An exploration of how gender is represented in ‘Natural Born Killers’.

In this essay I will explore the representation of gender in Natural Born Killers (1995). The film presents a husband and wife duo, both victims of traumatized childhoods, who become psychopathic serial murderers glorified by the mass media. The protagonists get away with their crimes and are seen as heroes, not villains. The film was very controversial at the time of its release and was banned in some countries, although, it did receive many positive reviews many of which stressed how the satirical take on the media included an important message to the public.

Mickey Knox, the male protagonist, is represented as tough and masculine. In the ‘I Love Mallory’ scene a young Mickey walks in carrying “50 pounds of beef lean”. He is a butcher, a strong, tough profession and is covered in blood which could suggest that he is hard and strong, traits that are typically masculine according to the ideologies of society. Karen Boyle puts forward that “the meat industry can exist only by training its work force to resist being …disturbed … about the shedding of blood on an industrial scale”[1], meaning that being a butcher may have encouraged Mickey to become a killer, or at least given him the skills needed. It could be said that Mickey has been desensitised. Throughout history males have been desensitised as they are expected to be brave whereas women are protected and preserved.

Mickey later refers to himself as “The Big Bad Wolf” which is a generic archetype of a menacing antagonist, this makes us question, is he a hero or a villain? Throughout history the wolf has been represented as a demonic, brutal killer who is mysterious and untamed, this could mirror males supposed rugged and fierceness.

At other points, Mickey can be seen as caring, loving and sensitive, going against the traditional expectations of men. He gets angry when the other men in the diner are talking about Mallory in a sexual way. When one of them says that he doesn’t “give a shit” about her name because he “calls it pussy” Mickey remains calm and composed but we can see he’s angry because it cuts away briefly to an image of him covered in blood. Furthermore, while he’s in prison he confesses that he doesn’t think about making love to Mallory, “just kissing”. This suggests that not all men are sex driven and that he believes in romantic love. This idealistic love portrays both sexes as equal.

Nonetheless, in the hostage scene, there is lots of evidence to show that Mickey is driven by sex. He wants to get a hostage so that he can have sex with Mallory and another woman. When choosing a hostage he bases the decision on the woman’s appearance, when pointing out a girl he asks Mallory is she “too heavy? Too fat?” This portrays Mickey as shallow and only looking for sex appeal in a woman. Psychological studies have found that when looking for a partner men are mostly concerned with physical attractiveness, whereas women are more likely to offer physical attractiveness to potential partners. This indicates that men are predetermined to be influenced by sex.

Scagnetti, who is Mickey’s binary opposite (Law Vs. criminals, outsiders Vs. insiders), regularly objectifies and sexualises women, he does this in almost every scene he is in. Misogyny can be defined as a “hatred of women”[2], or “the belief that men are much better than women”[3], so Scagnetti could be described as a misogynist. When he is checking the crime scene of the dead mechanic he sniffs the underwear that Mallory has left there and smiles while thinking about Mallory having sex. He is not thinking about how Mallory has murdered someone, he is only thinking about how she had sex with the boy before killing him. To him, it doesn’t matter what women have done, only that they are sexual beings. When he finally captures Mallory he threatens that he will “cut her tits off”, implying that Scagnetti believes that the only bit of Mallory with value is her breasts.

Scagnetti is often patronising to women and is almost women-hating. Furthermore, he calls Pinky the prostitute a “bitch” after killing her. This is not only disrespectful to the dead, but is as if he believed her life has no value. He must have believed this as he chose to kill this woman just so that he could feel powerful enough to catch Mickey. Stone noted “Scagnetti wants to become a primordial force in order to capture Mickey and Mallory. By sacrificing this prostitute he transforms himself into the force of locomotive. He becomes empowered. He feels ready”[4].

Warden Dwight McClusky likes to think he is very powerful and enjoys being in charge. He is also very dismissive of women. He laughs at Mallory’s anger and violence when she is in her cell. Scagnetti joins in with this laughter as if she is weak and would never be able to hurt them, as she is a woman. This contrasts Mickey’s treatment, he is in the “deepest, darkest cell” in the whole prison and the Warden is frequently reminding visitors to be careful around him. This is ironic seeing as both Mickey and Mallory committed the same crimes, it also implies there is a social injustice between men and women as, clearly, women are treated more leniently.

Mallory’s behaviour often falls into the stereotypes of women; she does what men expect. She regularly gets scared, for instance, when she visits Mickey in jail, she is frightened of what her father will do (she seems naïve and innocent) and Mickey has to reassure her that everything will be okay, “due to Mallory’s abusive upbringing, the audience feel sympathy and pity for her, therefore, characters which should be seen as villains … are now seen as heroes”[5]. This confuses Propp’s theory of character roles.

When Mickey arrives at her family home to save her, she smiles and puts her hands together, like a typical damsel in distress, as if Mickey is her knight in shining armour. This was a satirical technique used by Oliver Stone and so is exaggerated, but shows her as helpless (Mickey is her hero). In addition, she repeatedly needs the help of men, such as, when a rattlesnake bites her and after she attacks Scagnetti. She wouldn’t have got through either of these situations if Mickey hadn’t saved her. This might mean that she, according to Propp, is the princess of the narrative.

Mallory is recurrently portrayed as jealous and is mean to other women, it is common in films for women to be pitted as rivals (often fighting for male affection) and in a male dominated movie, it is rare to see two females that are friends. This can be because men want to see women that are only interested in relationships and sex. In the first scene, she is rude to Mabel (the waitress) as she is jealous or angry that she has been flirty with Mickey. She calls Mabel by the wrong name and then responds “whatever”. When she walks away the camera follows her, looking up at her from behind, demonstrating the male gaze. The Male Gaze is the theory that in the media women are demoted to the status of objects and everyone is viewing them from a heterosexual male’s point of view. Jonathan Schroeder notes that the medium of “film has been called an instrument of the male gaze, producing representations of women, the good life and sexual fantasy from a male point of view”[6].

Mallory often falls into different character roles and contradicts herself, some might say that she has to be different things around different people in order to survive and cope. At times, she is obedient and compliant to men, like, when she pleasures Mickey while visiting him in prison. She does this without question but he does not do the same to her, this then contributes to the belief that women are just sexual objects there to pleasure men.

In Natural Born Killers, people – mostly men – generally underestimate Mallory. This is the case in the diner scene. When she starts fighting everyone else in the diner ignores it as if she could not cause any damage and is just being hysterical. This could be because all of the men in the diner have just been thinking of her as a sexual object, as she is just wearing a bra top and has been dancing sexually. They all stared at her lustfully and things are said like “take a run at her kiddo”, “that’s one sweet piece of meat ain’t it” and “who gives a shit? I call it pussy!” The sexualisation of Mallory shows that all the men think she is a ‘piece of meat’ and that she is not capable of anything other than sex. Darryle Pollack believes that “The sexualisation of women is so pervasive and insidious that it’s become grotesque, and it practically extends from birth to death”[7], this shows that the sexualisation of women is not just something in fiction, it is also a very serious issue in society and it’s even more significant today than it was in the 1990s. Laura Bates’s ‘Everyday Sexism Project’ explores this and “In reality, sexism exists in the realms of our everyday lives”[10]. When I asked my year group if they think oppression of women in the media has an effect on the public 83% of them answered yes.

Mallory, at times, uses her sexuality to her advantage by playing up to female expectations. While Scagnetti is talking she applies lip-gloss and then acts innocent and naïve by saying she’s “not as bad as they say”. She takes a cigarette from him and we see a close up of her mouth/ lips, an example of fragmentation. Fragmentation causes a woman’s body “becomes depersonalised, objectified and reduced to its parts and since the female is not represented as a unified conscious living being, the scene cannot be focalised from her perspective.”[8]

Apart from Mallory, there are no central females, only peripheral, one-dimensional characters. This could be considered symbolic annihilation; when one group of people are not represented or under-represented, which then maintains social inequality. Tuchman (1978) “described the phenomenon as a process by which the mass media omit, trivialize, or condemn certain groups that are not socially valued.”[9] Although this film does pass the Bechdel Test (a test used as an indicator of gender bias in forms of fiction), it doesn’t represent many women.

Overall, I feel that both genders are represented quite stereotypically. The men are sexist and egotistic, there’s even a shot of Mickey imagining people and his fans cheering for him. The women are generally submissive and sexualised, some might disagree with this as Mallory is a mass murderer, which is very untypical of women, but really when you look deeper she shows many characteristics of an archetypal female – she is conscious of her appearance and wears long blonde wigs and short dresses. Though, this may be because she feels the pressures to conform to society’s standards.



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