The Mastermind and the Maniac: How ‘Breaking News in Yuba County’ Highlights the Dimensions of White Female Criminality in Media

United Artists Releasing

Female criminality in film is not new, especially today. We see it all the time now in films like Ocean’s Eight (2018), The Kitchen (2019) and I Care A Lot (2020). However, the theme has a long history in the United States. Evolving from the women in prison genre, which can be traced back as far as the 30s, films such as Ladies They Talk About (1934), Caged (1950) and Caged Heat (1974) have shaped the future of the female criminals yet to come. Today, as noted by writer Jenni Holtz, glamorizing wealthy, conventionally attractive white women who commit crimes and get away with it has become a growing trend in film, most notably with the 2014 film Gone Girl. This ultimately begs the question: what happens when a white woman doesn’t fit in this trend? That’s where the film Breaking News in Yuba County (2021) comes in. 

The film follows Sue Buttons (Allison Janney), a warmhearted but meek housewife who is underappreciated by the people in her life including her husband Karl (Matthew Modine) and her sister Nancy (Mila Kunis). Sue is the kind of woman who recites daily affirmations and buys herself a cake on her own birthday. But when Sue walks in on her husband cheating on her and he dies of a heart attack from shock, she decides to take action, crafting an absurd story of her husband’s abduction. Suddenly Sue, who was once boring and sad, becomes a household name in Yuba County, the face of local news and eventually, a renowned author.

Although she contradicts this trend of films that feature a rich, beautiful white woman who commits revenge crimes, Sue manages to walk away from the damage she has caused completely unscathed. But in the end, even as she relishes in her glory, her actions are branded as insane. Sue’s story reveals that despite the ways in which criminality divides white women into two categories, the beautiful mastermind or the unattractive maniac, female criminals continue to uphold a similar narrative that the root of their destruction stems from some form of emotional distress.

20th Century Fox

Sue’s story is one that we’ve seen before, one that greatly resembles the story of Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) from the 2014 film Gone Girl. Upon discovering that her husband has been cheating on her, Amy seeks revenge by constructing an intricate plan to frame him for her murder. As the story unfolds and viewers see how the Dunne’s marriage dissolves over time, Amy’s motives become more clear. She is a woman filled with pain and rage, therefore, not only is she able to carefully calculate the destruction of her husband, but she can get away with it too. 

In an article for Lithium Magazine, writer Kaiya Shunyata points out that Amy represents the core of white womanhood. “She gets away with brutal crimes time and time again because she’s beautiful, rich, and white,” writes Shunyata. And yet, viewers still feel compelled to cheer “good for her.” This is because, as Shunyata argues, Gone Girl is one of the many films that falls into the growing subgenre “good for her,” which stems from an Arrested Development scene turned meme. “More often than not,” adds Shunyata, “this genre weaponizes white womanhood and is only interested in traumatized and brutalized women.” And it’s this specific kind of white woman whose pain and trauma is allowed to evoke not just sympathy from her viewers, but support.

While Sue contrasts this trope, which makes her unable to elicit the same kinds of emotions from her audience as Amy does, her ability to wreak havoc and get away with it ultimately upholds the same narrative that female criminality and destruction requires some level of emotional distress, which, more often than not, stem from her relationship. Her story calls attention to the other kinds of women also not included in this trend, particularly those who are neither wealthy nor attractive, and may not be considered “normal.”

Disney+

This is something that’s visible and briefly explored in the recent Marvel limited series, WandaVision, which shows Wanda Maximoff’s life after the events of Endgame. Blending different styles from classic American sitcoms with bits of Marvel magic, the show focuses on how her new life in Westview stems from a tremendous amount of trauma and grief. In addition to the ways in which WandaVision addresses (and fails to address) Wanda’s own trauma, it also touches on female pain more broadly by incorporating characters such as Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) and Agatha Harkness (Kathryn Hahn) who have also experienced pain such as loss and rejection. Yet, some critics argue that due to misogynoir, the show not only fails to utilize Monica’s potential, but it distinguishes her as different, regardless of her connection to Wanda. And much like the films preceding WandaVision, we see Wanda, another white woman, walk away from it all in the end.

Characters like Wanda and Sue, who each have experienced great pain, demonstrate how media simultaneously includes and excludes women from the category of criminal masterminds. While female criminals share a similar trauma that is the driving force behind their destructive actions, certain women who do not fit the category’s required socioeconomic status and level of beauty or normality are quickly ostracized and characterized as maniacs.

United Artists Releasing

Perhaps this is what Breaking News in Yuba County attempts to comment on through Detective Cam Harris (Regina Hall). Authentic, intelligent and witty, Cam is one of the most relatable characters and serves as a trustworthy guide throughout the film, narrowing down the root of everyone’s problems to two white women: Sue Buttons and her husband’s lover, Leah Norton (Bridget Everett). When Sue finds Leah with her husband, which causes her husband to die of a heart attack, the two briefly panic over what to do next but Sue decides to take control of the situation and let Leah avoid any consequences.

However, when Leah later reappears at Sue’s house, threatening to tell the police the truth, Cam watches their argument unfold on Sue’s front lawn. “I swear to you these white bitches are crazy,” Cam says to herself. Besides providing a splash of humor in a mostly dark film, Cam’s remark serves as a powerful commentary on the genre of women in crime, emphasizing the divide between wealthy, attractive white women and white women who are outcasts such as Sue. Furthermore, Cam’s position as a Black woman and the main detective on this case highlights her perspective on the story as a whole.

Even though Amy Dunne and Sue Buttons contrast one another, representing the two distinct sides of white women in crime, they both ultimately symbolize the privileges of white womanhood. The juxtaposition of their stories remind us that while we often feel for these white women, we cheer only for some at the end of a film.

by Brianna Silva

Brianna Silva is a queer Latinx writer who loves coffee, reading and all things horror. Some of her favorite films include the Saw series, Moonstruck, The Big Blue and Pink Floyd – The Wall. You can follow her on Twitter @brisilvv.

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