, 1966, which overturned the conviction of Ernesto Miranda on the basis of the fact that he had not been informed of his rights to remain silent or have an attorney present when being questioned; the official reading of rights upon arrest is now colloquially known as being “Mirandized.” In I Want to Live! the bullying techniques used in the Miranda case are also portrayed here: after Graham is arrested, she is surrounded by detectives questioning her. She asks for a lawyer, but is not provided with one, and asks the charge, but is not told. It is clear she has been kept for hours.

35 Just as Sirianni's name is changed, so is the historical Donna Prow's, to Rita.

36 Alison Jaggar, “Love and Knowledge: Emotion in Feminist Epistemology,” in Ann Garry and Marilyn Pearsall, eds., Women, Knowledge, and Reality: Explorations in Feminist Philosophy (New York: Routledge, 1996), 166–90, 180.

37 Returning to television, the postfeminist series Ally McBeal consistently dealt with such “outlaw” emotions. In one episode, where Ally's fitness as a lawyer is under review after she apparently assaults a woman in a supermarket, she finds it difficult to control her anger at the events that unfold, and whilst one judge suggests that she should feel free to express her anger, Ally's response indicates that she knows how female anger would be received: “But you would judge me for it, your honour. It'd be wiser for me to sit here politely and privately pray that you should happen by me doing groceries. Now imagine a young lawyer, her future lying in your hands. Who would say such a thing? She would either have to be enormously crazy or you would have to be enough of an ass to deserve the remark, no matter what the risk. And since you're the judge, I'm going to let you decide, but not until I finish. And I haven't finished. That woman abused me in that supermarket. Now yes I overreacted but there was a context. And as for all the other evidence against me, that … that … that stuff about me being emotional, … I am human, I am temperamental, I am guilty. NOW I'm finished” (Series 1, Episode 4).

38 Sheila O'Hare, “The Barbara Graham Murder Case: The Murderess ‘Walked to Her Death as if Dressed for a Shopping Trip,’” in Frankie Y. Bailey and Steven Chermak, Famous American Crimes and Trials, eds., Vol. 3: 1913–1959 (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004), 225–41, 231, 230.

39 Bingham, 5–6.

40 Bingham, 22.

41 As yet, there is no filmed version of the Yates case, apart from the actual trial itself.

42 Lenora Ledwon, ed., Law and Literature: Text and Theory (New York: Garland, 1996), 219.

43 Anthony Chase, Movies on Trial: The Legal System and the Silver Screen (New York: The New Press, 2002), 13.

44 Greenfield, Osborn and Robson, 31–2.

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