A school photo of Hae Min Lee alongside the news of her ex-boyfriend’s conviction.
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Serial reveals how much more we care about justice for a man than the life of a woman

As the podcast tries to investigate whether Adnan Syed killed Hae Min Lee, a discrepancy emerges – it’s so much easier to spot the cultural misogyny when it is applied to race rather than gender.

Serial is the story of who killed Hae Min Lee, a Baltimore High School student murdered in 1999. Except, Hae Min Lee is dead and so unable to speak, and her family declined to participate in Sarah Koenig’s investigative podcast, so instead Serial is the story of Adnan Syed – Lee’s ex-boyfriend, and the man convicted of her murder. In every episode, the first human voice we hear after the recap is Syed himself, saying his own name. Whether by default or design, he’s the star. The question Serial asks most insistently is not “Who killed Lee?” but “Did Syed do it?” The answer to that, with one episode still to come, is a big fat maybe, with more than enough reasonable doubt to make Sayed’s conviction look shaky.

At the very least, he had a phenomenal amount of bad luck, and part of his bad luck was race. After playing a clip of Syed’s attorney cross-examining the state’s star witness (an acquaintance of Syed’s only known as Jay in the podcast), Koenig wonders how this played to the mostly black jury: a well-spoken black boy being harangued by an angry white lady probably didn’t do much to get the courtroom on Syed’s side, suggests the reporter. And then there’s Syed himself. 1999 is, obviously, pre-2001. A Muslim teenager in America then didn’t have the burden of suspicion then that came after 9/11, when his race and his faith would have marked him as an enemy of the state to many. But he was still marked – not as a terrorist, but as a dangerous alien with “dark” (the prosecution’s word) passions.

During jury selection, one male member of the pool approaches the bench to say he doesn’t think he can be impartial because “a friend of mine’s a Muslim, and I’ve seen him mistreat his family, his wife and everything.” Among the police documents, there’s a specialist consultant’s report into the cultural backdrop of the case, which explicitly suggests “honour” as a motive. And at pre-trial, the prosecutor sketched a picture of Syed as the archetypal honour killer as she requested that bail be denied, citing “a pattern in the United States of America where young Pakistani males have been jilted, have committed murder, have fled to Pakistan and we have been unable to extradite them back.”

The prosecutor’s claim was later retracted in full, although Koenig notes that even in the correction, one striking error stood: Syed is not Pakistani, he’s American with Pakistani heritage. If he has any connections to the terrible patterns of femicide and male authority in his parents’ homeland, they’re very hard to make out in his own biography. He’s a high-achieving student. A football player. A track athlete. Prom prince. He smokes weed and has sex with girls. He’s the pattern of a normal US teenager in every regard.  Throughout the state’s case, Syed’s guiltiness and foreignness go hand in hand: when one is emphasised, the other gets exaggerated too. His defence responds in kind and stresses Syed’s Americanness as often as possible – but if it’s a fallacy to suggest that “Pakistani” equals “guilty”, it makes no more sense to say that “American” equals “innocent”.

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one in four American women will be a victim of domestic violence, one in six have suffered rape or attempted rape, and one in 12 have been stalked. In American homicides, 90.3 per cent of offenders and 77.4 per cent of victims are men. The gap between those two figures is America’s femicide problem: violence is overwhelmingly male, and women are disproportionately likely to be victims. Serial constantly emphasises that everything in Syed and Lee’s relationship appeared to be normal by teenage standards, and it’s true that none of their friends saw any cause for alarm at the time. It’s also true that normal doesn’t necessarily mean benign when sexual violence and control is embedded in the cultural texture.

None of the things that Serial reveals about Syed and Lee’s relationship means that he killed her. What’s striking is that the controlling, possessive tendency you can track through the various accounts isn’t actually all that striking: Syed’s behaviour sounds sometimes chauvinistic and unpleasant, but always within the bounds of how you might expect a male American teenager to behave. So, he originally asked her out because he had a competition with his best friend to get the prettiest date for prom – at the very earliest point of their relationship, she’s more a trophy to him than a person. He showed up uninvited when she was out with her friends or at their houses, and there are mentions in her diary of him getting angry with her for not answering messages quickly enough.

Religion comes into it after all, as well – not as a motive for the murder (which is the prosecution’s contention), but as something Syed might have used to exert emotional control over Lee. Certainly there’s a mismatch between his version of himself as a not-particularly-observant Muslim, and her distraught diary entries recording him calling her a “devil” for drawing him from his faith. “I may have said it as a joke,” Syed concedes to Koenig in a phone interview. Some punchline, if it left Lee feeling responsible for his soul. He doesn’t seem to have accepted the breakup easily either, though he was dating other girls. A letter from Lee to Syed sounds tetchy and exasperated: “I’m really getting annoyed that this situation is going the way it is. You know people break up all the time. You’re life is not going to end. You’ll move on and I’ll move on. But apparently you don’t respect me enough to accept my decision.”

If these things are evidence of anything, at worst they’re evidence of Syed being a crappy, controlling boyfriend. They don’t mean he was abusive to Lee, and even if he was abusive to her, that doesn’t mean he was her murderer: there are many steps between that need to be filled with physical evidence and witness statements, which may not even be possible to obtain 15 years after the fact. But the complexion we put on the available facts is strongly influenced by how much we think about skin colour. When it comes to identifying cultural misogyny, it’s so much easier to spot when it comes infused with melanin. The kind of sexism that means we talk more about justice for a man than the life of a woman? Well that, after all, is just normal.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

Photo: Warner Brothers
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Why superhero films should follow Wonder Woman’s lead and have female villains

Bring on the bad.


In films, as in real life, the villain is rarely a woman. There are several reasons for this. One is believability. Women just don’t commit heinous crimes as much as men, so a film has to work very hard to convince the audience that a female baddie could do whatever terrible things we have no problem believing men capable of. There’s no such thing as a bogeywoman because society isn’t afraid of women. As Gillian Anderson’s serial-killer-hunting detective Stella Gibson says to her colleagues in the BBC’s crime thriller The Fall, “is anyone in doubt as to the gender of the killer?”.

A recent Empire Magazine piece entitled The Greatest Villains of All Time featured just one woman out of twenty evil characters, Nurse Ratched from 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The article gleefully quotes Jack Nicholson’s character calling Ratched “a c*nt”, but doesn’t stop to analyse why the sole woman in the list (no, I don’t count the Alien xenomorph) is so bad. She, along with Misery’s Annie Wilkes, are popular villains because they betray a heavily gendered caring role. Around 90 per cent of nurses in the UK and USA are female, so Nurse Ratched’s subversion of her woman’s work - her female caregiver duties - is one of the worst lady crimes Western men can think of.

When women are allowed to be baddies, they’re usually one of a handful of female archetypes. The sadistic nurse, the crazed mother, the vain witch, the jealous lover, or the black widow. Rarely are female baddies allowed to be motivated by something other than the emotional or personal, while male baddies are obsessed with power, money, sex or politics, or just plain evil for evil’s sake.

Another reason filmmakers (93 per cent of whom are male) shy away from the female villain is because the hero is usually a man. To defeat a female antagonist, at some point our hero dude is going to have to punch her, shoot her, explode her, or drive a stake through her evil black heart, and most people are uncomfortable with that even when she really deserves it. Indeed, if the main baddie is a female, she’s often presented as victim herself (think Dredd’s Ma-Ma, Kill Bill’s O-Ren-Ishii, Audition’s Asami Yamakazi, or Mama’s’...er...Mama). But most female baddies are sidekicks, afterthoughts to the main man, to be dispatched by her equivalent female hero sidekick in a setup so common, it has its own TV Trope, the Designated Girl Fight.

This trope is seen frequently in comic books and therefore superhero films, but only because those films are way ahead of the curve in terms of female villainy. Superhero films have no duty to reflect real life. Superheroes can be anyone, from the underdog nerd to a billionaire, and so too can their nemeses. Superpowers are an equalising force. It’s okay for Toad to fling Storm through a glass display case in X-Men, because Storm is a superhero with mutant powers.

But still, these are supporting characters. Female leads even in comic book films are rare. One major exception is of course 2017’s Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins, whose protagonist is both exceptionally well trained for combat, and endowed with a few handy supernatural abilities (plus a gadget or two to help out in a plot jam). She’s a badass, and deserves an enemy just like her.

The main antagonist in Wonder Woman is of course a man, first fiddle to a female supporting character, Dr Maru, a sadistic chemist who straight up wants to kill as many people as possible, Nazi-style. She is played with chilling grace by Spanish actress Elena Anaya (in contrast to her comic book counterpart who was originally depicted disguised as a man, to better fit in with her evil allies. Baddies skew male, remember). But to truly belong to women, Patty Jenkins’ world shouldn’t be afraid of the big bad female. And so it isn’t. This weekend, Patty Jenkins announced that the main villain, the “big bad” of Wonder Woman 2 will be the Cheetah, played by Kristen Wiig. In the comics, the Cheetah has always been Wonder Woman’s archnemesis, part of the original canon. Her most popular incarnation is as alter-ego Dr Barbara Ann Minerva, a brilliant archeologist, although we don’t yet know if that’s the version of the character we’ll get for the film. Two evil women with PhDs in a row, can Hollywood be that progressive?

But still, however the Cheetah’s character plays out, this is a big deal. A female hero and a female baddie in a mainstream blockbuster film. It’s no coincidence the film is directed by a woman. More female filmmakers means more female characters and fewer lazy stereotypes, motives and archetypes. Those baddies who break the mould are often the brainchild of women. Kingsman 2’s psychopathic drug lord Poppy Adams is the co-creation of screenwriter Jane Goldman, Harry Potter’s Dolores Umbridge, representing the banal evil of unchecked authority, is of course the creation of JK Rowling, the screenplays of Maleficent and Alice in Wonderland were written by Linda Woolverton. A new study by digital movie network Fandago shows that 82 per cent of cinema-going women are more inclined to see a movie with dynamic female characters, and 75 per cent want to see more female ensembles. MPAA data shows women are consistently 50 per cent of moviegoers, and in 2016 were even slightly in the majority. The market is there, and we want our representation.

When women are involved in a film, female characters are allowed to be complex, including in villainy. It may sound like a weird feminist goal, to be allowed to express the full range of evil characters alongside the good ones, but when it comes to superhero movies, where anything is possible and art is escaping life, rather than reflecting it, there really is no excuse. Bring on the bad.