The trial concerning Casey Anthony, the mother charged with murdering her two-year-old daughter Caylee Anthony, has captured American audiences by the “millions” according to TIME. Hundreds of people stand in line for public seats at the trial nearly everyday. The details of the case are increasingly more gruesome, something that always guarantees viewership. The jury learned just this week that someone in the Anthony home used the family computer to research “chloroform.” Casey is accused of using such a substance to knock out her daughter and then of duct-taping her mouth shut. Brutality and even the murder of children by parents is something that we have seen in the news before, particularly by fathers. What makes Casey Anthony an even greater spectacle is that as a conventionally pretty, young mother, she contradicts everything that we culturally expect.
Cameron Todd Willingham was accused of setting fire to his home with his babies inside in 1991. In 2009 in Washington, a father shot all five of his children after learning that his wife was leaving him. Danny Platt killed his two-year-old son after owing his wife $4,000 in back child support. According to the NSPCC, a man kills a family member in the UK once every eight weeks.
While there have also been famous accounts of mothers murdering their children, these cases (such as Andrea Yates or LaShanda Armstrong) are almost always chalked up to “mothers snapping.” Too much pressure, too much strain, stressed and frazzled, these moms reached their breaking point — but never with intention. Despite how much the media loves a “murdering mom” narrative, these pressure cooker stories in which extreme stress or postpartum depression went unnoticed or untreated still keep with the intrinsically nurturing female stereotype: these women never wanted to kill their children. Mothers like Andrea Yates are typically depicted as falling victim to temporary insanity or loosing rational thought and that’s the true reason that they murdered their little ones.
What distinguishes Casey from the aforementioned cases is that more and more evidence is suggesting that she did methodically murder her daughter — from researching methods to executing a plan to going to considerable efforts to cover it up.
Robin Simon, a sociology professor at Wake Forest University who studies the effects of social relationships like parenting and marriage on emotion and health told TIME that Casey strays from the gendered expectations we have of moms:
This [case] goes against our view of human nature and socialization…A man killing his child is bad, but it doesn’t have the same resonance. We have very gendered views about parenthood and tend to think that women are better suited to raise children — they’re more nurturing, more connected — but this violates those assumptions.
Casey’s trial is not only horrific, but it also reminds us that mothers typically move through our culture with certain one-dimensional identities that don’t include the full range of emotions, severe character faults, or malicious capabilities most commonly considered possible in others. Her story is extreme and her crime is unforgivable, but the countless viewership that she accrues and the intense media speculation says just as much about us and what we assume as it does about Casey Anthony.