The Sexualised Bodies of Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine in Popular Culture




Popular culture has long had a fascination with the female criminal.  Popular culture television, film and comic books use female criminality to create both visual and textual narratives. 

 However, popular culture has not always represented the female criminal as she appears in real life. From the 1920s film sought to define the female criminal as the ‘femme fatale’.  A beautiful, seductive and dangerous woman, who uses her female seductiveness to mask her criminality was portrayed.  In reality the female criminal is often not glamorous, nor is she seductive.  She must be as tough as, if not tougher than her male counterpart.  A characteristic popular culture seems to have missed. 

 This glamorisation of the female criminal has become evident with the latest Underbelly series Razor.  The two leading female criminals, Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine are both depicted in the series as beautiful, glamorous criminals, who use their sexuality to control those working for them. 

 The actresses chosen to play the roles of Kate and Tilly bare very little resemblance to their real life counterparts.  In the Underbelly series Razor Kate who is played by actress Danielle Cormack is tall, slim and elegant.  Her hair, makeup and nails are immaculate, and her clothes are well tailored to fit her slim body.  She has a warm and beautiful smile

 Yet this depiction of Kate is strikingly different to images of the real Kate Leigh on the State Records of New South Wales website.  Here Kate can be seen as heavy set, with large features, she wears very little if no makeup and would be described as masculine in appearance.    Her smile is uneven and her teeth are stained yellow.


Tilly Devine has been treated to the same glamorisation in popular film and television that Kate Leigh has.  Criminal records of Tilly at the State Records New South Wales show a violent prostitute who would assault people without provocation.  Yet the Underbelly series Razor missed this. Instead they depicted a glamorous brothel madam whose hair and makeup were always immaculate, and had her henchmen do her dirty work.  Tilly wasn’t shown in the series Razor as the violent street fighter that she truly was. 

 Yet Australian Ruth Park has chosen to represent Kate Leigh in her book Harp in the South as the character of Delie Stock. In this popular fiction book Delie is described as heavy set, with a weathered and harsh face.  Delie’s clothes are loose fitting and she exudes a masculine presence.  Ruth Park may have been able to convey the true likeness to Kate Leigh because she uses narrative and does not rely on eye-pleasing visual images that popular film and television have come to consider.

 However it is not only the physical appearance of Kate and Tilly that have been altered.  Kate and Tilly were well known violent criminal gang leaders.  Larry Writer in his book Razor, which the Underbelly series is based on, states that both Kate and Tilly were at the top of the underworld.  They were tougher, smarter and nastier than the male criminals they associated with.  Kate and Tilly wouldn’t hesitate to use violence to protect their fortunes.  Writer states that Kate ordered a local man named Joe Messenger to be beaten after he was caught stealing from one of her grog shops.  An article in the Brisbane Courier dated 30 January 1954 states that Kate pointed a gun to a taxi drivers head and threated to shoot him.  Yet this violent nature of Kate’s is down played in the series Razor, Kate is only ever seen to threaten people as in the case of Guido Calleti.  Kate is shown in the series Razor to accuse Guido Calleti of being a police informant, yet she does not physically harm Guido.   Had the Underbelly series Razor sought to demonstrate the violent nature of Kate that is evident in police records and newspaper articles, then Guido Calleti would have been subjected to Kate’s physically violent tendencies.

 Why have producers of popular television and film sought to redefine the female criminal in a feminine and sexualised way?  One theory put forward by Tara Moss is that the femme fatale is a more appealing and consumable product for audiences of popular culture.  Kate and Tilly have been given eye pleasing features which Laura Mulvey states, allow them to function as sexualised bodies for the male gaze.  Kate and Tilly offer the audiences the opportunity to enjoy gazing at their beautiful bodies, a function which Mulvey argues is one of the key features of popular film and television. 

 Had Kate and Tilly been depicted as they appeared in real life, then perhaps the series Razor might not have had the same wide viewer audience.  Popular television and film are increasingly relying on the ‘sex sells’ concept to gain audience consumption.  The Underbelly series Razor provides a clear example of how popular history television is relying on sexualised female bodies for viewer consumption, and as a consequence Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine have been depicted in popular culture as sexually feminine bodies.



6 comments on “The Sexualised Bodies of Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine in Popular Culture

  1. merrynlynch says:

    Hi Kerrie,

    I’m so glad someone has written on this! Having studied Tilly Devine in one of my Law units I was amused (to say the very least) by her depiction in the most recent series of Underbelly.

    Your have engaged with primary source material (newspaper articles, photographs) to give us a real sense of what Tilly and Kate were actually like, thereby highlighting the differences from their representations on television.

    I agree with your assessment that these popular culture representations reveal society’s preoccupation with youth and the sexualisation of the female form.

    A wonderful read!

  2. Peter McDermott says:

    This was a really good read and I thoroughly agree with what you have said. I actually knew a bit about the 1920s razor gangs because I have read a lot about them prior to the underbelly series being made this year. I did find it amazing that they portrayed both Kate Leigh and Tilley Devine as businesswomen when they were actually both ruthless thugs.

  3. Connell Nisbet says:

    This was a very interesting, well-researched post. Although I haven’t seen the series, nor read much on the razor gangs, I was able to follow your reasoning easily and it certainly makes me want learn more about that period of Australian history – preferably from something more accurate than the Underbelly series. Although I can understand why commercial productions would glamorise this era in an attempt to secure financing, I think a much more engaging series would have been made if they actually cast women closer to the primary evidence you have detailed. I’d be curious to see if Tara Moss or the other writers made any reference to the TV series Prisoner, which at one point was the longest-running series on Australian television – it revelled in portraying women that didn’t conform to accepted gender roles, which I think was the secret to its popularity. Great work.

  4. tashturner13 says:

    I was really excited when I heard about your research project as I was also watching the Underbelly series at the time and was quite shocked when I saw photos of the real life Kate and Tilly.

    The way you have shown the differences in the media portrayal in comparison to the actual events that surrounded these women really emphasises how popular culture distorts facts to fit into particular consumer expectations. Crime based tv shows have been a popular genre to audiences in recent decades with shows like The Shield and The Sopranos glamorising the lifestyles of its characters. It will be interesting to see if the next Underbelly portrays events in a more realistic light, but maybe this will depend on how attractive the original characters are.

  5. This isn’t my official comment: I’ll be writing that later this week (waiting on a couple of posts that I *really* want to read / comment on). But here’s something that a search, inspired by this blog post (which I put to my twitter and facebook feeds): RT @dailytelegraph Making up for my evil gran Tilly Devine |

  6. Hi Kerrie,

    I have a few points to make which don’t necessarily agree with yours or those of our colleagues.

    Firstly, I enjoyed the series, except for the badly placed jazz-versions of music from our time. While that was an attempt at placing the series within our time-frame I would have thought that public-domain copies of music actually from the time in which the series was set would have been much better!

    In the TV Series (let’s call it Underbelly: Razor, or U:R) Kate’s role was *initially* sex-based but evolved into less sexual and more toward what she is better known for. You will find that the pics you used / found were from later in life, with actual mug-shots from the period at Yes, she is not quite like Danielle Cormack but she’s not exactly the person who was running the sly grog of the 20s and 30s either.

    I agree, however, that Tilly’s role (played by Chelsie Preston-Crayford) was definitely nothing like Matilda (, but the real Matilda looked nothing like the real Kate Leigh either! I think Nellie Cameron’s role (Anna McGahan) was the closest one to the real thing (, but that makes sense as a working girl!

    However the roles of Kate and Tilly on U:R didn’t pull any punches. Both “ladies” displayed violent tendencies but had henchmen to do the really dirty work. In the series, when Tilly was stood up by Jim in London, she returned to Maroubra with a razor blade for her future ex-husband! And then there was Kate’s treatment of an intruder who met the business end of her shotgun.

    But Kate had a soft side as well, which was indicated in that same scene when she held the intruder’s hand while he cried for his mother as he died from her wounds. In real life, she was a great benefactor to the Catholic Church! Her obituary at gives examples of this.

    I love, like Tash above, that someone actually covered this subject- I was damned sure that things weren’t exactly as they were portrayed! It has at least piqued my interest in researching the issue more deeply – I would be interested in reading the whole thesis! It’s even woken the dormant historian in my wife!

    Well done!

    See ‘”Underbelly” The Worst Woman in Sydney (2011) – Full cast and crew-

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