True crime is a nonfiction literary, podcast, and film genre which examines actual crimes. It focuses on real-life criminal cases, often involving murder and serious crimes. They often explore the motivations behind the crimes, the investigation, the legal proceedings, and the aftermath. True crime shows are becoming increasingly popular, especially among women, white women. This near obsession has raised concerns about whether we should be concerned about the popularity of this genre.
Reasons for the obsession with true crime
A variety of reasons have been advanced for the rise of true crime viewership so no monolithic answers will do. The stories:
- Humanize the victims and allow their stories to be told.
- Can shed light on systemic issues and injustices. This is especially true when they focus on the marginalized such as in When They See Us and its focus on the violence of the racist criminal justice system.
- Allow women to talk about and explore vulnerability and the fears they live with. It could be a way for a woman watching to process the anxieties of living in this society where violence against women is an ever-present threat.
- Help women feel like they can understand the criminal mindset which can be reassuring, even empowering. It helps them feel like they can arm themselves, protect themselves and even say escape if they are ever kidnapped. It can be an opportunity to learn and is evidence of people’s curiosity about what makes people do the unthinkable.
- Trigger the release of adrenaline. Adrenaline is a hormone that produces a powerful, stimulating and even addictive effect on the human brain. True crime triggers fear and this euphoric effect that keeps us coming back.
- Allow people to preserve their belief in justice. Seeing people who commit horrific acts caught and maybe jailed can be comforting, allowing us to keep believing in the effectiveness of the systems we have set in place.
The problem with true crime
Missing white woman
Missing white woman syndrome is a term that describes the media’s outsized attention given when young, able-bodied white women disappear. True crime shows disproportionately feature attractive middle-class white women, ignoring the people who are more likely to suffer violence in our society. Black men, sex workers and others who are the primary victims of violence rarely make it to the shows. Casting white women as victims can also reinforce stereotypes that cast people of colour as perpetrators and inherently criminal.
The ways true crime shows frame the legal system from policing to the courtrooms is often misleading. Courtrooms, for example, are curated as a space with constant intensity and drama. Everything is amped up to serve the narrative needs. In countries like the United States which have a jury system, potential jurors often already have skewed views and expectations. These shows perpetuate serious misunderstandings and misconceptions about the criminal justice system.
The shows also often narrowly focus on individuals, failing to pick up on the systemic issues at play. They focus on the perpetrator, sometimes sensationalizing them enough for them to get a fan base. True crime shows. in the interest of crafting engaging narratives, ignoring the broader social, political, and historical contexts that can shape criminal behaviour.
One key criticism levied against true crime shows is how exploitative they are. The stories are sensationalized primarily for entertainment and profit. People’s traumas, the most horrific moments of their lives are played for the entertainment of strangers. Even when victims and their families beg production houses not to proceed, the profit motive is often too great an incentive and they are often ignored. Sometimes they are not consulted at all like in the Jeffrey Dahmer documentary. One family member of the victims said of the show, “It’s sad that they’re just making money off of this tragedy.” This is one of the biggest indictments against the genre. It retraumatizes families for profits.
Entrench current systems
One reason people are drawn to true crime shows is they preserve our belief in the functioning of the criminal justice system. This then functions as evidence of the success of a system that is so incredibly flawed there are calls to abolish it altogether. The criminal justice system disproportionately punishes people of colour and poor people. It’s an unjust system that doesn’t serve people and has no place in a just society yet true crime shows make it look like they are necessary for society to function and for us to be safe.
Many people acknowledge the problems with true crime shows and enjoy them as a guilty pleasure. As bad as they may feel about them and their effects, they just can’t stop. It’s not all bad though, some shows do a great job, focusing on exposing the failures of law enforcement and miscarriages of justice, imbuing true crime shows with revolutionary potential. I suppose if true crime is your thing, you just need to choose the ones that do more good than harm.
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