Case Study 4: Chicago (2002)

Chicago (2002) directed by Rob Marshall is a movie-musical starring Renée Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones. This movie adaptation of the famous Broadway musical follows the story of murderer Roxie Hart (Zellweger) as she tried to get herself acquitted of her murder charge. Whilst in the Cook County Jail, Chicago, she meets fellow murderess and stage performer Velma Kelly (Zeta-Jones) who is also trying to free herself. The two women use their criminality and feigned innocence to gain attention from adoring fans in the hopes that, when they are set free, they will be famous stage performers.

The most interesting thing about this film’s presentation of female criminality is its exposition of what a ‘good’ and ‘innocent’ woman is. Hart’s defense attorney, Billy Flynn (played by Richard Geere), plays upon specific notions of femininity in order to convince the public and the jury of his client’s innocence. Hart is guilty, but by presenting herself according to society’s ideals of a ‘good woman,’ she attempts to justify her actions. Thus, my analysis of this film and its femme fatales operates on two levels. On one level, I look at both Kelly’s and Hart’s actual crimes – what they did and why they did it and on the other level, I look at how they both use notions of femininity to feign their innocence.

The crimes committed by Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart do not necessarily fit into Daly’s gendered pathways approach. Kelly murders her husband and her sister when she catches them having an affair, and Hart murders her lover, Fred Casely, when she realizes he had been using her sexually and lying to her about his ability to help her career. Both murders are motivated by some form of revenge and anger. The main crime followed in this film is Hart’s murder of her lover. Although this crime does not directly fit into one of Daly’s categories, we do see Casely push Hart to the ground and threaten her, perhaps suggesting that Hart could fit into the ‘battered woman’ category of the gendered pathways approach. However, I am reluctant to argue that Hart is a battered woman, because she is explicit that her motivation to kill Casely was because he had been leading her on about helping her with her performance career, just so he could sleep with her. Further, Hart convinces her husband to take the blame for her crime in order to save herself. When her , catches on that she had been having an affair, he reveals the truth to the police; Hart mocks her husband’s stupidity, whilst exclaiming that Casely deserved to die, “yeah I killed him and I would kill him again!” Velma Kelly murders her husband and sister after she walks in on them having sex. She never reveals how she kills them and maintains her innocence the entire time saying that she has no idea what happened. This crime does not place Kelly into any category of Daly’s gendered pathways approach because, as far as the viewer is aware, she is not abused, forced to work the street, involved with drugs or in need of money. Perhaps this indicates that Daly’s gendered pathways approach is somewhat limited – do women have to be vulnerable victims of abuse or neglect, be involved in drugs, or in need of money in order to be criminals? This approach assumes that criminal women have no agency, when Hart and Kelly clearly do. Assuming that these women have no agency, and that they have no control over their criminal behavior, furthers the notion that women are weak-willed, vulnerable and in need of saving. These femme fatales definitely do not show that.

The women in this film identify that some men deserved to be murdered by women. This is all explored throughout the song “The Cell Block Tango”, in which  six of the jail’s inmates recount how they murdered their lovers and husbands. The song repeats the line “he had it coming, he only had himself to blame, if you had been there, if you had seen it, I tell you, you would have done the same.” Six sexualized women wearing lingerie-like costumes attempt to justify their crimes by claiming that the men they killed were sleazy, annoying, disloyal and deserved punishment. A spectacle is made of these criminal women as they present themselves as sexual, agile, independent and, arguably, ruthless murderers. The sensational nature of their crimes is explained when ‘Mama,’ the warden of the Cook County Jail, explains “in this town, murder is a form of entertainment.” Hence, the women, through their plight to punish the ‘bad’ men in their lives by killing them, provide others with entertainment. The true experiences of these women are overlooked because of the erotic nature and entertainment value of their criminal actions.

Messerschmidt’s situated action theory can help us understand how Hart and Kelly, through their crimes, enact a specific form of femininity. They both kill people because they believe they are good women who had been played or mistreated by bad people. Both women therefore exercise their agency as independent, resourceful, ruthless, ‘badass’ women who are ‘righting the wrongs’ in their life. Rather than being vulnerable women who commit crime because they get caught up in circumstances beyond their control, they assert their independent and ‘badass’ femininity by taking revenge and punishment into their own hands. Their independence and resourcefulness continues when they use their crime to their advantage by playing on the publicity they are given as female criminals. With this sensational publicity, they both hope to become famous stage performers once they are released from prison.

Hart’s legal defense deliberately uses notions of idealized, white, maternal femininity in an attempt to convince the jury that she did not kill Casely in cold blood, but instead out of self-defense. Her defense attorney Billy Flynn tells her to adopt the persona of a ‘reformed sinner’ – a wealthy southern girl who lost her family fortune when her parents died, had a run-away marriage and was drawn to all the vices of jazz and liquor. When on the stand, Hart admits to her affair with Casely, but claims that it was because she was lonely. She claims that she wished for a happy family where she would do her husband’s laundry and raise their children. This posits Hart as a sweet, nurturing woman who wanted to conform to the ideals of her gender norms. Halfway through the film, when Hart realizes that her popularity may be slipping because of another female murderer, she fakes a pregnancy to win sympathy with the public and the press. In doing so she reinforces the notion that she is a vulnerable, maternal woman who committed crime out of her love for her husband’s unborn child. She claims that Casely, when he heard about her pregnancy, threatened her life. This claim supports her argument that she committed crime out of self-defense.  Even though she deliberately presents herself as a vulnerable, demure, maternal woman who wanted nothing more than to conform to the gender norms of a domesticated woman, she also plays on her sexuality to win over the male jury. Whilst on the stand recounting her version of events, she flashes her thigh to the jury who all turn and stare at her leg.

Thus, Hart plays into idealized notions of femininity – she is vulnerable, maternal, but also an object of male sexual desire – in order to show that she is not a criminal. Hart is successful as she is found not guilty of murder. Therefore, this film shows that the idealized woman cannot be a criminal because she is vulnerable and helpless, and therefore cannot have the agency, will or ability to commit cold blooded murder. This is an extremely important point because Daly’s gendered pathways approach relies mostly on the fact that criminal woman become involved in crime because she is vulnerable and subject to circumstances outside of her control. But this very point is used to argue that Hart cannot be a criminal.

Thus, the femme fatales of this film do not accurately portray real criminal women according to our understanding of the gendered pathways approach. Not only do these women’s crimes not conform to this approach because the women have agency and no explicit history of abuse, neglect, connection to drugs or desire for money, but the notions of vulnerability that underpin Daly’s gendered pathways approach are used in this film to argue that Hart, specifically, cannot be a criminal. For my other case studies, and throughout my project, I have argued that Messerschmidt’s situated action theory is too simplified to explain female criminality because I argue there are many contributing factors to why women commit crime. In this case, however, these women do assert a form of independent, resourceful and ‘badass’ femininity through their crime as they ruthlessly punish the people in their lives who have wronged them. The presentation of female criminality in this film is not accurate, but it does show how crime and femininity can be used as a form of sexualized entertainment.