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Mother, Monster, Mrs, I: A Critical Evaluation of Gendered Naming Strategies in English Sentencing Remarks of Women Who Kill

Abstract

In this article, we take a novel approach to analysing English sentencing remarks in cases of women who kill. We apply computational, quantitative, and qualitative methods from corpus linguistics to analyse recurrent patterns in a collection of English Crown Court sentencing remarks from 2012 to 2015, where a female defendant was convicted of a homicide offence. We detail the ways in which women who kill are referred to by judges in the sentencing remarks, providing frequency information on pronominal, nominative, and categorising naming strategies. In discussion of the various patterns of preference both across and within these categories (e.g. pronoun vs. nomination, title + surname vs. forename + surname), we remark upon the identities constructed through the references provided. In so doing, we: (1) quantify the extent to which members of the judiciary invoke patriarchal values and gender stereotypes within their sentencing remarks to construct female defendants, and (2) identify particular identities and narratives that emerge within sentencing remarks for women who kill. We find that judges refer to women who kill in a number of ways that systematically create dichotomous narratives of degraded victims or dehumanised monsters. We also identify marked absences in naming strategies, notably: physical identification normally associated with narrativization of women’s experiences; and the first person pronoun, reflecting omissions of women’s own voices and narratives of their lived experiences in the courtroom.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    This is the time period for which data is available and that is closest to the time period we have used to collect the sentencing remarks.

  2. 2.

    It is worth noting that this is a point of interest in and of itself as it prima facie supports some suggestions that when women co-offend it is typically with men and that when women commit particularly heinous crimes it is also typically as part of a co-offending relationship (see, for example, [7]).

  3. 3.

    This idea of women as “Other” asserts that women are defined in opposition to men, by everything that men are not.

  4. 4.

    That is to say that these women’s gender identities “correspond” with the sex that they were assigned at birth.

  5. 5.

    A critical evaluation of the grammatical ‘case’ of WWK forms the basis of our follow-up paper, currently in preparation.

  6. 6.

    Compared to third person pronouns, first person pronouns have a log likelihood value of −1710.96. Compared to second person pronouns, first person pronouns have a log likelihood value of −235.28. This represents significant underuse, with p values well below 0.0001.

  7. 7.

    It is noteworthy that in line 18, offenders are referred to by surname only, whereas the victim and her mother are referred to by first name, further underscoring our previous findings in Sect. 3.2, where ‘norm’ identities are constructed as socially close and feminised with first name use, whereas ‘deviant’ identities are distanced through surname use, with femininity erased.

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank our colleagues at Cardiff University School of English, Communication and Philosophy, and Lancaster University Law School for their comments on earlier drafts of this article.

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Correspondence to Amanda Potts.

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Potts, A., Weare, S. Mother, Monster, Mrs, I: A Critical Evaluation of Gendered Naming Strategies in English Sentencing Remarks of Women Who Kill. Int J Semiot Law 31, 21–52 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11196-017-9523-z

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Keywords

  • Corpus linguistics
  • Forensic linguistics
  • Language and law
  • Feminist legal methodology
  • Critical discourse analysis
  • Women offenders
  • Women who kill
  • Interdisiplinary approaches
  • Discourse analysis