Popular trials/criminal fictions/celebrity feminism and the Bernardo/Homolka case


University of British Columbia

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Master of Laws - LLM




This thesis examines representations of a Canadian criminal case, the Bernardo/Homolka case. I argue that the Bernardo/Homolka case constitutes what Robert Hariman has termed a "popular trial"; a trial or case that provides "the impetus and the forum for major public debates" and generates discussion extending beyond the immediate court proceedings, to broader issues concerning the law and the legal system. As a 'popular trial', or as what Nancy Fraser terms a moment of "hyperpublicity", the Bernardo/Homolka case provides a means of understanding mechanisms of public opinion making and broader relations of inequality. I argue that representations of the case can function ideologically to reinforce relations of inequality, through the ways in which they shape the cultural authority of feminism as a public discourse in Canada. I draw on the work of materialist feminists, such as Rosemary Hennessy and Nancy Fraser, to reveal the assumptions underlying different readings of the case that have problematic implications for the credibility of feminist analyses of systemic inequality, and for feminist interventions into the legal system. Karla Homolka was convicted of the manslaughter of two teenage girls, Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy in Ontario in 1993. Her sentence was determined by a plea bargain and she was the principal witness in the case against her ex-husband, Paul Bernardo, who was convicted on charges relating to the abduction, assault and murder of the two girls in 1995. The case gave rise to intense public discussion, extensive media coverage and has been the subject of numerous books and reports. This thesis examines three of the texts that have been published in response to the case: Karla's Web: A Cultural Investigation of the Mahaffy French Murders (Toronto: Viking 1994) by Frank Davey, a professor of English; When She Was Bad: Violent Women and the Myth of Innocence (Toronto: Random House 1997) by journalist Patricia Pearson; and a fictional response, Paul's Case: the Kingston Letters (Toronto: Insomniac Press 1997) by Canadian poet and cultural critic, Lynn Crosbie. I examine what these three books can tell us about popular and legal perceptions of feminism, male and female criminality, and violence against women. In particular, I look at the ways in which Pearson and Crosbie have interpreted the case as being relevant to, and representative of wider feminist debates about equality, female sexuality, the nature of female criminality, and the place of feminism in public life and the legal system. While I conclude that Pearson's book is the most problematic account of the case, I point to ways in which all three of the texts function to disable or discredit feminism's cultural authority and feminist interventions into public institutions.

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