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According to patriarchal law, women who kill are seen as "insane," "unnatural," and "aberrant." For the female criminal to find justice, she must abide by another law. In Beth Henley's Pulitzer Prize winning play Crimes of the Heart, the central character is a female criminal with a male-appropriated name, Babe. Her justice is radical because she aims to kill the source of her helplessness or the very name that perpetuates her oppression.

Unlike her mother who committed suicide, Babe will not let patriarchal law represent her and fulfill her destiny. She undermines the power of the patriarchal structure by refusing to be a participant in the patriarchal law that compresses her into the same confining and deadly arrangement as her mother. Therefore, Babe is not blind to what male law does in the name of women, and her crime exemplifies the motives of the female criminal tradition: she disassembles her female identity by severing herself from her marriage and her reputation, assuring that the patriarchal law will no longer wield a privileged control over her womanhood.

In her play, Henley contrasts the motives behind Babe's criminality to those behind Barnette's vendetta and demonstrates how female justice has no law (of its own), but still wields power. Babe simulates her female role(s) and eventually enacts "illogical" or "unjustifiable" resistance to the power relationships that create patriarchal structure, while Barnette's vendetta uses logic within a structure that justifies a logical defense.

Babe's objectives or aims as a wife and a woman are only defined in relation to male-dominating rules, while Babe's new awakening as a female is unrestricted and allows her to manipulate her own reality. According to Jean Baudrillard, the postmodern critic, the "simulacrum" is "everywhere, in whatever political, biological, psychological, media domain, where the distinction between poles can no longer be maintained," and it becomes necessary to "[enter] into simulation, and hence into absolute manipulation."

Until Babe points the gun at Zackery and fires, willingly entering a territory that is no longer mapped out for her, Babe perpetuates the predominance of rules that do not distinguish her desires. By continuing to live with her husband and continuing to live an adulterous life while her husband is unaware, she is able to conjure her own assumptions of her role as a wife.

The "simulacrum" is where her underrepresented surface consciousness reigns. For example, Babe ignores the racial and age stratification of sexual relationships and no longer maintains "the distinction between poles" that Baudrillard describes, when she enters into an affair with Willie Jay, a black teenage boy, and does not feel pangs of regret. Babe states: "I was just lonely. . . . And he was good. . . . I've never had it that good."

Baudrillard defines simulation as "to feign to have what one hasn't," which "implies" an "absence." In her relationship with Zackery, Babe simulates her role as a woman because she feigns or assumes her own role (and her desires) as a wife. When Zackery finds out about his wife's adulterous behavior he "knocks [Willie Jay] once right across the face and then shoves him down the porch steps" and says, "Don't you ever come around here again, or I'll have them cut your gizzard!"

In reaction to Zackery's violence, Babe simply assumes: "[Willie Jay] is not doing anything." Therefore, after this scene outside, Babe describes finding the burglar gun and pointing it at herself, then quickly and innocently flipping it in the direction of Zackery's head, because she really "wanted to kill Zackery, not [herself]. Cause [she] - [she] wanted to live!"

Babe's "illogical" reaction demonstrate that a woman's reality in patriarchal society is defined for her, and, if she cannot continue to find a reliable definition from the man who is supposed to protect her and provide her with the acceptance she needs, her only recourse is a simulated reality. In other words, she becomes submissive to a simulated reality instead of being submissive to the men in her life.

Babe's name continues the tradition of female domination or male control over her desires and her actions. Her crime is committed out of a desire for recognition by her husband and out of a desire for self-recognition within patriarchal society. However, she explains her new awakening to Meg as a result of her being "lonely" and rejects Meg's claim that she is a "liberal." Her irony is her ability to reverse stereotypes without political (liberal or feminist) motives. If she is denied her female depth (i.e. sexual freedom, maturity, wisdom, education needed to wield power-knowledge according to patriarchal law), the tradition of female criminality is her only alternative.

Henley develops the tension of the female criminal tradition by justifying Babe's actions according to reversed stereotypes. She describes Babe's reaction to her husband: Babe "hates the sound" of her husband Zackery's voice, does "not like his looks," and is not sexually satisfied. Babe's reversed reality, however, leaves her without any sense of self worth when her bullet penetrates Zackery's stomach. The need for her husband to recognize her aberrant female desires (or hold her accountable for her adultery instead of attacking Willie Jay) demonstrates hopelessness rather than typical male retribution (or revenge). Zackery is a violent man, and Babe is motivated to stand up for herself as a female, but she is still not safe from identifiable punishment because she cannot use her hands and feet as equally powerful weapons against Zackery.

Babe's learned helplessness (or male defined submissiveness) demonstrates her hopelessness and the completely hopeless defense Barnette offers her. Babe becomes nameless even though Barnette, Babe's lawyer, participates in the (equal) power-resistance dynamic required of the male system. She states: "Why do you (Meg) think I'm so worried about his (Willie) getting public exposure? I don't want to ruin his reputation!" In other words, saving Willie Jay's reputation as a man becomes more important that saving her own reputation. Babe knows she is nothing more than the woman who shot her husband, another woman who committed a crime against men, another "crazy" McGrath female. Unlike Willie Jay her role does depend upon her being pure (or safe) and unspoiled. As a female criminal who undermines the structure of male law that produced her name, she is banished because the male system re-appropriates a new name for her in order that she remain dominated. Therefore, Barnette gives up his vendetta and the information slandering Zackery because Babe is not interested in slandering Zackery; she is not interested in playing by male rules because she feels helpless against them, victimized in the name of them. Her reputation is irretrievably ruined based on a double standard and as long as no one finds out about Willie Jay, she believes that he can still be a man, therefore, he is the only one worth saving.

Babe's revenge is more akin to justice because it simply refuses male control. According to Michel Foucault, "Major dominations are the hegemonic effects that are sustained by [power] confrontations." Furthermore, "there is no power that is exercised without a series of aims and objectives. But this does not mean that it results from the choice or decision of an individual subject."

Henley allows the men to demonstrate to Babe that they are more interested in preserving her unnatural role as a woman than to accept any responsibility as men in order to redefine it. While Willie Jay is not bound by the same expectations or societal laws as Babe, Barnette's "deal" allows the person that exercises the most power and poses a greater threat to society the freedom to function in the male structure, a privilege without punishment for his cynical power. Barnette has to give up his information slandering Zackery, in order to trade for the pictures of Willie Jay and Babe committing adultery, yet it is likely that Zackery will remain a Senator, and Babe will eventually go to jail. Therefore, Babe does not make a conscious choice to develop a surface consciousness, it is simply the result of her not disappearing altogether.

As a criminal, she is defined in relation to male law, which considers her unnatural and insane, and continues to control her. For example, Zackery "says he's gonna have [Babe] classified insane and then send [her] on out to Witfield asylum." In response to Babe's upset while disclosing Zackery's threat, Meg replies: "Why, [Babe] you're just as perfectly sane as anyone walking the streets of Hazlehurst, Mississippi."

Zackery's rules are as ambiguous and undefined as mental illness itself, and Meg reasonably calculates Babe's sanity as having nothing to do with interpreting the rules of the law because only men have control of them in the first place. Just as Meg committed herself to a mental hospital in Los Angeles and is not really crazy because she recognizes that she could be, Babe is not in a violent rage, and is not a severe threat to society, but has simply lost herself in a male dominated reality. For instance, Babe does not shoot her husband even a second time, although she originally fired with the intention of killing him. She shoots him once, makes lemonade, and willingly goes to jail.

Henley illustrates that playing according to the logic of the patriarchal structure and law does not prove any more effective. Men cannot control either of them if they do not play by the rules; therefore, Meg denies men judgment in her life as well (i.e. grandfather and her singing career) as Babe. According to Ann Jones, the tradition of female justice is a "double-voiced discourse," containing a "dominant" and "muted" story and depends upon men wielding the power of knowledge. Therefore, Henley allows Babe's husband, Zackery to symbolizes two male dominated power structures in America: the family and the government. Babe learned to feel powerless against both of these structures because she felt powerless against her violent husband. For instance, it is likely that Zackery's physical assaults sent her to the hospital numerous times, yet Babe does not speak up about Zackery's assaults.

Babe's story is "muted" and completely unprotected because she lacks the choice (she did not learn she had one). Babe denies any type of rational or justifiable discourse, such as combing her grievances against Zackery with Barnette's, because the logical male discourse is anything but justice (i.e. the outcome of the "deal" Barnette feels obligated to make with Zackery.)

Barnette fulfills the "dominant" discourse because he provides the explanations for Babe's defense on the grounds of his own knowledge - that Zackery is involved in "shady, criminal dealings" and doesn't deserve to be re-elected as the Senator of Copiah County. Therefore, Barnette makes a "deal" to protect Babe, but only because her husband no longer will, and he finds it necessary to make the "deal" without consulting Babe's opinion. Just as the most sacred bond between a man and a woman is dominated by men in patriarchal structure, Babe's decision to defend her life against the possibility of a death sentence is up to the men to make the choice for her. Babe never married Zackery for love, but because it made her grandfather proud. In other words, it was her grandfather's choice.

All of the representations in Babe's life are no more real than her own death sentence. Her "day" is "really bad," but so is her life, performing an unfulfilling role that is meaningless. The security men provide her with is not as essential as her unrecognized desires (i.e. desires as life's context for meaning). Without the shared desires or understanding of her sisters, she prefers her own absence, a death sentence - the only reality that could possibly reverse her submission into her own suicide.

The ability to interpret her own desires requires an encounter with a shared, learned surface consciousness of womanhood (or sisterhood). The sisters come together to realize they can find protection (of their desires) by recognizing a shared reality. Only then will they be safe in their performances with men.

Barnette, the only man that can protect a woman who does not deny her own murderous crime (and they do not expect Babe to protect herself) states: "It seems to me that we can get her off with a plea of self-defense, or possibly we could go with innocent by reason of temporary insanity." Barnette's recourses for defense are "that Zackery Botrelle brutalized and tormented this poor woman to such an extent that she had no recourse but to defend herself in the only way she knew how!" His statement rings true, but his defense is logical and justified, unlike Babe's struggle.

Babe cannot possibly understand life if there are no rules she considers legitimate. She would rather sit in a jail cell playing her saxophone because she believed she had to face her struggle alone, shamefully in the eyes of society. What Babe's actions require is that men also take off their blindfolds and experience her simulated reality, the only reality that undermines an ambiguous male power structure.

The female criminal tradition demonstrates that women need to know how to fight back in order to unlearn their helplessness. During a time when blindfolded men surrounded them at every turn, the only recourse of strength in numbers was disappointing because even the women were blindfolded. The differences in physical and psychological training that give men an advantage over women I believe has been addressed in present day society. But before this critical transition took place (and in many places maybe it still has not), the female criminal tradition proved that men could no longer live safely with women when women's only recourse was violence.

In the play, Barnette has to give up his own vendetta in order to protect Babe and his choice to do this and resist male law for Babe, only serves to save Willie Jay. Barnette believes his personal vendetta would be aided by Babe's grievances but even without her help he protects this unprotected woman in any way he can. Did I mention that it was because she sold him baked goods once, and because she is a woman who needs protection from men to live in a male-dominated world?

In the mid 1980s, Henley adapted her bestselling and oft-performed play into a screenplay. The filmic adaptation was released in 1986 and starred Sissy Spacek (Babe), Diane Keaton (Lenny), and Jessica Lange (Meg). It received a great deal of critical attention including an Oscar nomination, the Golden Globe for best actress in a comedy or a musical, and the New York Film Critics award for Sissy Spacek and an Oscar nomination for the writer herself. Clearly, audiences and critics alike recognized some essential truths about the role of women in 1970s and 1980s American culture.

May 2002

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