The comparisons between Marissa Alexander and George Zimmerman and their use of Florida’s stand your ground law were as inevitable as they were powerful. To be sure, the law matters to Marissa Alexander, but the law itself is not the central issue of her case. I think of it, instead, as the stage upon which a larger drama unfolded.
Alexander’s case is actually about three things: female offenders as gender transgressors, the double standard for victims of domestic violence, and mandatory minimums. In this three-part series, we’ll look at each of these issues and how they affected Marissa Alexander’s case from the moment she filed for an order of protection to the moment she was sentenced.
This series will run on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday of this week.
The Gender Transgressor
When it comes to how the criminal justice system handles women as potential offenders, we have three basic hypotheses. 1) Women are treated more leniently than men (the chivalry hypothesis), 2) Women are treated more harshly (the evil woman hypothesis), or women and men are treated equally. So which is it? As Van Wormer and Bartollas explain, it depends. To what extent does this particular woman resemble the dominant social ideal of a woman? Is she middle class, white, educated, and a mother? Her departure from that norm plays a part in her treatment by the criminal justice system.
In Alexander’s case, she is middle class, educated with a master’s degree, and a mommy. Alexander is also black. Her race and ethnicity are powerful variables which, in this case, may have been strong enough to override her overall higher social status. Or, at the very least, it played a role. Imagine for a moment a woman in an orange jumpsuit behind bars. Is it easier to picture that woman as white? Or as a person of color?
Alexander’s race, in turn, is connected to the crime she committed. Was it something we think of as stereotypically feminine like teen girls shoplifting? Or was it something we think of as more masculine, something involving violence and a gun?
To the extent that a woman or girl accused of committing a crime is still performing her gender, she tends to still be treated reasonably fairly. Certain crimes are not exactly thought of as acceptable for women to commit, but not serious affronts to the social order. These include things like shoplifting, passing bad checks, stealing from the petty cash or the supply room, and so on.
Violence in general, and guns in particular, however, are primarily the social domain of men. Consider infanticide. When women commit this crime, it is seen as an abomination, fundamentally unnatural. We ask, how could a woman, a mother, do this horrible thing, this crime against nature? And in the social imagination, fueled by the inaccuracies of a public educated by the media, we tend to think that women do this more than men.
In fact, that’s not true. Men commit more infanticides than women, but it just doesn’t capture our attention in the same way. Because violence perpetrated by men is treated as natural. Tragic, upsetting, but not unnatural. Not something that shocks the social conscience, because we’ve more or less accepted male violence as an unfortunate, but understandable, presence in our society.
Alexander got a gun to protect herself, knew how to use it, and then did, in fact, fire the weapon to protect herself and her child. This is not how women are supposed to behave. Guns are intrinsically associated with masculinity, not femininity.
Marissa Alexander did not act like a lady, she did not cower in a corner, she did not submit to her husband.
Marissa Alexander was a gender transgressor, operating outside the proscribed boundaries of acceptable female behavior. That transgression has helped to cost her the next twenty years of her life.
- Marissa Alexander gets 20 years for firing warning shot after Stand Your Ground defense fails (usnews.msnbc.msn.com)
- ‘Stand Your Ground’: Ladies, You Have No Ground to Stand on (gawker.com)
- Neutrality is Not an Option in Violence Against Women Claims (crimedime.com)
- Female Serial Killers Are Not “Lethal Ladies” (crimedime.com)