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.