Challenging Assumptions in the Ashley Smith Case and Beyond

Rebecca Bromwich’s thesis explored what the Ashley Smith case can tell us about how women and girls are treated in our society. (Justin Tang Photo)

Rebecca Bromwich has faced her fair share of cynics, including a former boyfriend who told her she was “too much of a girl” to become a lawyer and an array of people who told her she couldn’t complete a PhD in legal studies.

Now 38 years old, a successful lawyer and the first PhD graduate of Carleton’s department of law and legal studies, Bromwich is challenging the misconceptions she says society holds about women – but not just through her own actions. Her research looks at what the media portrayal of former inmate Ashley Smith can tell us about how society treats women and girls.

“Every time you tell a story you include things and leave other things out,” says Bromwich, who is also receiving a Senate Medal for Outstanding Academic Achievement. “What happens is her agency gets lost – her subjectivity.”

Smith was a 19-year-old girl who strangled herself to death while under suicide watch at a federal prison in Kitchener, Ont. in 2007. The most popular narratives about Smith that Bromwich found in the docudramas and thousands of news articles she studied were of an innocent girl who didn’t belong in prison, or of a girl who was mentally ill.

“So my question is, I’m looking at what’s missing from the Ashley Smith case and how it’s portrayed,” she says. “What do they not say? What’s silent? What’s missing?”

While the narratives of Smith may be true, Bromwich says they’ve also deprived her of other relatable human characteristics, such as a girl with the ability to think for herself.

“There’s a ton of criticism about women and mental illness and how women are understood so easily as crazy, and that they never make sense,” Bromwich says.

“I think she never gets to be someone who is understood as someone we could be, someone we could identify with.”

As someone who had trouble in her own teenage years, Bromwich says she related to Smith. While the stereotype continues that “boys will be boys,” society is less likely to recognize girls as rebellious, she says.

Bromwich hopes her research, which she is presenting in the form of a book, will challenge people to think differently about Smith’s case and others like it in the future.

“I think it confirms that girls in particular are still not viewed as subjects, as people to be believed, as people whose actions create worlds, as people who make meanings. So that’s a problem,” Bromwich says.

“The agencies of girls are not well understood.”

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Kirsten Fenn

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