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“Why Doesn’t She Leave?” Part II – Battered Women in the Media

Charlize Theron in "Monster"


The persona of “the good girl vs. the bad girl” has a long tradition in the film industry.  This is exceptionally easy to recognize in the passive “good” women of the old Westerns in stark contrast to the bold and outspoken “bad girls” at the local cathouse.

These “bad girls” also tended to get the short end of the stick, reinforcing the old folksongs that warn women to repress their sexuality or pay the consequences.  The film High Noon (United Artists,1952) is worth mentioning here because ironically the situation Gary Cooper’s character, Will Kane is in is almost directly parallel to that of a battered woman (BW).  The difference is that in the end Will Kane is made a hero for not running away, where women tend to be punished for not running away.  At almost every twist and turn of this film Will Kane is using the same tactics as a battered woman who is trying to end her abuse.

In the beginning of this tale of “a man too proud to run” Will Kane does in fact high tail it out of town with his passive new wife, but turns back knowing that he is putting himself and his childlike bride at risk of death.  He can’t explain to his wife or any of the townspeople why he’s made this decision.  All he knows is that something inside of him just won’t run from the villain who is out to kill him.

This is often the same story told by BW and the reason that law enforcement doesn’t do much for a woman who returns to her home where her assailant lives, too.  Both Will Kane and BW display difficulty in disengaging from a very real threat of harm.  Both Will Kane and BW are called “crazy” for returning and fail to receive any sympathy or encouragement from their peers no matter how many times or ways they plead.

Will Kane has a nasty, and sometimes unwarranted temper, yet somehow he appeals to an audience in a way that no woman involved in domestic violence ever could.  Where he is glorified for his stubborn and courageous adherence to principle a BW can expect to be convicted, just for not abiding by the social doctrine that demands she recognize when it’s time to run away.  Unlike Will Kane who is conceived to be a hero for eliminating a menace from society a BW who kills her abuser can expect to be immediately arrested and prosecuted no matter how many ways the legal system failed her (Brown, 1987.)

Unlike men, women have to prove that they have a convincing “story” as to why they failed to walk (or run) away.  Stark (2007) refers to this as a “preretreat duty,” a standard that only women are held accountable for.  Abused women are not perceived as fully entitled citizens with the same standing as the men they killed.  For this reason, and the classic myth that BW are fragile in the public imagination, rough women, such as Nathaline Parkman, have no hope of meeting this standard or of receiving clemency from the courts.

Nathaline Parkman was a large and powerful woman, “thickly set, black, and muscular,” (Stark, 2007) which made it difficult to convince a jury that she was helpless.  She had a criminal record of previous assaults, drug solicitation, and prostitution, but she was not invulnerable to physical abuse.  Like more fragile victims she had no control over when her abuse would occur, received no response to her pleas for help, and eventually conceived a plan to kill her abuser.

Nathaline was not insane, though suffering from physical as well as psychological trauma.  For Nathaline, the physical abuse caused less damage than the means employed by her abuser to restrict her autonomy to such an extreme that she was dying as a distinct person.  Ewing (1987) provides the rhetoric of  Nathaline’s legal defense strategy as a response to the “disintegration of the self.”  This is tricky rhetoric for it implies psychological damage, but not insanity.  The biggest difference between the trials of the “fragile and temporarily insane” and Nathaline Parkman was that Nathaline didn’t fit the fragile victim prototype.  She simply couldn’t allow her abuser to continue making her his thing.

More and more films have been produced in attempts to portray a battered woman who fights back as having valid and justifiable reasons for killing abusers, though there hasn’t been much improvement in the realm of accurate portrayal of the many different types of abused women, in particularly rough women.

Perhaps the closest Hollywood has come to showing audiences the physically and emotionally battle scarred rough victim of abuse is the film Monster (New Market Films, 2003.)  Charlize Theron portrays Aileen Wuornos in this biographical-crime-drama-thriller of a serial killer.  Aileen was abused and neglected as a child (C. A. Davis, 2002.)  Her father, who she never met, was a convicted pedophile and committed suicide.  Her mother abandoned her into the care of Aileen’s grandparents who abused and neglected her so severely that she was prostituting for lunchtime sandwiches by adolescence.

She developed a bad reputation and became isolated from her peers.  When a friend of her grandparent’s raped her at a very young age, no one cared.  Eventually Aileen resorted to prostitution for survival and things just got worse from there.  Aileen tried to conform to society but she didn’t have the social skills to make any headway.  Her history with men left her desperate and steeped in resentment.  Finally the day comes when an abusive trick meets the full measure of Aileen’s rage.  She kills him in self-defense, but her psychopathy compels her to continue killing men.

Aileen is not portrayed as glamorous, but not as being unworthy of empathy either.  She is very unattractive, has a foul mouth, drinks too much, is a lesbian, and in general is certifiably very strange and rough.  On this account the audience finally sees a non-glamorized, non-sexualized representation of a woman who ends up in court, hardened by her abuse and jaded by a system that failed her in every way (Cameron, 2004.).

Unfortunately, this representation is accompanied by the fact that Aileen is a deeply pathological serial killer.  This creates confusion as the audience is learning to have empathy for a woman who doesn’t fit the stereotype of the weak and helpless battered woman and at the same time has to equate this new image with the reality is that Aileen is a serial killer – regardless of what contributed to her becoming that way.

Andes (2008) makes a strong point in that this film explores the concept of the Nature vs. Nurture theory.  Mental illness was displayed and verified on both the paternal and maternal sides of Aileen’s lineage.  Not only did her father commit suicide, so did her maternal grandfather.  At one point Aileen became so despondent she attempted suicide herself.  Her environment was anything but healthy from the day she was born.  The point of the film is not to exonerate Aileen from her crimes, but to compel the audience to consider the extenuating circumstances that influenced the rise of her extreme violence.

Modern science has produced evidence that by the age of 2, children can be measured for their sensitivity and concern toward others (Zahn-Waxler, Radke-Yarrow, Wagner, & Chapman, 1992.)  Aileen could be considered an example of what happens to children when there is no one around to encourage the development of concern for others, and plenty of people around to induce fear, rejection, and pain.

While it seems the film has intentions of increasing the public capacity to view the battered woman who fights back with deadly force in a new light, the one word most people will remember after seeing this film is “monster.”  This could produce another stereotype that would be much more difficult for rough victims of abuse to overcome than the weak and helpless rhetoric that keeps the “fragile beauty” out of jail.

Reevaluating Your Conceptions:

Part of the problem is that women don’t have a healthy control over how they are portrayed in the media.  Another part of the problem is that individuals generally only part with their money to watch the beautiful people enact spectacular fantasies.   Domestic violence is an insidious, encroaching nightmare that can happen to anyone, not just the beautiful and frail.  When the media can provide accurate portrayals of BW who kill then perhaps the angry, scarred, and not so perfect victims of abuse can get a fair shake in the courtroom.

There are certainly hundreds of examples of the myths and stereotypes that prevent an accurate image of the BW from being accepted by society.  This leaves the public at large with mounting scorn towards a BW for not being smart enough to know when to leave, for indeed there ARE women who will leave the very first time a man raises his hand.  What sets these women apart is not merely intellectual roulette.  There is a complex system of priming involved, coupled with a snuffing out of the identity and efficacy of the woman targeted for battering.

In many cases the threat of injury, mutilation, or death for the woman and her children are enough to keep her put.  In others situations the women are cut off from social contacts or financial resources in order to secure their isolation and prevent escape.   Despite these threats and attempts to control a number of women do leave, often several times, but succumb to the lure of the promise to reform made by the batterer.  Sometimes financial destitution, coupled with the short-term improvement of the batterer’s behavior is convincing enough to return in hopes of a more stable life for the children involved.

The most at-risk group of women who leave are those who keep running, only to be found and repeatedly abused with both physical and emotional abuse, including the use of weapons and destruction of her property.  At some point this woman begins to adopt the idea that no matter where she goes, she’ll be found and each time the price she pays will become more deadly.  Children are not exempt from being used as bait to get the woman “back in line.”

There is another set of women who are not likely to suffer these extreme forms of abuse.  Generally, all it takes is one threat on the part of the abuser, one slap, one control move, and she’s out the door.  For the most part these women have histories that nurtured an independence of thought that violence is intolerable, not excusable, and will flatly refuse it.  Tantamount to the success of her decision to leave – is that she has somewhere safe to go, receives the support of her friends (providing they’ve not been cut off), and is able to regain financial sovereignty quickly.

Hollywood has one intention – entertaining paying customers.  Documentaries are intended to inform.  It doesn’t take a mental giant to figure out which format makes more money.  Generally speaking, most people would rather be entertained anyway, and aren’t planning on being on a jury panel any time soon.  Still, the film industry could be one of the most powerful means of revising the public typology of women who kill abusive men – if it was required to.

What is your mental picture of her now?


Andes, A. (2008, May 7).  Nurture v. nature – Monster.  [Weblog post].  Retrieved from

Brown, A. (1987).  When battered women kill. New York: The Free Press.

Cameron, S. (2004). Aileen Wuornos: The selling of a serial killer.  Chronicle of a death foretold. [Weblog post].  Retrieved from

Davis, C.A. (2002). Women who kill: Profiles of female serial killers. London: Allison and Busby.

Ewing, C.P. (1987). Battered women who kill: psychological self-defense as legal justification. Lexington: D.C. Heath and Company.

New Market Films, & Jenkins, P. (2003).  Monster. [Motion Picture].

Stark, E. (2007). Coercive control: How men entrap women in personal life.  New York: Oxford University Press.

United Artists, & Ainnemann, F. (1952).  High Noon [Motion Picture].

Zahn-Waxler, C., Radke-Yarrow, M., Wagner, E. & Chapman, M. (1992). Development of concern for others.  Developmental Psychology,

28(1), 126-136.

“Why Doesn’t She Leave?” Part II – Battered Women in the Media

Joseph Burgo PhD

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APA Reference
Burgo PhD, J. (2011). “Why Doesn’t She Leave?” Part II – Battered Women in the Media. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 20, 2019, from


Last updated: 16 Mar 2011
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