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Are Dangerous Women Accurately Portrayed by the Media?

Research reveals how dangerous women really behave.

Key points

  • Media portrayals of IPV impact public policy and public opinion.
  • News stories about the motives of dangerous women often implicate gender stereotypes and themes.
  • Some women, like some men, are simply violent by nature.

Movie buffs are often captivated by the Hollywood femme fatale, portrayed as both seductive and dangerous. But when real-life headlines of women accused of murder emerge, many potential jurors question the likelihood that a woman was capable of murdering her partner, believing there must be more to the story. Is there?

Media Portrayals of Dangerous Women

Sammy-Sander on Pixabay
Source: Sammy-Sander on Pixabay

I have prosecuted women for domestic violence throughout my career as a prosecutor. Researchers have corroborated the reality that I have witnessed first-hand: real cases are often very different from what is portrayed in the media.

Kellie E. Carlyle et al. (2014) examined this issue in a piece aptly entitled “Media Portrayals of Female Perpetrators of Intimate Partner Violence.”i Recognizing intimate partner violence (IPV) as a public health priority, they sought to understand how media portrayals of IPV impacted public policy and public opinion, acknowledging that such opinions are also relevant concerning prevention efforts.

Carlyle et al. noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define IPV as “physical, sexual, or psychological harm by a current or former partner or spouse” that can take place “among heterosexual or same-sex couples and does not require sexual intimacy.” Their research analyzed portrayals of IPV in daily newspaper articles over two years and uncovered some very important information.

Women Who Kill

Carlyle et al. cited the case of defendant Jodi Arias, who was accused of killing her boyfriend, Travis Alexander, in June 2008. He was found with multiple stab wounds, a slit throat, and a gunshot through his head. Although Arias claimed self-defense, and her defense team portrayed her as the victim of a “controlling, psychologically abusive relationship,” a jury convicted her of first-degree murder.

The sensational news coverage surrounding the Arias trial reinvigorated public debate about the ways in which the media portrays female IPV perpetrators, and Carlyle et al. sought to investigate how these portrayals impact public perception.

The Role of Gender Stereotypes

In examining the role of gender, Carlyle et al. found that in examining the potential motivator behind IPV as presented in news stories, articles with female perpetrators were more likely to also include motives involving self-defense, victim infidelity, money, and emotional distress. They noted that these reasons implicate gender stereotypes and themes. For example, they note that women are often stereotyped as lashing out with violence due to being overly emotional and prone to responding “in the heat of passion.”

They recognized another idea that has infiltrated the gender symmetry debate is the notion that women aggressively respond to violence by males or that a couple engages in reciprocal violence. Carlyle et al. acknowledged that there exists a large body of research supporting the reality of reciprocal couple violence and recognize the speculation surrounding whether an aggressive woman has been domestically victimized in the past—which they note is not unreasonable.

They also pointed out, however, that such speculation might indicate a tendency to explain why a woman is violent, whereas male violence might be understood as reflecting a man’s nature.

Carlyle et al. also noted that stories about female perpetrators included criminal history more often than for male perpetrators—which they opined might indicate a tendency to explain a woman’s aggressive behavior by establishing her tendency towards violence, establishing her as something other than a “typical” female.

Some People Are Just Dangerous

Carlyle et al. noted that their findings indicate that women can become violent in circumstances other than self-defense—which supports the idea that some women might simply be violent by nature.

They concluded that women are capable of extreme violence just as men are, challenging the gender symmetry notion. Bottom line? We should be alert for red flags of violent tendencies from both men and women, hopefully, sooner rather than later in a relationship, to intervene effectively.


[i] Carlyle, Kellie E., Jennifer A. Scarduzio, and Michael D. Slater. “Media Portrayals of Female Perpetrators of Intimate Partner Violence.” Journal of interpersonal violence 29, no. 13 (2014): 2394–2417.

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