The Gendered Appeal of True Crime

When I was in Form 2 (now called Year 8), our teacher set a transactional writing exercise: Does violent media make a culture more violent?

I’d never heard of Rudine Sims Bishop who, five years earlier, in a different hemisphere, had been writing about how story functions as a mirror as well as a window, and also as a sliding glass door. I could’ve applied this to violence as well as to representation if I’d known about it.

This was pre-Internet. I had no opinions on the topic of Violence In Media. My essay got stapled onto the classroom cork board, I remember that much. This was a minor humiliation because the teacher had ruled a red line through my final sentence, which is the one sentence I do remember: ‘So what are you going to do about it?’ My passive attempt at turning punk was thereby stymied for all to see.

I’ve since thought more on this topic. I’m close to someone who sometimes plays first person shoot-em-ups and reads extensively and deeply about war, yet he’s the most laidback, non-confrontational person I’ve ever known. He rejects any claim that there’s a direct causal, one-way link between violent content and violent behaviour.

On the other hand, the analysis of someone like Anita Sarkeesian (Feminist Frequency) demonstrates that if we regard media as a corpus, the corpus becomes a behemoth and gains the power to influence culture itself. Not one of us is fully immune to that.

More recently I’ve been mulling over the fact that women are the main audience of true crime stories. This doesn’t surprise me at all, in part because I am a woman with some appetite for (thoughtful, well-handled) true crime.

I do get to a point where I can’t take any more, but I am fascinated by the semi-autobiographical works by Helen Garner, who attends trials and then processes her own feelings on the page. (See Joe Cinque’s Consolation and This House Of Grief.)

I stopped listening to Casefile (a popular Australian podcast) when I noticed the anonymous host fails to pay victims sufficient respect. In line with the media reports he’s been reading as research, he is inclined to make excuses for male perpetrators of domestic violence.

In contrast, I admire the work of Laura Richards, a British Criminal Behavioural Analyst who critiques true crime shows on her podcast, and who is also active in changing outdated laws which put victims at further risk. Richards has changed the narrative around coercive control. In her discussions, Richards makes a point of acknowledging the victims and humanising them.

TRUE CRIME AND WOMEN

Like all kinds of stories enjoyed mainly by an audience of women, there’s a lot of dismissive harrumphs around the category of true crime. Why would you even read that? Is that not revelling in violence? Aren’t you supporting an industry that requires violence? And surely, surely, violent stories make us more violent, whether or not these stories are ostensibly true. (And what about paying respect to the privacy of victims? An adjacent matter; many families want memories of victims preserved via amplification.)

Women are unquestionably taught to be more fearful than men. Though men are more likely to be the victims of violence, women are more likely to be victims of certain kinds of violence. Women perform all sorts of invisible labour in the name of keeping ourselves safe.

These measures range from ritualistic and self-soothing — e.g. keeping a gun in one’s handbag, to semi-effective at an individual level — e.g. leaving a party before midnight, pleasantly buzzed rather than impaired. (The perpetrator will then find someone else, which is why there should be no broad service announcements urging women to keep safe.)

Are we looking at these true crimes because we can’t look away, akin to rubbernecking past a car accident? Is it because we are trying to understand a foreign mindset? What would make someone do that to another human being? If only we could learn to identify a dangerous person, we might then avoid him.

Perhaps that’s part of it.

A few writers have helped me think about what crime might do to help us, psychologically.

First, a closing paragraph in the second essay of Not That Bad, edited by Roxane Gay.

In her essay “Slaughterhouse Island”, Jill Christman describes a self-defence class in which she learns: Unless we are able to imagine performing acts of self-defence on a perpetrator, we’ll never be able to carry them out in real life.

In that vein, might reading about acts of violence prepare us mentally? Similar experiments have been done in sport. We know that when athletes imagine putting balls through a hoop, this helps them to actually put a ball through a hoop. (We’re talking at an elite level, when physical prowess is eclipsed by mental preparation.)

The most famous contemporary example of fiction influencing real life is perhaps the true story of Terra Newell of the Dirty John true crime podcast. Terra inflicted fatal injuries upon her mother’s abusive boyfriend after he tried to kill Terra outside her apartment. Terra cites her interest in The Walking Dead as the reason why she knew to go for his eyes. She stabbed at him as she’d seen zombies do on the show.

This is a rare example of a happy ending. John Meehan was impaired due to drug abuse at the time, Terra was at peak strength due to her age, and unusually strong because of her job working with dogs. But Terra’s story has such a cathartic, satisfying ending that Dirty John was a huge success with audiences, first as a podcast and later as a Netflix series. How many of us thought, You know what, if that happens to me, I’m gonna fight like a zombie as well.

Separately, I came across the following article and thought of procedural crime, fictional or otherwise: Seeing The Unseeable: How viewing crime scene photos can be beneficial.

Allowing bereft families to view images from crime and accident scenes can offer them a path to healing.

If a focus on crime detail helps real people in real situations, perhaps when we endure gore in crime story, an audience is somehow — though safely distanced from it — creating our own ‘path to healing’ in what we are led to perceive as a dangerous and violent world.

And if women experience the world more fearfully than men do, it makes intuitive sense that women achieve a higher psychological reward from crime narratives.