tv

They’re women who shop at Wal-Mart and watch 'Oprah’— until one day...

ANNE KINGSTON April 21 2008
tv

They’re women who shop at Wal-Mart and watch 'Oprah’— until one day...

ANNE KINGSTON April 21 2008

They’re women who shop at Wal-Mart and watch 'Oprah’— until one day...

tv

ANNE KINGSTON

If Madame Bovary were recast for the 21st century, its central character would likely end up on Snapped, the popular true-crime program about women who kill. These aren’t atypical female serial killers like Aileen Wuomos, who inspired the Oscar-winning movie Monster.+ Rather, many of the murderesses profiled on the half-hour docudrama are contemporary Emma Bovarys—ordinary women living in small towns, locked in dull marriages, conducting tawdry affairs, racking up debt they’re desperate to hide from their mates. Only they’d never think to end their own lives with arsenic as Emma did. No, like Lynn Turner of Atlanta, who fed her husband

and, a few years later, a boyfriend fatal doses of antifreeze, they see murder as the logical way out.

Snapped’s very existence is testament to the fact women who kill remain cultural novelties. It’s difficult to imagine a primetime program profiling men who shoot, stab, poison and otherwise eviscerate their mates not eliciting outrage. But female murderers have long been regarded as more entertaining fodder. Either they’re viewed as aberrant, like Wuornos, or fetishized as cult figures warranting “you go girl” admonitions, like the two central characters in Thelma and Louise.

Snapped has struck a new nerve among its huge female following. Viewership and buzz have grown steadily since it went to air

in 2004 on Oxygen, the American cable channel whose dedication to female “empowerment” is partly underwritten by Oprah. So has a rabid online following, via Oxygen, com and YouTube. Now Oxygen’s top-rated crime show, Snapped is broadcast in endless rotation—in oneto three-hour blocks, as well as in “marathons” perfect for girls’ nights. Clearly programmers have figured out Snapped episodes are like potato chips: one just whets the appetite.

What makes the program compulsively watchable, ironically, is its surface banality. Subjects span the socio-economic spectrum but share a woman-next-door normalcy— until they “snap,” that is. They shop at WalMart, exercise at Curves and watch Oprah. “The program tries to pick subjects the average viewer can relate to,” explains

producer Donna Dudek.

At first glance, Snapped is an unlikely chick-TV guilty pleasure. Shot on a shoestring budget, the glam quotient is zero. A female voiceover tells each woman’s story in a balanced, factual manner. Home photos, dramatic re-enactments, grisly crime-scene documentation and courtroom footage provide the visuals. Interviews with the subject’s family, friends, police, lawyers and journalistsand occasionally the subject herself—fill out the narrative.

These real-life stories are far stranger—and more compelling— than fictional Law and Order or CSI fare. There’s Lisa Whedbee of Knoxville, Tenn., whose marriage came under strain after her daughter was bom with Down’s syndrome. She commenced an affair with the organist at her church and convinced him to shoot her husband in a staged home burglary. (The husband survived; Whedbee made

a plea deal, served one year in jail and remarried.) Adrienne Hickson, a promising young law student, stabbed her boyfriend to death during a temper tantrum. Sharee Miller, a Mary Kay cosmetics saleswoman, shopaholic and sex-chat-room addict, tried to make the murder of her police-officer husband look like a suicide. Susan Polk, a genius who met her therapist husband when he treated her as a teenager, stabbed him to death in the midst of a bitter divorce that threatened to deny her custody of her children. And then there’s pert Mary Winkler, who gunned down her pastor husband after kiting cheques and siphoning

the money into a private account.

There’s decided voyeuristic pleasure peeking behind these subdivision doors, into a laminate landscape more chilling than anything David Lynch could dream up. This is a me-first world influenced by made-for-TV crime shows, apparently minus the recognition that on TV, as in life, household killers seldom get away with it. There’s rarely catharsis, only the detritus of a foolish decision and lives ruined in its wake. Indeed, the program serves as reality-check TV for its stressed, overscheduled viewers who probably harbour a few husbandicide fantasies of their own. No matter how unhappily married or unmarried she is, the female viewer can find solace in the fact her life has yet to reach that point of desperation at which she’d plot to dismember the father of her children.

In its case studies, Snapped offers more than entertainment. Beneath the conven-

Otional facade lurks a subversive message about female violence: it upends the conventional wisdom that women kill because they’ve, in a word, “snapped” due to forces beyond their control, be it postpartum depression, being brutalized in a relationship, or defending their families. Sure, some of the show’s murderers fit that definition, like Laura Rogers who put up with years of physical abuse from her second husband after he proposed to her in a Pizza Hut. Only after watching a videotape of him raping her 16-year-old daughter did she turn the family shotgun on him.

But most of the Snapped subjects know exactly what they’re doing, even if their reasoning isn’t exactly sound: they kill to relieve themselves of men who are interfering with their greater ambitions—or who merely have ticked them off mightily. Cynthia George, for instance, a third runner-up in the 2000 Ms. Ohio contest, conspired with her lover to put a hit on a former lover when he wouldn’t stop call

MACLEAN’S APR. 21 ’08

ing her at the house she shared with her cuckold husband. Some are fed up with marriages that failed to fulfill the promise of their “fairy-tale” wedding. Others don’t want the hassle of dealing with divorce court or custody wrangles. Financial motives are common. A few women see their husbands blocking the insurance payout that would allow them to start a new life; some kill to avoid being found to have misappropriated funds; some to hide the fact they’ve incurred household debt (the number of women who decide to kill their husbands rather than confess to a shopping addiction has prompted the joke that Snapped’s motto should be “Shop ’til he drops”).

Nor are their victims always the brutes familiar to viewers of women-in-peril made-

for-TV movies. Many are decent guys whose greatest sin is fecklessness—like the financially irresponsible pastor Matthew Daniels, shot while sleeping by his teacher wife, Sharon, who was tired of footing the bills. The show has been credited with ushering in a sea change in the depiction of female violence—away from women as victims to a more lurid fascination with female aberrance that’s apparent not only on other “empowering” Oxygen shows but also mainstream crime shows like CSI. It’s a shift that dovetails with a real-life increase in violent crime committed by women—particularly spousal homicide. (In Canada the number of men killed by their wives is up, from 12 in 2005 to 21 in 2006.)

Dudek believes the show’s appeal lies in its focus on psychology rather than forensics. Still, it’s chockablock

with CSI-ish husbandicide tips. Never, for one, use garbage bags from home. That’s what put Melanie McGuire, a nurse from New Jersey, away for life after police matched the containers used to stash her husband William’s dismembered body with those under her kitchen sink. Staging a breakin to cover a shooting is also a bad idea. That’s how Amy Bosley tried to mask the killing of her husband, Bob, whom she shot to death before an 1RS meeting that would reveal she’d stolen almost $2 million in owed back taxes from his business. As the detective who surveyed the crime scene recalled: “It was a made-for-TV crime scene, only it didn’t fit the crime.”

Snapped has its critics. Advocates for female victims of domestic violence contend the show underplays the fact that most women who murder do so in self-defence. Certainly that justification pops up routinely during

these women’s trials, even when there’s no evidence any abuse took place. Some of S?iapped’s femme fatales even attempt to establish a trail of victimization to justify the crime. Lisa Whedbee, for instance, tried to set up a history of abuse, calling 9H to say her husband was threatening her, though he hadn’t. The program also reveals a double standard toward women in sentencing. Clearly some courts subscribe to the view that a woman would never kill of free will. That explains why Mary Winkler, who gunned down her pastor husband after a bad chequewriting spree, was acquitted of firstdegree murder in April 2007, convicted of

manslaughter and sentenced to serve 150 days in jail and 60 days in a mental health facility. With credit for time served, she went directly from her sentencing to the mental health facility, and walked out a free woman that August.

Happily for Snapped’s producers, there’s no shortage of future subjects. Dudeck says they’re inundated with tips from viewers, many of them small-town cases that haven’t received national attention. The international husbandicide market also beckons. Just last month, Karen Lee Cooper of Brisbane, Australia, pleaded guilty to manslaughter, explaining that she stabbed her bossy husband with a kitchen knife during a drunken fight after he wouldn’t let her play a Bruce Springsteen CD. As her lawyer put it, she suffered a “brain snap.” But if Snapped’s popularity continues, however, that excuse will no longer work as the female murderer’s preferred excuse. M