Sex, Women’s Mental Illness, and Videotape
Re-thinking Representations of Caroline Budd in Light of the Ashley Smith Case
Similarities in two salacious media storylines about young women convicted of crimes should give those who act as advocates in speaking for vulnerable accuseds, reason to (re)consider the ethics and implications of how we should give voice to their subjectivities in Courts, negotiations, and in the realm of public speech.
The trajectory of representations of Ottawa’s Caroline Budd, who was 20 years old when accused of sexual assault, and sentenced this September to two years in prison, in public media sources, bears striking similarities to that of 19 year old Ashley Smith: over time, each criminalized young woman goes from being portrayed as a villainous criminal to a mentally ill, and helpless, victim. Discursive figures of these accuseds, in the public record, go from villainous constructions as a female offender, through a process of infantilization, into widely assumed mental illness. Both storylines have been used by the press and public both for advocacy towards change and for gratuitous gore: the widespread public viewing of the macabre spectacle of videotapes portraying Smith’s death is troubling, as are the “sex slave” headlines in respect of Budd’s charges.
From the portrayal of Budd as a willing partner in “dirty deeds” during her long, complex bail hearing, through to the condemnatory image of her presented in media coverage of her trial (in which she was widely panned as the key figure in the assaults, with her boyfriend and co-accused portrayed as secondary), to the sudden shift in her configuration to being “a mentally ill woman with the mental age of 13” (when new counsel represented her at her sentencing hearing): both cases demonstrate dual limiting and confining constructions - the villain and victim. Mental illness was not part of the narrative about Caroline Budd during the lengthy bail hearing, nor at trial; at sentencing and with new counsel, “mental illness” becomes her defining feature.
From critical discourse analysis of the Budd and Smith cases, is it is clear the theories of these young womens’ cases as deployed by Prosecutors, journalists, and advocates, involve discursive struggles between misognynist tropes of the villainous she-devil and another familiar figure: the angelic and innocent woman-victim. It is true that women are victimized by crime, and also are often-ill-treated in the correctional system. However, while strategic deployment of narratives about women as victims may produce certain gains in some cases with respect to reductions in prison terms for woman accuseds, as I point out in my book about the Ashley Smith case, leveraging widely accepted stereotypes about women as victims can also re-inscribe patriarchal and problematic 'villains and victims' narratives that allow no space for women to be understood as agentic and complex. The trope of the woman-victim too often strengthens and re-iterates cultural stereotypes about women that are, in the end, themselves, harmful to those culturally marked as girls and women - the same persons who seek to live agentically and equally amongst those identified as men.
More specifically, figures of the “mentally ill” woman become dominant in representations of both Smith and Budd, and are strategically deployed by advocates in service of agendas towards de-carceration (with which I strongly sympathize). Appeals to mental health concerns by advocates and counsel for women to afford them protections and treatment understood to be made available within mental health systems is understandable in light of the harshness of, and problems within, the correctional system. However, there are compelling reasons to be concerned about rights violations within the mental health apparatus, as Ruby Dhand recently made clear with reference specifically to BC’s Mental Health Act, in a September 2016 Op/Ed.
Concerns about the mental health system unsettle assumptions that it will necessarily afford better rights protections to woman accuseds than the criminal justice system. Further, the question of when feminist ends justify certain means in advocacy is drawn into sharp focus in Budd's sexual assault case, where the victims of Budd's sexual assaults were teenage girls.
So, troublingly, the Budd case, and the public conversation around it, raise some of the very same questions I asked in my PhD thesis and the book based upon it with reference to Ashley Smith: how do we represent vulnerable accuseds, and in particular, girls and women, in ways that might afford emancipatory possibilities for the accuseds themselves and in order to serve feminist ends in general?