TV’s Golden Age of Female Serial Killers

Female killers are all the rage in literature and television. My Sister, the Serial Killer, for example, has caused a stir in the literary world. Killing Eve boasts a large ...

Female killers are all the rage in literature and television. My Sister, the Serial Killer, for example, has caused a stir in the literary world. Killing Eve boasts a large female audience, and its popularity has perhaps helped spawn CBS All Access’s Why Women Kill.1 It is worth pondering the question implicit in that title, but it is beyond the scope of this essay, which is interested in popular notions about, and representations of, women killers. It is certainly true that many women are fascinated by killing—not only in fictional works but in true-crime stories. Seventy percent of Amazon reviews of true crime are reportedly written by women,2 and the popularity of the podcast My Favorite Murder, with its huge female fan base, is further evidence of the phenomenon.3

Common wisdom, as found in popular psychology magazines and blogs, holds that men and women kill for different reasons. Women supposedly tend to be motivated by partner abuse or by profit, and tend to kill in “quiet” ways, preferring poison or pills, and favoring domestic-type settings (a nursing home, for instance). Sex is thought to be far down on the list of motives for female serial killers; if it does come into play it is most often because the woman participates in sexually sadistic acts of violence to please a dominant male partner. In contrast to the quiet female killer, the peripatetic male serial killer is often understood to be sexually motivated, theatrical, and bloody.

Among other truisms, the distinction between the quiet female killer and the bolder male killer is mocked in Killing Eve. The itinerant, splashy killer, Villanelle (Jodie Comer)—upon whom investigator Eve (Sandra Oh) and many female television viewers are fixated—is openly contrasted in the second season to a female killer who murders in the usual ladylike, self-effacing way (almost literally self-effacing, since she is always shown from the neck down).

Killing Eve has received a great deal of critical attention in part because it upends so much of the received wisdom about female serial killers. But a year before its premiere, La Mante (The Mantis), which initially aired on France’s TF1 and was later picked up by Netflix, about two female serial killers, caught the eyes of American critics. Stephen King tweeted about the series: “I’m enjoying LA MANTE. … It is surveying previously unexplored realms of gruesomeness. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a man slowly drowning in an industrial washer before. Not even in a Rob Zombie picture.”

King’s celebration of gruesomeness is interesting in light of a previous statement he made regarding the distinction between terror and horror. In Danse Macabre (1981), King wrote: “I recognize terror as the finest emotion … and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find I cannot terrify him/her, I will try to horrify; and if I find I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud.” Interestingly, it seems that this hierarchy no longer holds in the era of prestige TV; more and more gruesome shows, like American Horror Story and Hannibal, have earned critical plaudits.

Ever since the 18th century, the distinction between terror and horror, like the distinction between types of serial killers, has been gendered. Horror was generally linked to the writings of men, such as Matthew Lewis’s gruesome Gothic The Monk. The “finest emotion,” terror, was frequently linked to the literary productions of women such as Ann Radcliffe, whose novels eschewed blood and gore. Each of these novels terrified both its heroine and its readers with its constant promise of something horrifying lying just beyond the heroine’s vision; just before the expected reveal, the narrative would pull back, with the narrator often somewhat hypocritically admonishing the ladylike heroine for giving in to her sensibilities and superstition.

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Daphne du Maurier’s Gothic novel Rebecca (1938), as well as Hitchcock’s 1940 film adaptation of the novel, also favored terror over horror. The evil person, the eponymous Rebecca, is kept out of sight (she is dead, after all), but the heroine—never named—feels her presence everywhere. The terror is palpable. In the novel, the heroine becomes, essentially, one of those female killers who joins with a dominant male to kill a woman—even if only retrospectively. Upon learning that her husband, Maxim, far from loving his licentious first wife, Rebecca, had in fact shot and killed her, the heroine meditates, “I had listened to his story and part of me went with him like a shadow in his tracks. I too had killed Rebecca, I too had sunk the boat there in the bay.”

Yet, toward the end of the novel, the heroine has a dream in which she looks in a mirror and sees not herself but Rebecca. In the mirror Maxim brushes Rebecca’s hair, twisting it into a long thick snake that he puts around his own neck. In this dream, the two women—now literally mirror images—appear to collude in the murder/suicide of their (erstwhile and current) mate. Some influential interpretations of the novel and film have persuasively argued that the libidinous, undoubtedly bisexual Rebecca holds an erotic fascination for the heroine.4 Nowhere is the pair’s queer alliance stronger than in this passage, which sexualizes the fantasized murder of the husband.

Despite appearing in the age of what we might call prestige horror TV, Killing Eve, for all its shocking moments, lies firmly in the du Maurier tradition, though its sapphic elements are more overt. The erotic attraction between the villainous Villanelle and the “good” Eve is almost immediately evident in the first season, and it begins, literally, in front of a bathroom mirror. The mirroring is taken to new heights in Season 2, as Eve herself seems on the verge of acquiring Villanelle’s psychopathology.

It hardly comes as a surprise that female viewers are attracted not just to Eve but to the violent Villanelle, particularly at this moment in history. Oh herself implicitly links the show’s popularity with female viewers to the fact that it appeared in the midst of the #MeToo movement. As Season 2 was set to air, in April 2019, Oh remarked of the movement: “When all of that was happening, and everything was happening, I felt my life and my world opening up. … The voice, the explosion, the rage, the catharsis. We were aligned—and our show was aligned—with the stars. So we could just go, Boop: here, guys! I know where you’re at—and how about this?”5

Could it be that the French saw it coming—the moment of retribution referred to by Oh? La Mante appeared the same year the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke. Some major French female stars have shrugged their shoulders at all the turmoil around the sexual harassment scandals, but despite these women’s je-m’en-fous attitude, it seems likely that more than a few women (not only in the US) have for centuries wanted to go: “Boop.”

Carole Bouquet, Pascal Demolon, Adama Niane, and Fred Testot in La Mante. IMDb

When La Mante begins, a series of gruesome murders has been taking place. These murders fit the profile of one Jeanne Deber (Carole Bouquet), nicknamed La Mante, who has been serving 25 years in prison for a string of murders, each grislier than the next. Her victims were men who had harmed their families in some way. Jeanne began her gruesome career by murdering her abusive husband, and from there, one may suppose, went on a kind of crusade against abusive men, killing nine. When she was eventually caught by the police, she agreed to confess in exchange for one favor: they were to change her last name and pretend she died in a plane crash, so that her son, who knew of her crimes, would not become known as the son of a serial killer.

Present-day Jeanne offers to help the cops in their search for the copycat killer (shades of Silence of the Lambs). Who better than she to understand the mind of someone who had imitated her so minutely? She has one condition: she will only work with her policeman son, Damien (Fred Testot). He is not pleased, to say the least. However, his wife, Lucie (Manon Azem), who is ignorant of his parentage, wants him out of undercover work and home, so he feels compelled to go along with his superiors. He and Lucie are planning to have a baby—a plan he begins to question because he is reluctant to pass on serial killer genes. (Warning: spoilers ahead!)

Eventually the copycat is discovered to be a trans woman named Virginie (Frédérique Bel), who is Lucie’s best friend. Virginie, it turns out, is fixated on Jeanne. When Virginie was little, we learn late in the series, her father abused her. Jeanne noticed Virginie’s bruises and murdered the little girl’s father, as Virginie looked on. From that moment, Virginie is in thrall to Jeanne and determined to follow in the bloody footsteps of her beloved.

Although the police have nothing to go on and, since they are as inept a band of flics as you’ll find onscreen, have trouble finding a motive, they finally figure out that Virginie kills out of rage against a medical establishment that denied her gender confirmation surgery and against would-be lovers who hastily reject her advances.

While the cops and even Jeanne consider Virginie to be a sick psycho, and while the series plays into highly objectionable transphobic stereotypes, a more sympathetic reading and even a queer reading of the series is possible. When the two women finally come into contact, Virginie explains that she feels betrayed by Jeanne, who was helping the police find the copycat. “I have followed you; I have loved you,” she says, bitterly condemning Jeanne for choosing Damien over her.

Ever since the 18th century, the distinction between terror and horror, like the distinction between types of serial killers, has been gendered.

In contrast to the stiffness of the meetings that occur between Jeanne and Damien, the interactions between the two women are intense. One feels that the entire series has led up to them. On the telephone, Jeanne sneers at Virginie: “You only kill life and love. Things you’ve never had and don’t deserve.” Virginie, her voice disguised, responds: “Love. … I cultivated it around you. I united your family. For you. I was responsible for Damien’s happiness.” (This is a reference, we learn, to the fact that she introduced Damien to Lucie.)

Later, when the two women meet in person, Virginie says that, in return for Jeanne’s unknowing mentorship, “I did all I could to make you happy. While you rotted in prison, I continued your works. I watched over your son. Got him the woman of his life.” If on the one hand, a spectator rooting for the bonds between women might be dismayed by Virginie’s way of showing love, on the other hand, Virginie is at least able to feel and act on love—love for another woman—and to “cultivate” it, as she says, around the beloved.

La Mante takes care to rein in the homoeroticism it has unleashed and reestablish heteronormativity. The series gives Damien a different father than the abusive one he believed was his. And, in coming to understand Jeanne’s motives, Damien is freed from the fear of becoming the monster he thought his mother was. In these ways the series protects Damien’s “descent,” giving him acceptable genes. When he finds out he is to be a father, he calls Jeanne “maman” for the first time; crying tears of joy, they embrace as he repeats, “I’m gonna be a father.”

At the start of the series, a talking head in the present day speculates about the motives that drove Jeanne’s gruesome murder spree. Jeanne, he says, committed acts similar to the “worst of the predators of the animal kingdom.” Why? She was attempting to “reestablish the natural order of things.” This enigmatic remark is clarified by the show’s ending. The “natural order of things” is the construct of constructs: the nuclear family, with its cisgendered mama, papa, and children. It is ironic and terribly sad that a trans woman brings about the restoration of familial bonds while she herself is cast out. And yet, if the trans person is ultimately responsible for “reestablishing the natural order,” which was supposedly Jeanne’s aim, can we take a Butlerian view and label Virginie the original and Jeanne the copy(cat)?

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The intensity of the relations between women in La Mante, Killing Eve, and the ever-popular Rebecca, currently being remade for Netflix, prompts me (thinking again of Hannibal and of The Silence of the Lambs, which La Mante’s premise resembles) to propose an alternate ending: the establishment of an “unnatural order of things.” For it is a shame that La Mante did not double down on the connection between the predatory behavior of Jeanne and that of the female praying mantis, which often munches on the male as she mates with it, beginning by biting off its head.

Speculating that the appeal to women of representations of erotically inflected violence lies in the flouting of deep taboos—in the fusion of violence against men, lesbian desire, and defiance of gender norms—I propose the following image: a scene in which two women, one cisgender, one trans, home in on a mate and, in a kind of ménage à trois, partake of a meal, as an erotic rite of unholy communion.

Boop. icon

  1. Ruth Stein writes that “almost two-thirds of the series’ audience is female,” in “‘Killing Eve’ Ups the Stakes between Its Two Female Leads in Second Season,” Date Book, April 3, 2019.
  2. Kate Tuttle, “Why Do Women Love True Crime?New York Times, July 16, 2019.
  3. “The podcast My Favorite Murder has legions of female fans who call themselves Murderinos and have turned the show’s hosts, Georgia Hardstark and Karen Kilgariff, into global stars,” writes Alex Hawgood, in “Grisly Murders and Serial Killers? Ooh, Tell Me More,” New York Times, May 19, 2018.
  4. Rhona J. Berenstein, “I’m Not the Sort of Person Men Marry: Monsters, Queers, and Hitchcock’s Rebecca,” CineAction, vol. 29 (1992); Patricia White, Uninvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability (Indiana University Press, 1999).
  5. Kate Arthur, “How ‘Killing Eve’ Became the Perfect Show for These Wild Times,” BuzzFeed News, April 4, 2019.
Jodie Comer as Villanelle and Olivia Ross as Nadia in Killing Eve. BBC