Contributor Izzy Caldwell is a third year English Literature at KCL with an interest in human rights literature, disability representation, and a good bit of jazz.
[Featured Image: Ten finger prints taken from a crime scene pressed on to a cream coloured police record card.]
The wonderful Anoushka Chakrapani recently wrote a great piece in Strand Magazine about her frustrations with true crime, and I suppose this is my response, or continuation of that discussion.
In her article ‘Our Problematic Obsession with True Crime’, Chakrapani questions why we are so fascinated by true crime. She analyses how contemporary artistic documentation of figures such as Ted Bundy and Andrew Cunanan exemplifies a ‘lack of objectivity and heightened glamorisation’ which manages to keep ‘Bundy, and many more, alive and even revered’. She concludes that ‘Hollywood’s obsession with romanticising violent men seems never-ending.’ To me, her analysis suggests that the very nature of true crime is voyeuristic and uncomfortable. The audience pokes their head in for just long enough to observe the horror, the trauma of abuse and assault, before exiting the film or TV space to continue with their day.
Through documenting the lives of these men, their actions and stories are retold from a certain gaze, and in these cases, from a gaze of a production company who need to make money. Consequently, the presentation of these stories inevitably play to cinematic and screen tropes to make the lives of these people accessible to the audience. The projects use household names, exciting soundtracks, stimulating locations. The stories are manipulated to suit the two-hour chunk or six lots of one hour episodes to form an emotional story and arc the audience connect to. The stories are presented in a way which appeals to the audience. The focus shifts so the stories become something we want to invest time and money into, which is extremely problematic, I think, when what is being manipulated to be accessible are acts of abuse, assault, murder and paedophilia.
On a very blunt level, why? Why, when there are so many good, diverse, interesting, stimulating stories to be told, do we focus on those of abusive, manipulative criminals?
Quite frankly, I’m bored of true crime. I’m bored of watching stories about – predominantly – white men being exploited for profit, being exploited so Zac Efron and the like can make an extra few hundred thousand dollars in the name of ‘telling the true story’. I’m bored of the stories being supposedly narrated through or for victims, but they consistently and predominantly show the perspective, the choices and the thoughts of the perpetrator.
By sharing the story, the men and their actions are publicised in a sphere of Hollywood parties and glitzy red carpets. The sexualisation and the glamorisation which comes from the pairing of Darren Criss with Andrew Cunanan, of Zac Efron with Ted Bundy, is undeniable. Not to be overly blunt, but Cunanan and Bundy – to name only two – are men who did horrible things. Why do we offer a platform – in some cases multiple platforms – for their stories to be reimagined by overpaid TV and film execs?
I feel as though we’re always looking for the other opinion, the different perspective: let’s look at Bundy through a semi-sympathetic gaze. Let’s see Cunanan growing up and then question why he did what he did. But why? Why do these stories need to be told from these varying perspectives? Why can’t we accept and believe testimonies of survivors, of victims:
the focal figures of true crime stories are criminals who have abused and manipulated, assaulted and attacked. Why give them a platform? Instead, why don’t we invest in film and TV and art which doesn’t provide a platform or reinvestigate men who have done appalling things?
This isn’t to say the only stories being told are those of white men such as Bundy and Cunanan. Hulu’s upcoming series on Gypsy Rose Blanchard is evidence of the shift towards observing true crime through the safety of a screen regardless of the gender of the perpetrator. The People VS O.J. Simpson, similarly, shows attempts at diverse racial representation in this arena. However, as ever, the staunch emphasis remains on white, male protagonists.
What I’m not calling for here – though I suppose some may consider it to be progressive and an adequate response – is equal dramatized representation of serial killers and abusers, regardless or gender, race, sexuality. There is the problem of that age old trope of the only story being told is that of the white man (this seen through the overwhelming number of true crime documentations being about white men in comparison to those on women or people of colour), but taking down the patriarchy is a task for another day. I’m instead questioning the necessity for consistently giving people who commit horrendous acts a legitimised, mainstream platform for their story to be told, commented on and fascinated upon.
My focus is on why we’re telling true crime, and how that becomes more problematic, uncomfortable and frustrating when there are seemingly endless lists of documentaries on rapists, abductors, child abusers, all of whom are white men. Why are we telling these stories, over and over and over again?
I understand the argument suggesting that we can ‘learn’ from watching these figures: they’re a part of history, a presentation of the human psyche different to our own, which is interesting to study and discuss. I acknowledge this argument, however a hyper sexualised representation of a serial killer shown in under two hours is not the best way to understand them or their actions.
There are so many stimulating stories to be told by so many interesting, complicated people. Why, instead of telling these, do we keep on returning to the likes of Bundy, investing in and making ‘legitimate art’ about white men who have done horrible things? On a perverse level, by only seeing these crimes committed by charismatic white guys, they become the only ones in our perceivable minds who can commit them. On a different level, why do we even want give them a platform in the first place? Why do we want to glamourize paedophilia, make abduction or assault accessible or comprehendible?
I’m not suggesting we erase the history or memory of these people. It is important that we are aware that there are horrible people who do horrible things. What I am suggesting, however, is that we don’t glamourize or sexualise serial killers and rapists, as we seem to continuously do, and that instead we invest in stories about people who haven’t abused teenagers.
There are so many good stories to be told. Can we start telling them?
[Image Source: http://onin.com/fp/fphistory.html%5D