Hell Hath No Fury: My Obsession with Snapped

Have you every been boiling rabbits mad? I mean Vanilla Sky crash scene, Carrie on prom night mad?  Me neither, but I’ve always had a penchant for fictional narratives that explore the psyche of the woman scorned.  I love movies like Fatal Attraction, the aforementioned Vanilla Sky, Chicago, Carrie, and Misery. The female leads in these films are strong (or at least find their strength), yet completely manic and there is something utterly delicious about watching them derail.  Meridith Baxter in Woman Scorned: The Betty Broderick Story comes to mind, and least we forget young Alyssa Milano, as Amy Fisher in Casualties of Love: The Long Island Lolita Story, who gave a memorable she devil performance. Any given Sunday Lifetime broadcasts the stories women with a laundry list of delusions, each protagonist more deranged than the first.  However, Lifetime movies are nothing compared to my latest obsession: Snapped.

Snapped is an American true crime television series that airs on the Oxygen Network.  Combine everything you love about Real Housewives of New Jersey and The First 48 and you get Snapped—the guiltiest of guilty pleasure that both chills and intrigues the mind.  Each episode documents the story of a woman who eventually commits or attempts a murder—most often killing her spouse. While while the reasons these women kill are varied—revealed marital infidelity, big insurance pay-off, response to years of abuse, custody battles, etc.—the narrative arch of the stories is pretty much the same.  Eventually something drives these women to the edge of reason and they commit crimes, so far out of the statistical norm that the narratives behind them become endlessly fascinating. As stated on the shows website:

Each year, approximately 16,000 people are murdered in the United States. 7% of the killers are female.

The show capitalizes on the viewer as voyeur; it takes you into a world seemingly provincial and  introduces unconscionable  violence from the unlikeliest of killers.  It really leaves you with a keen sense of cognitive dissonance. When the prom queen or stay at home mom kills, it takes a socially unacceptable behavior, far outside our norms and affixes it to “the story of us”.  Many of the killers on featured on Snapper are squarely within Oxygens demographic, which is the likely the reason the show enjoys some of the networks highest ratings.

Over a decade ago, in her book Different for Girls: How Culture Creates Women, feminist writer Joan Smith analyzed the paradox of women killers in the culture stating: Female killers are simultaneously hate-objects who maintain other women in their customary beatific light and Lady Macbeths who incarnate men’s darkest fears and desires: when a woman is bad, she is far, far worse than a man could ever be. (“The female of the species is more deadly than the male,” as Kipling once claimed.)

Begging the question….

How does one go from this…

To this….?

As a feminist, I wonder about the social and cultural repercussions of shows like Snapped and the equally compelling Women Behind Bars.  While the subject matter is consistently treated with as much gravity a show called Snapped can muster, does giving it the docudrama treatment—complete with jail house killer interviews—lessen the psychological impact of the actual crime?  As we are already desensitized to violence in our society, I wonder does a show like Snapped simply capitalize off the intrinsic spectacle of a relatively rare phenomenon of lady killers?

I am ashamed to admit that during certain episodes of Snapped I sometimes find myself unconsciously cheering for the killer and I feel terrible and yet completely justified, because there is something very “Cell Block Tango” about the whole thing. Sometimes watching the stories of infidelity, abuse, deception and pain and you can’t help but feel, “He had it coming, he had it coming, he had it coming all along”.  I guess its similar to feeling we have when we align with team Tony watching the Sopranos, or Stringer Bell watching The Wire. Sometimes Americans cheer for the bad guy, and when the bad guys a girl; it can be an even sexier proposition.  The difference is Snapped is not fictitious; it features stories of real loss and pain that should not be trivialized and perhaps should not be commodified.

I tend to scoff at the women scorned caricatures because I ultimately think it is too simplistic to characterize the motivations behind often heinous acts.  Watching Snapped you see women of all walks of life, from debutantes and socialites to ex-strippers and chemists, all pushed to the edge of socially normative behavior.  We may have all flirted with this edge before, but what makes someone, particularly a woman cross this line is intriguing and to put it plainly simply amounts to great television.

While the show may not offer any real substantive answers to why women snap, it does give air to the marginalized voices of women who kill.   It provides a window into the very human frailty of both victim and killer.  Accordingly, revealing this humanness allows us to put ourselves in the place of both, and wonder what could send us over the edge.  Whether this is a good thing is a value judgment. Many of these women share common background of abuse, and deal with significant injustice when facing America’s legal system. Therefore, any light that can be brought to these issues may serve to help someone society deal with these real social ills.

So the question is what can we learn from Snapped? Is it purely voyeuristic entertainment, or does it position media as a paradigm through which to assess a still very mysterious cultural phenomenon of violent women?  What are the real world outcomes of such a show? Is there a feminist critique to be made on the Snapped narrative?

Also, just for kicks, what is your favorite episode of Snapped?


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