Bright Lights Film Journal

Capturing the Beauty of the Beast: Aileen Wuornos, Charlize Theron, and <em>Monster</em>

The “monster” Wuornos and why she won’t go away

As soon as the new Aileen Wuornos biopic Monster was released in the States, talk of an Academy Award for star Charlize Theron was immediate. Her performance as America’s “first lesbian serial killer,” put to death in Florida in 2002 for killing seven men, is in fact good. She is far better than the film itself, which simplifies and unnecessarily fictionalizes the now classic tale of murder and mayhem — as well as self-defense, homophobia, state-sponsored execution, and sensationalist media. Truth be told, though, Ms. Theron is not nearly as frighteningly involving as the real Aileen (or Lee) as seen in the two Nick Broomfield documentaries (Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, 1992, and Aileen — Life and Death of a Serial Killer, 2003). On film, the actual woman invites sympathy but then spits in the face of pity. Lee can instantly turn an almost charming smile into a show of defiant rage with a glare that scorches.

Before I delve into the American myth of Wuornos (subject of a play and an opera as well), it is worth coming clean about the main reason for all this Oscar talk. It is because Charlize Theron is beautiful and thin and was often thought of as no more than a former model/dancer trying her hand at acting. When a beautiful actor, such as Nicole Kidman in The Hours (2002) or Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball (2001) (there’s that word again, “monster”) is so confident of her good looks that she can let herself in the name of film acting and fame appear ugly, she’s a shoe-in. Charlize not only had her face altered like Nicole, she also had imperfect teeth installed and appeared with very bad early 80s hair — and put on weight. With this, we learn that Theron is not just a pretty face and a leggy blonde, and the fact that we know she really doesn’t look like Lee heightens her status as a great beauty and performer — she is now a star willing to transform herself for the right role. Make no mistake, the back story of Charlize, an attractive heterosexual woman who willing endures a transformation into the ugly, deranged, and “dykey” Lee has aided the marketing of the film. She is such a stunner that it took hours of makeup to make her appear otherwise! (Her transformation is featured on the film’s official web site.) I suppose for the normal looking woman, it would take only a few minutes of badly applied Max Factor to look “monstrous.”

Another real-life tale of the performer has been strategically revealed in the marketing of the film: Theron’s mother shot her father. In one newspaper retelling of the star’s life in South Africa, one night when she was 16, her father came home drunk and started to shoot into the bedroom of her daughter. Defending her daughter and herself, his wife shot him dead. Although Theron discusses this event in some interviews, she then insists that this experience has nothing to do with her decision to play Wuornos. Expertly she insists that it was the strength of the script and the intensity of her meeting with the director, Patty Jenkins. Yet the question of self-defense is central to the life of Aileen Wuornos.

Nick Broomfield believes in part that Lee killed in self-defense, especially with her first victim/assailant Richard Mallory. In Monster, this is also shown as self-defense; the trick is depicted as a torturer. The screenplay follows Lee’s own testimony. In the film, the audience is prompted to believe that this violence unleashes Lee’s rage and suggests that it can no longer be effectively contained — the character lets loose a chillingly triumphant wail after she has killed her attacker. Unlike Broomfield, the legal authorities involved never believed in self-defense, for this is a legal tactic better reserved for middle-class housewives and not lower class prostitutes. Lee is always already guilty due to her social class and her profession and her sexuality — and she is no lipstick HBO- type lesbian.

As Lynda Hart argues in the book Fatal Women: Lesbian Sexuality and the Mark of Aggression, the discourses of criminal anthropology, sexology, and psychoanalysis share a tendency to link female “criminality with deviant sexualities” (28). Hart reminds us that Wuornos’s victims were middle-class white men and her refusal to be at first remorseful — and to let the experts explain her behavior as due to her tormented abusive past, causes a representational meltdown. If Wuornos’s story appears as if it could be an instance of “paranoid male fantasies,” Hart also recognizes that “the fantasy has crossed a certain boundary” and “the hallucination has been realized” (141). Lee becomes all too frightening and inexplicably enraged and impossible to explain through ordinary terminology describing bizarre male projections — her Hollywood biopic could, I suppose, in this way only be titled Monster, although its name cheapens the film.

But Broomfield, undaunted by Lee’s own attempts at self-depiction, frames her as a mystery that must be solved. Was it because she lived in the chilly Michigan woods after she gave birth to a child at the age of 13, and that her grandfather might have in fact been the father of her child and not the nearby child pervert whose home youths used as a hangout? Or that her mother left her shortly after her birth (where she came out unbelievably bent, butt first)? Perhaps we will never know…

But during the shooting of Broomfield’s follow-up, Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, Lee is resistant to this search for explanations. Her story has changed. She now insists that she killed simply to rob. She wants forgiveness. She doesn’t want her past revealed because as Broomfield theorizes, this may delay her death through some humanitarian appeal, and she just wants the State to hurry up and murder her. (By the way if you want to talk about serial killing, Governors Bush of Florida and Texas presided over 46 executions in the year 2000 alone). Lee refuses any sympathetic pathologizing on her behalf. What is a concerned social scientist/cultural theorist to do?

Although Lee returns to her story of self-defense when she is off camera (Nick Broomfield is still taping her voice), she remains steadfast in her one consistent conspiracy theory about the police. She believes that they let her go on killing so that they could later sell the tale of her capture to Hollywood. Lee argues that she was no expert at murder and made little attempt to hide evidence, yet the police let her continue on her rampage. Broomfield’s discounting of her speculation is surprising in that he is a conspiracy theorist par excellence — in Kurt and Courtney (1998), he suggested that Courtney Love may have actually plotted the murder of Kurt Cobain, and in Biggie and Tupac (2002) he implicates the L.A. police in the murder of the rap stars. My theory about our concerned “stalkumentarian”: he has to be the prime author of preposterous theory; he won’t let the subject of his documentary have a leading role in the creation of any narrative that connects all the scattered dots of conspiracy.

Yet Aileen is not entirely wrong — even though she probably had lost any recognition of shared reality. Her perception is off, not her conception. Of course, the police did not sit around and decide to let her go ahead and kill so that they could sell screenplay rights — although it does appear that some of the cops in the case tried to profit from the case. Yet if she had been caught after her first murder (of a known sex offender), a good lawyer could have been able to argue self-defense successfully without having to bring up the abuses she suffered in her childhood, or suggest that she was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The fact the she was in a sense allowed to kill serially, and to murder at least a few men who may have only wanted sex and not to inflict physical harm, enabled her to become legendary. The number of her killings (seven) and their subsequent media coverage embedded her into the American landscape as a female outlaw and a real-life figure of fantasy that must be stopped. Wuornos surpasses the conservative’s worst fears of the lawless lesbian — she not only hates men, she kills them — and she is no sultry femme fatale.

Aileen knows that she was in a sense permitted to come into being as that which American loves and abhors (and loves to abhor). Yet, even though we love a good bloodthirsty gangster or disorderly cowboy on the rampage, we ultimately cannot permit a gal like Lee to be idealized. Catching her (or rehabilitating her) would have prohibited the destiny that the mainstream media craves — the crazed killer who has no remorse and kills methodically. America needs its serial killers and the freak show entertainment and uncanny threat that they provide. But they must never make it across the border to Mexico; they must be caught.

Lee senses that no one ever gave her the chance to move into a normal middle-class life (as a prostitute, as a homeless girl, as a sexual deviant, and as a victim of sexual abuse she suffered from multiple exclusions). In a telling scene, she admits that if her childhood had been different, she might have been an archeologist (a profession concerned with finding evidence of the past). If Lee had no support from social services, she had all the encouragement in the world to go crazy and kill — either in self-defense or as repetition compulsion or even just as the accompaniment to a robbery so that her apparently lazy lesbian lover could sit around the trailer park.

Although Lee is dead, Wuornos just won’t go away. And as diagnoses and theories fail to fully explain her, the legal authorities and politicians can mumble on about the presence of evil. It is now impossible to discern the extent to which she killed to protect herself from real or imagined harm. Even as the real Lee can easily be deemed a beast, our fascination with the mythic Wuornos intensifies when she is played by a beauty. Another kind of Terminator, rest assured she’ll be back.

Note: This article appeared in different form in the online journal Media-Culture.


Hart, Lynda. Fatal Women: Lesbian Sexuality and the Mark of Aggression. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994.