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Maxine Carr: Victim, villain – or what?

Misogynists and feminists are both using double standards to judge her.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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Maxine Carr, notorious as the former girlfriend of Soham murderer Ian Huntley, has been released from jail amid a flurry of speculation and commentary.

Where will she go? What new identity will she adopt? How long will it take for a tabloid-fuelled mob to set itself upon her, and how should the broadsheets react when that happens? Is a High Court injunction designed to protect her identity necessary, and will it even work? That’s even before official cock-ups provoke new newsdesk interest – like the theft and rediscovery of Carr’s file from the car of the civil servant in charge of it, who had parked outside a pub where she celebrated a friend’s birthday.

The intensity of interest in Maxine Carr, and the strength of feeling about what should happen to her now and in the future, cannot be explained as a consequence of the crime for which she was convicted, and for which she has now served her time. Ian Huntley, former caretaker at Soham’s village school, murdered 10-year-olds Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells in the summer of 2002, was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Maxine Carr, Huntley’s girlfriend at the time, was found guilty of perverting the course of justice by giving Huntley a false alibi – clearly because she could not believe he had committed the murders. The jury found her innocent of the more serious charge of aiding and abetting an offender, thus accepting that she had not known or believed that Huntley was guilty when she tried to cover for him. Indeed, the trial evidence revealed Carr’s shock and horror as she became aware of Huntley’s guilt. For perverting the course of justice, Carr received a three-and-a-half year sentence, and her successful application for early release is a standard under existing rules.

The heightened interest in Carr results, not from the crime she committed in reality, but from the symbolic roles she has been assigned from the moment of her arrest. On one extreme, she has been branded a villain of the worst order – dubbed Myra II, in reference to the Moors murderer Myra Hindley, and described as scheming, manipulative, uncaring and all manner of other unfeminine characteristics. On the other extreme, she has been cast as a victim – a vulnerable, childlike figure prone to eating disorders and other self-destructive behaviour, preyed upon by the charming bully of Ian Huntley, and subsequently victimised by a misogynistic media and legal system that unfairly expects higher moral standards of women than men. All of this tells us far more about the dubious values held by today’s culture than about this woman’s crime or character.

Carr cannot be the first woman to be, unknowingly, girlfriend to a child murderer. One would hope that she is not the first woman to have provided a false alibi for the man she loved because she could not countenance that he had committed a terrible crime. For all the evil characteristics ascribed to her, she in fact comes across as a young, naive, not-too-bright country girl, misguidedly besotted with her boyfriend.

But because she is connected with the Soham murders, a case of peculiar poignancy and high profile, Carr’s infamy was guaranteed from the start. A combination of media circus and police PR turned the Soham tragedy into a gruesome morality play, with scant regard for the facts about the investigation or the feelings of the murdered girls’ parents. Little wonder that Carr was so swiftly ascribed the role of horror-movie villainess, filling the void left by the death of the original Myra in November 2002.

The ghoulish obsession with the Soham tragedy at the time revealed something of the degraded, fearful character of our culture today, which seems to get some kind of a perverse kick from uniting in condemnation of a brutal, meaningless murder. As Mick Hume noted in The Times (London), the continuing fixation upon Carr ‘smacks of the morality of the jailhouse, where every offender can take some solace from spitting at child abusers’ (1). Mainstream society, it seems, is so insecure in its own sense of morality that it needs certain figures to play the role of Really Evil, against whom the rest of us can think of ourselves as not that bad.

If that figure is a woman, of course, so much the better. Crusading feminist barrister Helena Kennedy QC thinks that the ‘unspoken misogynies’ of the Soham case are central to Carr’s vilification. ‘There is something repugnant in the idea that a woman might be involved in or cover up behaviour that involves violence or sexual abuse’, she told Joan Smith in The Times. ‘It’s about our expectations of women as protectors of the family and children.’ (2) She’s right, to some degree: for all the strides forward in sexual equality and equal treatment, bad behaviour by women is still viewed as abhorrent, and somehow worse than the equivalent behaviour by men.

These days, though, it is worth asking whether misogyny is any more to blame for this than feminism. Or, to put it another way, are inflated expectations of women’s nurturing instincts responsible for heaping all manner of opprobrium upon those who stray from the straight and narrow – or does the notion that all men are really paedophiles and domestic abusers mean that society only expects the worst from men?

The demonisation of Maxine Carr is disturbing in the extent to which it inflates one understandable crime – the provision of a false alibi for one’s partner – into the status of a multiple child-killing. But no less disturbing is the alternative view, which absolves her of responsibility even for that, and presents Carr as just ‘one more Huntley victim’ (3). In this scenario, which appears to be favoured by the likes of Kennedy and Sandra Horley, chief executive of the domestic violence charity Refuge, everything about Carr’s behaviour can be explained as a consequence of her emotional victimisation by the evil Huntley, and everything about the reaction to her can be explained by the male-dominated character of the justice system and media stereotypes.

This kind of victim feminism is as insulting to women as any residual cultural misogyny, and has more dangerous consequences for the just treatment of individuals before the law. For such arguments do not seek to abolish double standards in the treatment of men and women convicted of equivalent crimes, but to perpetuate and reinforce them.

For example, this week it has been reported that sentencing guidelines on domestic violence killings are due to change, to limit the defence of provocation often used by (male) defendants accused of such crimes. However, the Sentencing Advisory Panel also wants to retain the use of this defence by battered women who kill their husbands (4). This is not equality before the law, but built-in discrimination weighted in the interests of women. It can only be justified by the highly dubious idea that men can be expected to behave like murderous brutes, whereas women cannot – and if they do so on rare occasions, they are driven to it by men.

The introduction of feminist-motivated double standards into the law is already a familiar aspect of recent rape law reforms, and the new developments in domestic violence law reinforce an existing imbalance. These moves do not, as it is often argued, somehow ‘even out’ the imbalance of power between men and women – they make the exercise of criminal justice yet more arbitrary, by attacking even the principle of equality before the law. It is not only men that this damages, but everybody accused of any crime.

This is starkly demonstrated by the emotive see-saw of opinion about whether Carr is a villain or a victim. Double standards push one side to equate her minor crime with multiple child murder, and double standards push the other to absolve her of responsibility for breaking the law, and to call for her to be treated as a child upon her release, with the kind of media gags previously used to protect the identities of those, such as Mary Bell, who notoriously committed murder when they were children.

A just society would simply recognise that Carr is no Myra Hindley or Mary Bell – she is an adult who has served her time, and should now be granted the freedom and responsibility to get on with her own life.

(1) Maxine is not another Myra – or a Mary Bell, by Mick Hume

(2) Maxine Carr is one more Huntley victim: Why do we demonise her?, Joan Smith, The Times (London), 11 May 2004

(3) Maxine Carr is one more Huntley victim: Why do we demonise her?, Joan Smith, The Times (London), 11 May 2004

(4) Wife killers to lose defence of provocation, The Times (London), 11 May 2004

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Topics Politics

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