Is It Possible to Fix True Crime ?
Women historians and investigative journalists are hoping to tell stories about women and violence in a more ethical way
AdvertisementCentering white women andconstantly turning theconversation back to a case like Jean Benet Ramsey or the college-aged women Ted Bundy murdered in the 1970s so often that we can now devote highly-rated comedy podcasts to rehashing those details is a convenient way for listeners to remove themselves from horrific realities. There are currently
2,306 missing Native American women and girls in the U.S., and 1,800 of those women were killed or vanished within the past 40 years. The majority of those cases remain unsolved. If podcasts are really to be a pipeline for women to get information about crimes happening right now to other women, it’s this information that most deserves to move to the forefront. But these stories are hard to tell in a way that feels sensitive to the collective trauma of so many who have or are currently suffering, and they’re not easy to hear.
One of the most memorable details of the court trial of the murderer I babysat for is that the friend who helped her bury her dead husband’s remains asked for a McGriddle on the witness stand while giving the testimony that would send her friend to prison—a fact I’ve laughed about with anyone who’s ever seen the true-crime television shows headtopics.com
that featured the case. And it’s not just her story from which I can automatically pull funny little details. There are hundreds in my head at this point. Mainlining murder directly into my ears via podcasts has, in the five years sinceSerialmade murder big business in the podcasting world, become my primary method of consuming it.
“A lot of women’s media outlets are trying to tell a wild story that could be potentially turned into something else”Any crime will do: the missing mom from Australia, the murder of the beauty queen from Georgia, the kids who realized as adults their dad was probably a serial killer, the perhaps journalistically unethical business of airing hours of a meandering phone conversation with a rural tinkerer right up until the moment he died by suicide, or attempting to find Richard Simmons when it’s possible he wants to be left alone.
AdvertisementThough oddly enough, podcasts have also finally gotten me to think about the ethics of consuming so much crime. Namely, the trigger warnings that come before the podcasts, previewing the horrors to come under the guise of caution. “A quick warning before we start the show,” the podcasts inevitably begin, explaining that the following podcast will contain murder, domestic violence, rape, child rape, kidnapping, torture, animal torture, grooming, sex trafficking, dismemberment, substance abuse, corpse abuse, and any other cruel and painful thing one human can do to another living creature. These trigger warnings have done what years of labels on countless packs of cigarettes have never been able to: Force me to think about what it is I’m putting into my body.
Even if murder can be funny, it almost always shouldn’t be. The problem with true crime as entertainment is that in attempting to tell a story that entertains an audience, the humanity of those involved in the crime often gets lost to the saleability of the story, especially as women’s media outlets attempt to find the next headtopics.com
Dirty JohnL.A. Timesfeature that became a podcast that became a television series.“A lot of women’s media outlets are trying to tell a wild story that could be potentially turned into something else,” says Justine Harmon, host ofO.C. Swingers, who has also worked at
ElleandGlamour. “These days a feature in a magazine has to pay for itself in potential for derivatives. Magazines unfortunately really have to be holistic in where resources are going. The old business model didn’t work and this is a sure bet.”But this new business model involves actual dead people, or in the case of
O.C. Swingers, living victims who still have not seen justice for their crimes. And though true crime is often touted as giving voice to the victims and families of those who have been affected by crime, it’s ultimately those creating the content who control the narrative. The distinction that separates faithful storytelling from sellable storytelling is one that worries Harman as well.
O.C. Swingersfocuses on the yet-to-be-decided case of Grant Robicheaux and Cerissa Riley, a prominent Southern California doctor and his girlfriend accused of drugging and raping multiple women. It’s a story that, even as Harman reports it, has veered off-course as public sentiment and D.A. backing of the case has pendulated back and forth, with the charges nearly being dropped after sympathetic headtopics.com
Good Morning Americacoverage of the case and then, in another twist, being re-pursued after an impassioned plea in court from a victim who is also a lawyer. It’s a horrible story, but also one that involves money, drugs, and what the title alludes to as a “swinger” lifestyle in an affluent part of the country.
AdvertisementFor better or for worse, the horror of a single person’s suffering will always attract more attention than the banal, mass human misery nearly everyone on Earth has trained themselves to look past on a daily basisOn one hand, Harman acknowledges that “true crime gives people permission to drool over something.” But on the other, before
O.C. Swingersprovided a larger platform to broadcast publicly available facts, such as court records, about the case, it’s possible that the accusations against Robicheaux and Riley would have disappeared, especially afterGood Morning Americaframed their story as a cautionary tale of wrongful accusations and unjust prosecution. “Seven women say something terrible happened to them and perhaps they should get the volume turned up,” Harman says.
But after three decades of “true crime” being sold as a guilty pleasure for majority-women audiences on networks devoted to often salacious crime programming, is it possible to take the genre seriously with a more academic makeover based on podcasts like
Serial,which ostensibly take the murder business out of the supermarket tabloid gutter and give it respectable NPR trappings? What’s the hierarchy of “good” true crime versus “bad” for a listener attempting to responsibly hear the details of another person’s tragedy to kill time on their morning commute? For many podcasters, especially those with academic or social justice reporting backgrounds, the difference lies in the intentions of the storyteller.
“We’re trying to craft a narrative out of the chaos of life,” historian Natalia Petrzela says about the impetus for creating her latest podcast,Welcome to Your Fantasy, which takes a holistic look at the origins of the Chippendales dancers, a cultural phenomenon in the 1980s. In the podcast, Petrzela explores all aspects of the public fascination with male strippers, tying its genesis to the ways in which women were left out of the sexual revolution but also looking at the lives of the dancers themselves, many of whom feel exploited by their experience. But Gimlet, which produced the podcast, describes
Welcome to Your Fantasyas being about “The dark and sordid history of global phenomenon Chippendales.” And the main focus of many conversations around the series is murder; a truly wild story in which Chippendales founder Steve Banerjee allegedly orchestrated the murder of his business partner and attempted to pay for contract killings of three other former dancers.
AdvertisementCrime doesn’t occur in a vacuum, but so much crime entertainment packaged as investigative reporting focuses on a linear path from violence to investigation to resolution, that it’s easy to forget that crimes are born of a time period and culture—a flaw that Petrzela, as a historian, believes that podcasts provide an avenue to correct, perhaps even more than academic research. “Podcasts, more than academic texts, allow enough offramps into the messiness, from racial discrimination within Chippendales, to classroom controversy in Peoria [over a Chippendales exercise video]. The podcast allows enough messiness to show through that life is not one neat narrative.”
Another woman podcaster hoping that she can use the genre to expose bigger injustice is Connie Walker, a former investigative journalist with the Canadian Broadcasting Company whose podcastStolen: The Search for Jermainuses the disappearance of a young indigenous woman in Montana as the impetus to tell the stories of centuries of missing, trafficked, abused, and ignored indigenous women in the region and all over North America. Its eight episodes are difficult to listen to, as Walker interviews Jermain’s friends and family about not only her disappearance but the violence they’ve faced in their own lives—from a teenager being left with no recourse than to punish her own rapist, then being punished for that retaliation, to an indigenous woman held hostage by her ex-husband for days before managing to escape. The violence endured by the women featured in the story is not difficult to take in because the framing of the podcast is unempathetic—it is hard to hear because the podcast chooses empathy for an entire community over a story that zeroes in on a singular act of violence, unlike so much other true crime that allows the audience to forget the larger world is generally indifferent to violence.
To Walker, it’s the difference between what her mentor, CBC host Duncan McCue,called storytelling versus story-taking. “We’re trying to take a trauma-informed approach,” Walker, who is also indigenous, says, noting that so much reporting about indigenous communities, especially on violence against indigenous women, parses the most salacious information from the story and then abandons that community once that sensational information has been broadcast, leaving those featured feeling revictimized by an ultimately for-profit story-taking venture.
“Non-indigenous, extractive-type reporting has done a lot of harm,” Walker says. “We’re trying to give people agency to tell their own stories.” The podcast format allows for months, even years of research, interviews, fact-checking, and storytelling, something Walker feels she didn’t have when she might have gotten 15 minutes to tell a story as a news reporter. And when an issue, like the hundreds, if not thousands, of incidents of missing indigenous women across North America is so much bigger than a singular story, that time means a bigger picture reaches a broader audience:
Advertisement“It’s a crisis,” Walker says, “Not a new phenomenon. It’s been happening for hundreds of years and has never gotten the attention it deserves.”The concept of “attention” is at the heart of all true crime. For better or for worse, the horror of a single person’s suffering will always attract more attention than the banal, mass human misery nearly everyone on Earth has trained themselves to look past on a daily basis. For twenty years, I’ve remembered the dark circles beneath the eyes of the woman who paid me to watch her children and then murdered her husband. Her story affects me literally not at all. In 2003, she was sentenced to 40 years in prison after a jury deliberated for just two hours. In 2005, the court declared that decision final at an appeal. But blood splayed across a living room floor in a crime scene photo in a 10-year-old episode of
Snappedand the sad-seeming, ordinary woman who splayed it are still both hard to ignore and difficult to understand, a puzzle I can worry for hours, along with millions of my morbid brethren who can’t resist a short peek into the worst moments of unlucky strangers’ lives just for the macabre intrigue of asking, “So what’s going on here?”Read more: Jezebel »
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As a genre, true crime has always been more about the novelization of a crime that occurred in reality than good faith attempt to disseminate the details of a tragedy for the public good.
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