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Playing with the Discursive: a Feminist Post-Structural Exploration of the Words 'Criminal Woman'

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posted on 2021-11-03, 08:09 authored by Beals, Fiona

In this thesis I examine the discursive subject of ‘criminal woman’ to uncover possible ‘gaps’ and ‘silences’ on the discursive ground on which ‘she’ stands. To do this I will apply a feminist post-structural reading, interpretation, and analysis to literature, and the experiences of two ‘women’ who have previously been imprisoned in Aotearoa/New Zealand prisons. This thesis begins with a description of myself, and my position at the start of my research journey. During this phase of my writing I will introduce the central theoretical constructs that will appear throughout my thesis, those of power, knowledge, power/knowledge, discourse, and subjectivity. I will also introduce here the ideas of Michel Foucault, and how these ideas have been developed in feminist post-structural theorising. I will follow my theoretical positioning with three extensive literature reviews, the first being criminological literature, the second penological literature, and the third the intersection of these two forms of literature, or that of the experiences of ‘women’ in prison. Through the literature I will show how the discursive subject called ‘criminal woman’ is a construct, which applies ‘gendered’ dualistic extremes to position the ‘criminal woman’ as either too ‘feminine’ or not ‘feminine’ at all. Subsequently, penological practices tend to ‘author’ the ‘criminal woman’ into these dualistic positions. In addition, feminist standpoint literature on criminology seems to offer only two positions to the ‘criminal woman’ that of being a ‘victim’, or that being a ‘mother’. This is further shown in the literature of intersections where the ‘criminal woman’ offers no resistance to penological practices but becomes a ‘victim’ to these practices, or succumbs to these practices in order to return home to her children. Following the literature reviews I will introduce my own research which involved a series of interviews with two ‘women’ who recently had an experience of confinement in Aotearoa/New Zealand prisons. In my methodology, I will discuss the assumptions I have carried into my research and the methods I used to interview Rene and Sophia. Through analysing the experiences of Rene and Sophia I will show how penological practices attempted to rewrite Rene and Sophia into the position of ‘criminal women’. However, I also show how Rene and Sophia resisted this authoring after prison through the constitutive positions of their ‘selves’ that they introduced in the ‘words’ spoken in the interviews. I conclude that Rene and Sophia did not fit within the defined and confined space of the discursive ‘criminal woman’, and what penological practices attempted to do was to “strip” (Rene) or “crush” (Sophia) into this constitutive position. I argue that the discursive position of ‘criminal woman’ does not define Rene or Sophia, and that a discursive violence occurs when research or theory attempts to define them as such. I conclude by looking back over my journey to show how my research does not stand in the domains of criminology or penology; that it stands outside of these knowledges through the theoretical positioning it uses. I look at what happens when ‘we’ as researchers, and readers of academic texts, use a theoretical knowledge to build our own understanding of the ‘criminal woman’ concluding that a need exists for more feminist post-structural reading and research. A type of research that attempts to question and disrupt the knowledges that create, recreate and surround the subject called ‘criminal woman’.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Master of Education

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Education Studies


Bird, Lise