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2022 was the year of the ‘bad woman’

From Amber Heard to Megan Thee Stallion and Sally McNeil, this year has proved that society’s views on women are still backwards, constrictive, and built on binary thinking

In 1996, professional bodybuilder Sally McNeil was convicted of second-degree murder after she shot and killed her husband, competitive bodybuilder Ray McNeil. 

Their relationship and the trial were the subjects of Netflix’s latest true crime docuseries, Killer Sally, released in November. In the documentary, Sally (now 62) explained that throughout their six-year relationship, she was subjected to emotional, physical and sexual abuse at the hands of Ray, which only increased when he started taking steroids to compete in bodybuilding competitions. To this day, Sally (and her children, who were witnesses to the abuse) contend that she shot Ray purely out of self-defence, but nonetheless, she was sentenced to 19 years to life in prison.

A significant narrative used by the defence to prove that Sally was not a victim, defending herself against her abuser, but a cold-hearted killer, was that she was “not like a girl, but like a guy”. Sally wasn’t seen as a ‘battered’ woman because she was not seen as a woman at all. Her bodybuilder physique, involvement in the marines, history of violence and the fact that she defended herself meant that she existed outside the court’s definition of ‘woman’ and ‘victim’ and was subsequently punished for it. 

The Killer Sally docuseries came just five months after the Depp v Heard defamation trial. We saw another woman – a victim of domestic and sexual abuse – become vilified for being an imperfect victim. Heard fought back and spoke up. This led to the assertion that Heard and Depp were either mutually abusive to one another (even though there was a clear power imbalance within their relationship) or that Heard was the sole abuser. The misogynist social media shitstorm that followed this trial showed that things haven’t changed for victims. “Good girls don’t report domestic violence,” writes Rayne Fisher Quann in her essay Who's Afraid of Amber Heard? “The very act of resisting abuse violates the woman’s passive and submissive gender role.”

The spectacle around Heard and Sally’s cases highlighted two very important things this year. Firstly (and most obviously), our society cares very little about victims of abuse, and secondly, that gender policing isn’t just a trans issue.

From harassment in streets, public restrooms and on social media, transgender people face gender policing everywhere they go. In 2019, LeahAnn Mitchell, a Black trans woman, was harassed out of an In-N-Out bathroom. The manager of the fast food restaurant approached the stall she was using and peeped through the cracks. “I felt like she was trying to look at my genitals, attempting to determine my gender,” writes Mitchell for the Guardian. In 2020, Lauren Jackson was followed and beaten by a man in Oregon for using the women’s restroom. Most recently, Caitlyn Jenner attempted to publicly humiliate and misgender fellow trans woman and TikTok sensation Dylan Mulvaney on Twitter for having a penis and telling her followers to “normalise the fact that some women have bulges”. Trans women’s deviation from the gender binary means that they must be surveilled and monitored, and this is the same for women we deem ‘bad women’. 

Throughout their trials, Sally McNeil and Amber Heard had their gender carefully monitored. In McNeil’s case, her gender expression was surveilled by the prosecution and jury. When examining her interviews with the police, Daniel Goldstein, the prosecutor in charge of her prosecution, stated that when “looking at Sally’s behaviour, I didn’t see her being the fearful battered woman she claimed to be. During the middle of the interview, when the detectives stepped out of the room, she covered herself with a blanket, lay on the floor and took a nap. I thought, wow, that is something that a person not guilty of murder would never do.” Sally’s decision to rest rather than weep (like a woman and victim should in his mind) resulted in Goldstein de-gendering her throughout the entire trial.

When it came to Heard, the internet closely monitored and scrutinised her gender presentation during the trial. Throughout April and May, Depp fans studied Heard’s facial expressions and body language, mockingly pretending to be her on TikTok while she detailed the abuse she faced at the hands of Depp. She was portrayed and described as “unfeminine”, “arrogant”, and “untrustworthy”. The opposite of what a woman ‘should’ be. 

On the other hand, Black women have always been subjected to this type of treatment. Assumptions that Black women are non-feminine or masculine have been firmly embedded throughout history. This has led to Black women feeling the need to prove their womanhood in a world that continually denies them that status. For example, when rapper Tory Lanez shot Megan Thee Stallion, her gender presentation was immediately under scrutiny. In a now-deleted tweet, one Twitter user wrote, “Meg portraying herself with aggressive, masculine undertones is why people have reacted [to her getting shot] with no sympathy. The price you pay for acting masculine is being treated like a man.”

“Megan Thee Stallion portraying herself with aggressive, masculine undertones is why people have reacted [to her getting shot] with no sympathy. The price you pay for acting masculine is being treated like a man”

Megan is described as “acting masculine” not because she actually ‘acts like a man’ but because her darker skin, 5”10 stature and body shape do not fit into the Eurocentric understandings of womanhood. The author of the tweet (and many others) believe Megan is to blame for her assault because of her inability to act ‘womanly’. Though the shooting occurred in 2020, discussion about Megan’s gender and her believability came into question once again this year when Drake accused Megan of lying about the assault in his song “Circo Loco” from his new album Her Loss

The list of women in the public sphere who have been ridiculed, ostracised and psychologically punished for not ‘complying’ with the rules of womanhood is endless. From victims of abuse like Heard, Sally and Megan to women like Jada Pinkett Smith, Billie Eilish, Meghan Markle, and Francine Niyonsaba. For years, we’ve also seen this happen to women like Lady Gaga, Caster Semenya, Serena Williams and Michelle Obama. This is the same treatment trans people have constantly been subjected to and have continually asked cis people to denounce.

Many (cis) people see trans issues as not pertaining to them, but our problems are the same. As writer Sophia Giovannitti explains in her essay In Defence of Men, “every time a cis lesbian fights for legislation denying trans women the right to use women's restrooms, she strengthens the oppression of all women.” Every TERF working against trans women is hurting all women. Every anti-trans legislation put into law hurts all people, not just trans people. These laws and legislations reaffirm harmful traditional gender binaries that benefit no one. If this year has taught us anything, it’s that trans liberation will liberate everyone.  

Our world is built on binary thinking. From the binaries of male or female, victim or villain, and virgin or whore; it’s how we’re socialised to make sense of it all. While this way of thinking helps us feel a sense of control or certainty, it thrives on oversimplifications, generalisations and stereotypes that harm people more than it helps them. When we resist binaries, we challenge violent systems of supremacy that dictate what we can and cannot do and who we can and can not be. In many ways, by refusing binaries, the world becomes more disorderly, untidy and chaotic. But as Lola Olufemi writes in her seminal text, Feminism Interrupted, “Chaos allows us to look at the way that violence is a central organising principle for our societies and, more importantly, helps us identify the bodies that are nearest to it”.