True crime is the highest growing genre of content in every media platform with thousands of rabbit holes open for people to go down on. But, it does raise questions pertaining to the ethical sustainability for consumers, which are primarily women.
The Female Majority
From a few studies, it was found that there are more female listeners for true crime content though men typically were of a higher listenership when it came to podcasts in general. In the U.S. in 2021, it was found that 51% of podcast audiences were male whereas 46% were female.
In a study conducted by Amanda Vicary and R. Chris Fraley, it was found through analysis of Amazon.com reviews, women tend to gravitate towards a true crime book whereas men would lean towards war and gang violence books. Further, women wrote 70% of reviews on true crime books whereas men wrote 82% of reviews on books about war. The gender of the author of true crime books had no role in the preference.
Fraley points out that typically men are more likely to commit violent crimes as well to be the victims. They suspected that women prefer true crime as it allows for them to have information that can potentially help them avoid or escape an attacker. This coincides with previous studies which state that women are more likely to fear becoming a crime victim. Additionally, society tends to associate masculinity with blood and gore, which is, naturally, found in many true crime cases.
Vicary states that though women had higher levels of anxiety listening to a true-crime podcast, their motivation to continue with the content increased as their anticipation for what happens at the end of the episode.
This causes them to rise beyond the levels of discomfort and fear that they are feeling when consuming distressing content as they feel it is worth it to get their fix of true crime that they crave.
In an interview with Rhea Gandhi, a Mumbai-based psychotherapist and counsellor, she suggests that because true crime content sheds light on the thought processes of criminals, women are able to understand the mindset of criminals.
Women learn how to, knock-on-wood, cope when dealing with horrible situations and recognize red flags that could lead to violence. Further, they gain a sense of justice as it reflects their “desire to be a part of social and legal systems that work tirelessly towards women’s safety and protection”.
Dr Sharon Packer, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences, states that true crime can feel like a dress rehearsal as women learn strategies of what to do in preparation if they so happen to end up in a dire situation.
They also feel a sense of relief as they become grateful that they are not going through the same thing. At the very least, it causes desensitization of crime that may be unnatural for many. Women are known to have a higher level of empathy and so, as Dr Howard Forman, a forensic psychiatrist theorizes, they find the stories more relevant and gripping. This trait also causes them to be more curious about the backgrounds of criminals.
True crime enables people to learn about the ins and outs of actual crime, for example, in a study conducted on undergraduate students, it was found that the students who watched a lot of crime shows were better at planning a crime. In this case, the crime was to break into a home without being arrested.
This is called the ‘CSI effect’ wherein people are learning practical lessons, even if they do not choose to commit a crime.
Further, systemic racism within the crime landscape can be exposed. Kristen Marston, director of culture and entertainment advocacy, states that Black women are rarely shown as victims of violent crime. Hence, implying the innate biases that creators of true crime content tend to have as they pick and choose what story is worth telling and in turn, depicts ideals of the society of whose lives are valued most.
The Missing White Woman Syndrome is a sociological phenomenon wherein white victims of crime are covered more in comparison to Black, brown, or Asian victims. Similarly, white male perpetrators such as Ted Bundy are given more of a humanized view whereas Black people are demonstrated as one-dimensional and dangerous beings.
Netflix is a source of abundant content that enables viewers of all genders and races to get a deep dive look into the minds of criminals. A Google search of the words “netflix true crime” brings up hundreds of articles from various outlets naming the top 10 or the top 28 documentaries pertaining to the genre.
Hence, it is safe to say that the millions of viewers worldwide have an insatiable appetite for works that surround crime; it was found that cumulatively, the top 18 true crime documentaries on Netflix have spent 232 days in the top 10 of the platform. Parrot Analysis, a media-tracking company, states that the documentary genre has grown in popularity, leading to a 63% of the number of series produced from January 2018 to March 2021. Specifically, true crime documentaries rose the highest amongst the other sub-genres such as science and historical documentaries.
Exploitation in True Crime Documentaries
Critics have suggested that true crime documentaries may not always be truthful in the stories they share in an attempt to build dramatic flair. This is in part due to the exploitation of victims and their family members which can diminish their lived experiences. Especially in relation to an earlier statement regarding the humanization of perpetrators, there are greater chances of these types of mistakes occurring in the production of documentaries.
In a Netflix documentary titled Night Stalker, it was found that though the victims were highlighted throughout, the story was centered around Richard Ramirez, the perpetrator.
This dilutes the impact of the crime on its victims that are typically in fault due to the way shows are edited. The real victims and perpetrators become characters in the viewer’s minds that are made for the sake of entertainment. Further, when exploring a family case such as the Menendez case, it can be exploitative for deep family secrets to be put on display.
However, many argue that the intrusive nature of true crime is rationalized by our innate curiosity. Also, there are moments wherein the large reach of a massive streaming platform can help raise awareness to solve cases and provide closure.
A recent example would be The Tinder Swindler, released in February 2022. The aftermath of the production of the documentary enabled women to be aware of the crimes that Shimon Hayut has done over the past few years through three of his victims’ stories: Cecilie Fjellhøy, Pernilla Sjöholm, and Ayleen Charlotte.
At the time of writing, it was found that the Israeli diamond magnate has sued him for impersonation as he was using the name Simon Leviev on the dating apps, Tinder and Hinge as a way to scam women out of millions of dollars.
However, it can also be noted that the popularity of the documentary has given him a platform that allows him to charge $20,000 for club appearances, specifically in places such as the U.S., Germany, and Mexico.
Further, he has also signed with Gina Rodriguez, a Los Angeles based talent manager, with which he hopes to write a book, host a podcast pertaining to dating dos and donts, and star in a dating show. Thus, providing a real-life example as to the pros and cons of documentaries such as this one in terms of the effect it has on victims and perpetrators.
The byproduct of True Crime
Despite the large popularity, the ethics behind consuming true crime content seems to have blurred over the years. The show Only Murders in the Building, which premiered in 2021, acts as a humorous satire about true crime and the dangers that come from it.
Specifically, how investigating a potential murder case can lead to chaos as a person whose skill set is derived from a podcast and/or YouTube videos. Chris Cook, a private investigator in California states that crime-obsessed people have actually derailed investigations.
Only Murders in the Building follows a trio, Mabel, Charles, and Oliver, played by Selena Gomez, Steve Martin, and Martin Short who become a murder-solving team whilst recording episodes of a true-crime podcast that they start after discovering that a homicide has happened in their apartment building.
Outside of being a comedy show, it sheds light on the true-crime craze that causes people to do things that they probably should not be doing. Cinda Canning, played by Tina Fey, is a famous true-crime podcaster who was the one who inspired the trio to start investigating the homicide and consequently make an amateur podcast themselves.
In recent times, online sleuthing or internet sleuthing has been an issue for true crime cases. An internet sleuth is a person who searches the internet for information on a person or event to do detective work. Though there are many positive incidents wherein internet sleuths have been able to help detectives, for example, the Gabby Petito case, there are many risks to this.
Important mistakes could be made such as a case from the 2017 Charlottesville Unite the Right march wherein people on social media identified an innocent person who was not in attendance of the march. This led to people on the internet posting his address, demanding he gets fired from his job and accusing him of being racist.
Online sleuths do not have protocols to follow and tend to practice doxing, which is a malicious act wherein a person reveals someone’s identity or personal information online such as their name, address, financial information, etc. This falls under the laws of cyberstalking, harassment, and threats.
Tiffany Ferguson is known for her YouTube series called Internet Analysis and one of the videos titled Deuxmoi & the Normalization of Stalking Celebrities explains how online sleuthing plays a role in issues of privacy amongst those with a platform, more specifically celebrities.
Deuxmoi is an Instagram account wherein people can anonymously submit celebrity stories and gossip that are later reposted on Instagram stories. Sometimes these claims would lead to news articles that confirm the story, however, contradictory rumours and false claims have been published occasionally.
Though she has posted disclaimers that since it is her private account, she can reveal whatever she desires.
It is noticeable that the administrator of the account is unintentionally providing people with a sense of entitlement to go out of their way to be amateur paparazzi to support their anecdotes for a shot at having their moment of fame for 24 hours.
Ferguson poses multiple questions that essentially focus on the contradiction between the Deuxmoi community’s, including the administrator, need and want to stay anonymous while spreading rumours and information about celebrities that disrupt their right to privacy.
There is an obvious power difference between an Internet user and a celebrity. However, Deuxmoi’s lack of accountability and indifference towards the responsibility they have as an Instagram account of more than one million followers is something that Ferguson further analyzes. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Deuxmoi states:
“I run an Instagram account. It lives in the phone. It’s not real life.”
But, this is not completely true as the stories that have been shared on the account can sometimes have real repercussions. Hence, it is almost counterintuitive that she feels as though she is separated from the behaviours that she is fostering within her community.
There are instances of screenshots of blind items, wherein parts of a story are removed by replacing them with ‘A-list celebrity', which is done as the information given is sensitive.
However, she encourages people to work together to solve these, leading to Facebook and Reddit groups solely dedicated to this. The ethical implications of this practice and unmasking the truths about gossip is undoubtedly a major issue of celebrity culture.
Overall, the exploitation of the lives of real people can be tied to our curious nature that trickles down to the type of content we consume, dramatized or not. True crime aficionados and gossip hunters may be well-meaning. But, in this day and age where all and any type of content is readily available, it is our responsibility to maintain a reflective eye on what we are consuming.