How the art of True Crime both helps and hinders
Thanks to the introduction of streaming platforms such as Netflix, HBO Go, etc., the genre of true crime, not so popular otherwise, began to enter imperceptibly into the Bulgarian lexicon. Through series such as Tiger King and documentaries like the Tinder Swindler, the Bulgarian audience has access to the excitement of crime and fraud without the media details that are available to the American public. While that is a recipe for an interesting plot full of unexpected developments when it comes to productions based on real-life crimes the lack of context is much more concerning.
What is True Crime?
By definition, True Crime is a non-fiction literary and film genre in which the narrator examines a real crime and the actions of existing people. On the one hand, they can be highly factual, caused by the research of journalists, and on the other hand, they can be speculative, created by spectators and fans of the genre. The list of crimes that fall under the category of True Crime includes serial killers, disappearances, cults, financial fraud, robberies, rapes, political assassinations, etc.
What makes the genre interesting is that in the platforms that explain crimes, it is one of the most famous and watched. From documentaries and series to podcasts and videos on YouTube and TikTok, True Crime attracts the most fans. In 2020, series that are guaranteed to stay on the Top 10 list on Netflix are True Crime.
According to Professor Scott Bonn who teaches criminology at Drew University, True Crime is such a popular genre because it "causes the most basic and powerful emotion in all of us - fear." On the one hand, viewers encounter severely traumatic situations in an accessible and painless way, which can help with working through personal traumas. On the other hand, viewers have the feeling that by observing the crime process and learning from the victims, they can develop strategies to avoid such situations.
How does feminism relate to true crime?
Given that the main focus of the genre is too often aggressive and grotesque crimes, thanks to gender stereotypes and statistics about favourite movie genres, the assumption that the target audience of True Crime would be men is justified. However, contrary to expectations, according to some statistics, women are about 70% of the viewers of the True Crime genre. Additionally, prior to the popularization of documentaries, a woman is much more likely to marry a convicted murderer than a man. It is speculated that the romanticized interest in aggressive murderers comes not only from childhood trauma, which arouses sympathy for the victims but also from internalized sexism, through the prism of which the woman sees other women as a threat.
Another explanation is that experiencing the fear of the victims and understanding the aggressors' psyche, which the True Crime genre provides, helps women face their greatest fears. As the author Sadie Doyle shares, many women hold keys or pocket knives in the evening or do not go home alone because of the constant fear of a male aggressor. The True Crime genre gives viewers the opportunity to face the worst possible consequence of meeting a dangerous person, but it does so without the deadly and traumatic consequences. Although there is endless speculation about where women's interests come from, the fact is that the fictionalization of real crime attracts women en masse. This is exactly what makes the True Crime genre an object of analysis from a feminist point of view.
What does it contribute to society?
There is a thesis that the True Crime genre can be inspiring. Given that in most cases the aggressors are men, through the consumption of stories, women deal with and fight the age-old danger to women who exist in a patriarchal society. When a woman is able to hear the true story of the grotesque murder of someone who looks like her and was raised with the same warnings of danger, she feels stronger and able to face the ugly parts of life.
In addition, in the case of male aggressors and female victims, the genre often gives advice and ways to fight in case of danger. Given that life is much more dangerous for women around the world, it can be said that Margaret Atwood's statement is true:
"Men are afraid that women will laugh at them, women are afraid that men will kill them."
Even if it is said that the burden of stopping crime should not fall on the victims, in a society that does not want to face the reality of violence against women, it is good to provide methods and tactics for self-defence. And, like fables and folk tales, the True Crime genre educates women through others’ lived experiences.
What are the downsides of the genre?
One of the main downfalls is the other side of consuming frightening crimes. While for some it may be a survival tactic, for others such stories are proof of how dangerous the world is. To a large extent, the stories confirm prejudices and accusations that exist as stereotypes: If you sleep with strangers, then you deserve to be violated. When she's out in the middle of the night, she has to be more careful. Why did you go out dressed so scantily outside? Even informing about strategies against assault, the giant amount of True Crime productions can serve as a warning against free women as a phenomenon. After all, how free can a person be when a full half of the day is not safe? And it is the stories that are gaining popularity that are the ones in which women are victims, nevermind that 17% of serial murders are from women
Another drawback is related to the Black Lives Matter movement. On the one hand, in the plot of the genre, the police are more often than not the heroes, the ones who stop the bad people from doing bad things. The unspoken truth is that this is because in most cases in the stories, the victims are white women and the aggressors are white men. In reality, black women were the most frequent victims of female homicides in 2014 (4.4 per 100,000), followed by Native Americans and Alaskans (4.3), Hispanics (1.8), whites (1.5) and Asians and Pacific Islanders (1.2). The focus on white women as the main victims of violence stems from a deep history in Europe and North America, in which white women, living under the patriarchy, have no power or influence, but as a colonizer and part of the upper race, they responsible for preserving the white race. Precisely because of the need to protect white women, the police and the public are much more likely to pay attention to crime against white women than to victims of any other race.
The main, and in fact, the most dangerous, problem that arises because of the genre is the phenomenon of civilian detectives. As we have seen in the Depp and Heard case, the perception of legal cases and crimes as stories that can be solved by anyone can have a dangerous effect on the people on whom the stories are based. Victims' families may feel exploited by directors, especially when they receive no financial compensation, and even re-traumatized by the renewed media attention. Although their loved one has died tragically, families are forced to listen to discussions and even receive calls from fans. This is largely due to the great interest in the genre and the need for new cases.
However, the True Crime genre is no different from all other genres in that it has pros and cons. Criticism, as in the case of reality shows, aims to inform viewers and help for a more fulfilling experience. While media can be just for fun, critical thinking prevents us from falling for the aforementioned downsides of the genre. Instead of feeling guilty about enjoying something "problematic" or arguing about how good it really is for society, we can say that there is no genre without disadvantages and enjoy our interests.