Shelved Dolls: Aileen Wuornos – Feminist Hero Or Psychopath?

aileen wuornos

Aileen Wuornos killed seven men, and some people love her for it.

There have been many portrayals of her tortured life. In 1992, Jean Smart, from Designing Women, portrayed her in a TV movie called Overkill. In 2001, San Francisco premiered an operatic adaptation of her life. Jewel wrote a song called “Nicotine Love”. In 2003 a documentary Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer attempted to explain her motivations. The director said:

“I think this anger developed inside her. And she was working as a prostitute. I think she had a lot of awful encounters on the roads. And I think this anger just spilled out from inside her. And finally exploded. Into incredible violence. That was her way of surviving. I think Aileen really believed that she had killed in self-defense. I think someone who’s deeply psychotic can’t really tell the difference between something that is life threatening and something that is a minor disagreement, that you could say something that she didn’t agree with. She would get into a screaming black temper about it. And I think that’s what had caused these things to happen. And at the same time, when she wasn’t in those extreme moods, there was an incredible humanity to her.”

Also in 2003, Charlize Theron won a Best Actress Academy Award for the movie Monster, in which Aileen was portrayed as a nuanced character. There might be a certain group that has decided to love anyone Charlize depicts – I challenge them to see Young Adult – but there are other reasons for the appeal.

Feminist Rag remembers her fondly as “the beautiful Aileen Wuornos” and calls her “a hero and inspiration to all women in the face of male violence”, quoting Aileen’s own words, “You sabotaged my ass!  Society, and the cops, and the system!  A raped woman got executed, and was used for books and movies and shit!”

Carla Lucero, who made the opera about Wuornos, claimed, “I feel a strong yet reluctant connection to Aileen Wuornos. Her story embodies the darkness in every victim’s soul and the fleeting fantasies of every survivor.”

Killing people. Justified because the people victimized you. Which may have been the case with Aileen. Her defense for killing seven men was always “I killed ‘em all because they got violent with me and I decided to defend myself.”

All of which is fantastic if Aileen was in fact a victim. The court sentenced her to the death penalty, so a jury seemed to disagree with that assessment. It is important to remember that she did kill seven men, and we do generally frown upon killing people. I sometimes think that people are become apologists for female serial killers (and you see this with Elizabeth Bathory) simply because there are few enough of them that we assume that the women who do become serial killers must have had good reason.

It might help to look back to her fairly bleak childhood to draw your own conclusions about justifications. I will reserve mine until we reach the end of this indisputably unhappy tale.

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    • Millie

      From what I recall of the case, a common explanation is that her first killing was in self-defense, but she had a break with reality that led to her spree and thinking that every man was victimizing her.The first man was the last straw, so to speak.

      • nomnomOm

        And from what I recall, her inevitably adopted-out baby was the product of incest on the part of the grandfather who was (violently and alcoholically) raising her. No little girl leaps into sexual proclivities without some prior introduction to it.

        As far as I remember, it had been alleged that her brother Keith was also sexually abusive toward her, despite her deep and lasting love for him. His death from (I believe) throat cancer very early left a lasting impression on poor Aileen and likely caused the break in her psyche as she likely felt she had no one left who loved her.

        While I think she was ultimately guilty, I find difficulty in holding a very obviously traumatized and mentally ill woman accountable for her actions, and think ill of executing people in such circumstances when no attempt at rehabilitation or cognitive behavioural therapy has been made. I believe that we are, as a society, too quick to condemn those who have simply had the worst possible upbringing. There but for the grace of God go I. I DO find myself having sympathy for her, as clearly she had no resources with which to take care of herself, or for anyone else to do it for her. In fact, I doubt she could have trusted anyone else to let her be their burden, thus her reasoning for delving into prostitution in the first place. And while not the safest of professions, it did offer her a sort of financial freedom and the ability to fund her lifestyle and addictions, but certainly not a way out of it all. I’m sure she knew it was illegal and amoral, but likely felt it was an honest living, moreso than, say, robbery.

        I’ve always felt that Aileen was ultimately a good person. That she became a victim of circumstance; be it of her own doing, or just the way life worked out for her. Surely, she wasn’t equipped with the tools to be able to solve her own problems, and hadn’t been nurtured in a way where she could have even tried to care about herself. She will always be a tragic figure for me. Just another victim of the American Dream.

        I also feel bad for Tyria, who is left behind to carry this dark legacy, and who no doubt bears the shame of it. I hope she has managed to find some peace.

    • anna

      very, very intresting. i realize i have always felt more sympathetic to her than other serial killers. ted bundy, i’m horrified and disgusted and shocked. aileen, i think i tried to make excuses. “she was mentally ill, she was being victimized, etc”.
      very thought provoking. wonder what that says about my psyche. maybe because i know i’d never be her prey, as opposed to other serial killers?

      • kj

        I think that part of it is that she doesn’t seem like she was a psychopath killing people to get off on it. She might have liked to kill, but I don’t think it was the same thing as stalking and kidnapping random victims.

    • Cheri

      Has anyone seen that Arrested Development episode where Charlize Theron plays a mentally challenged English woman? They made a reference to ‘Monster’. It was funny. Erm, anyways.

    • March

      She reminds me strongly of both Dolores Claiborne and Annie Wilkes. Like these fictional women, she sounds as though she was created by Stephen King (who knows more about walking down the well-intentioned road to hell than many writers of “higher literature”).

      How scary is it to think that civilisation is so unattainable for some people that for them, the entire world is a jungle and every other living being a potential monster? So they do unto others before others do unto them. I find that REALLY scary. And also disturbingly fascinating, from my comfortably privileged and inexperienced standpoint.

    • Lastango

      Grow up.

    • Rachel

      To say that her childhood was fairly bleak is the understatement of the century. I guess to look at it honestly is justification in your eyes. You say she wasn’t sexually abused. Of course not. An 11-year-old girl acts out sexually just for the heck of it. Feminist hero or psychopath? How about neither.