Opera Blog: A Conversation with Cheree Carlson about “Lizzie Borden”
BLO Dramaturg Magda Romanska talks to Cheree Carlson, a professor of Communication and Gender Studies at Arizona State University. Professor Carlson is an expert on issues of gender and media representation, and the author of a book, The Crimes of Womanhood: Defining Femininity in a Court of Law, that analyzes the ways in which cultural views of femininity exerted a powerful influence on the courtroom arguments used to defend or condemn scandalous women on trial in turn-of-the-century America.
MR: Lizzie Borden’s case generated a lot of national attention while it was happening. The reporters attended the proceedings and telegraphed them to newspapers across the country. Most recently, television and the Internet have helped to boost interest in the trials of Jodi Arias and Casey Anthony. What do you think contributed to Lizzie’s case becoming a national sensation?
CC: There are a lot of reasons. Why Lizzie Borden’s case became a sensation in the 19th century was partly because in those days, trials were a big form of entertainment. There were a lot of trials that were covered by newspapers, and people read about them with great passion and consistency. Why Lizzie’s case, in particular, generated so much attention was that Lizzie was a woman from the upper class, from a wealthy family, rooted in her community all her life, and women like her just didn’t commit ax murders. She was the closest thing to a celebrity Fall River ever had. The case continues to exert so much fascination because there are all sorts of people who love mysteries and who are still
fascinated by the fact that we don’t know what really happened and we never will.
MR: Like the rest of Americans, the media was reluctant to see a woman sentenced to death, or to admit that a woman with her background and in her position was capable of such brutal murders. How did gender influence the outcome of the trial?
CC: There were actually a few newspapers that were as anxious to see her guilty as there were ones that were eager for her release. The sentiments were divided along party lines. Political factions were divided along their attitudes towards the status quo: the rich being rich and the poor being poor. Depending on their attitude, people either flooded to her defense or were eager to bring her down a notch, as a rich woman who deserved it. Plenty of women were being hanged, but never such fancy women. So the attitude of the media in general was more of a class issue. It’s not to say that gender didn’t play into it. By the end of the trial, gender played very much into it—particularly the image of Victorian femininity that came with all sorts of baggage. The defense had used the gender argument, trying to say that she was a good daughter, she worked for the church. She exhibited all of the characteristics of a “good” Victorian woman of her social and economic background. This was the gist of their argument that she was a typical woman. Since Lizzie did a couple of things that were considered “weird” for a woman of her class, on the opposite end, the prosecutor was saying how “unwomanly” she was, how “unnatural” she was. He was trying to say that whether she was a woman or not didn’t make a difference.
MR: In the decades since the trial, Lizzie has become a figure of American folklore. There are many stories about her, told and re-told in different forms: plays, books, movies, ballets and operas. Why do you think her story exerts so much fascination for the American public? What about the story has captured our imaginations?
CC: A lot of people love unsolved mystery. And, after all, fighting over gender and class and whether a woman is capable of doing certain things—that battle is still going on. So, we’re coming back to Lizzie. Today, we still say things like “women can’t be serial killers,” or “a good mother wouldn’t kill her child.” She’s relevant to things we still argue about: the role of women and the ‘nature’ of femininity, how it’s constructed, perceived and judged.
MR: The story fits very well in the genre of American Gothic, a style ascribed to Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne. In the stories of American Gothic, an individual psyche becomes a battlefield of contradictory social, cultural and sexual impulses; in particular it is a site of unresolved tensions between Puritan ethics and morality and the Freudian view of sexuality. The genre of American Gothic fiction has been quintessential to the development of American identity. How do you think Lizzie’s tale fits into the structure of American Gothic storytelling?
CC: I don’t think the trial did, but everyone who came afterwards trying to make sense out of it by telling all sorts of stories—these types of explanations definitively fit into the American Gothic tradition. These stories were trying to explain what had happened, why she did it, et cetera. You can’t resist a New England spinster who suddenly goes crazy and kills two people. As you said about the American Gothic tradition, the whole point is that the normal New England family is suddenly a hotbed of these different tensions. All the things that came out during the trial—the father keeping the door locked, keeping the ring that Lizzie gave him, the ‘wicked stepmother’—all of the things that made this supposedly normal family suddenly appear not normal at all. I think that even today, people who come from all sorts of families can think about all the weird stuff—hopefully, no illegal stuff—that goes on in their families behind closed doors. People are fascinated by the Borden family because what happened in that family defied appearances and expectations.