True Crime and Fairytales

Marina Warner once said, “Fairy tales are about money, marriage, and men. They are the maps and manuals that are passed down from mothers and grandmothers to help them survive.”

Couldn’t the same be said of true crime? Think about our most common true crime stories: wives killed by husbands, serial killers stalking women, murders committed for greed and money. Centuries ago, Little Red Riding Hood taught little girls the dangers of walking alone through the woods. Now, tales of Ted Bundy and the Green River Killer tell us the same thing. In the past, Bluebeard taught young women to choose their spouse with caution. Now, the backstories of Charles Manson and Joseph James DeAngelo offer red flags used to avoid violent or manipulative partners.

In a recent spate of articles calling for us to “kill off our true crime obsession”, however, you’ll find no such acknowledgment of the genre’s function in our culture. These articles frame true crime as voyeuristic or working to somehow glamorize serial killers like Ted Bundy. More bafflingly, other critiques suggest that the true crime genre somehow misrepresents the “true nature” of violence.

To be clear, I’m not disputing the idea that individual examples of the genre are lurid or exploitative. Some true crime is gross, we all know that (just look at the entire JonBenet phenomenon). And the same is true of some sci-fi, some action, some historical fiction, etc. I also think some trends in the genre are genuinely problematic, as discussed below. Yet, unlike critical takes on other aspects of popular culture, critiques of true crime tend to present the entire genre as irredeemable rather than call out specific bad examples or push for improved representation. Why? What makes true crime different?

I think this interpretation and marginalization of true crime as mere lurid trash needs to be discussed in the context of one major fact: true crime is by and for women, and it is about men as threats to women. I’m not suggesting that crime itself is always the killing of women by men; on the contrary, men are statistically more likely to be murdered. That makes it all the more significant that the genre of true crime is overwhelmingly focused on women victimized by men. It also stands out as one of the few truly female-dominated genres. Top writers and producers in the genre include Ann Rule, Sarah Koenig, Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark. Women make up a significant majority of true crime podcast listeners. From books to podcasts to film to documentary series, women dominate the discussion and consumption of true crime.

Returning to the quote at the beginning of this post, my position on true crime stories is that they, like fairy tales, are largely a mechanism through which women transmit and acquire information about patterns of misogynist brutality, and that conversation about true crime also provides a space in which women are able to express negative emotions and confront their own complicated feelings about men and violence.

True crime also resembles fairy tales in another significant way. Like fairy tales, women’s fiction, and other woman-dominated genres, it has been dismissed with condescension, with remarks about its luridness juxtaposed against supposedly superior forms of journalism. Given this background, no critique of true crime as a genre can possibly ring true unless it takes its gendered production and consumption patterns into account.

So what about the major criticisms lobbied against true crime? Let’s take a look.

First: True crime glamorizes men who commit violence, or somehow excuses their actions. The criticism of true crime as exclusively voyeuristic assumes identification with the killer, not with the victims or survivors. That’s a crucial mistake, and one that reveals a fundamental lack of awareness of how women talk about true crime. I’ve never once had a conversation about the hotness of a killer, but I have often discussed with other women the warning signs of a killer, the kind of men who are likely to kill their wives, the red flags victims missed. Beyond that, claims that shows like The Ted Bundy Tapes utilize terms like “charming” in order to glamorize him completely miss the context and point: in that show and virtually everything else ever written about Bundy, the takeaway is a cautionary one. The message is not that he was truly charming, but that he was able to deceive others. This information is a call for vigilance, a warning to women not to trust the apparent charms of men they do not have reason to trust, not a plea to empathize with Bundy.

Second: True crime misleads us into a fixation on unlikely forms of violence like serial killers, whereas other forms of violent crime are far more common. While it is true that serial killers are exceedingly rare, this claim ignores the significant links between serial killers and other forms of crime and violence, links that are well-known to the true crime fan. Listeners of My Favorite Murder have heard countless examples of men who initially committed a rape or domestic assault, faced few consequences, and went one to commit multiple murders, a pattern relentlessly called out by hosts Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark. This attention to the earlier crimes of serial killers is a consistent feature in true crime circles, and it functions to draw a link between common, expected forms of violence that a majority of women experience on the one hand, and the extreme escalation of that violence that is the serial killer on the other. This link serves as one of the most damning indictments of rape culture and the failures of law enforcement to take abuse and sexual violence seriously, which makes it deeply connected to the “true nature” of violence.

Third: True crime is disproportionately focused on privileged white victims and largely ignores the victimization of sex workers, women of color, and indigenous women. This one is 100% on point. There is absolutely no excuse for the fact that everyone in the US knows the name JonBenet Ramsey but few have heard of Sherrice Iverson. But, here’s the thing: the solution to this problem in the genre is exactly the same as with every genre with a representation problem. This is a problem resolved by doing true crime better, by highlighting the experiences of people of color, by actively amplifying diverse voices. It isn’t a problem that is solved by doing away with the genre altogether; suggesting that the entire category is irredeemable does nothing to call attention to violence committed against women of color.

My point here isn’t to convert people who personally dislike true crime. I think that’s an entirely valid position to take. My point is instead to suggest that, in a society just beginning to grapple with the depth of harassment and violence women face on a daily basis, we need safe, manageable ways to learn about threats and patterns of dangerous behavior. Men are more likely to be murdered overall, but it rarely happens at the hands of their partners. It isn’t because the killer hates men. Women die at the hands of their male partners, and they die at the hands of people who are motivated by a deep hatred of women. We can’t eradicate misogyny, so we need other tools. Safeguards. We need ways to warn each other of things like the risks of hitchhiking, the ways in which killers con their way into private homes, the methods women have used to survive attacks. True crime provides a way of passing this knowledge along. Just ask any woman whose mother first introduced her to true crime.

So the next time a journalist assumes women read about Ted Bundy out of a sexualized fascination with the killer, I’d like them to consider the alternative. Women might not be thinking about fucking Ted Bundy. We might be thinking about how to spot the next one. We might be reading the maps and manuals. We might be hoping to survive.

And our great sin has, apparently, been to dare to enjoy ourselves while we do it.

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On “Leaving the Politics Out” of Speculative Fiction

Today’s blog post was inspired by a small but notable trend in reviews (and the occasional creepy-ass DM) about SPINES and The Wandering Land. The sentiment of these messages can best be summed up as, “Sure, it’s well-written and has a good story, but why do you have to bring in the politics? I just want to be entertained, I don’t want to hear comments about racism and capitalism!” Since receiving this kind of feedback, I’ve been on the lookout for this sentiment aimed at other people’s work and. . . wait for it. . . It’s everywhere. Scroll through the reviews of the most acclaimed audio dramas, and you’ll inevitably find one by a disgruntled listener who complains that the number of queer characters in The Bright Sessions feels “forced.” If women in novels do anything other than faint or fuck, the acronym SJW will probably pop up more than once. Characters of color? Those are fine, usually, but if they actually experience or comment on racism, it “takes the reader out of the story”. The underlying assumption for these remarks is that the dialogue, concepts, and identities on display are unrealistic posturing rather than natural conversations that happen in a wide variety of environments and communities.

According to these readers, fantasy, sci-fi, and horror shouldn’t have characters who express opinions about racism, sexism, homophobia, or organized religion. There shouldn’t be a critique of capitalism underlying the final plot developments of SPINES. Characters shouldn’t use or refer to they/them pronouns. There should be magic and scares and adventure, but no politics. And by “no politics,” they of course mean characters with no political views or identities who differ significantly from that of the listener.

Just entertain me. Leave the politics out of it.

This is impossible. I don’t mean it’s a bad writing choice (although it’s also that). I mean it’s quite literally impossible to write an apolitical story, because the decision to create the illusion of an apolitical world is in itself a decision to bolster the status quo. That isn’t neutral. It’s political.

Let’s look at some examples. When writing the ensemble of five characters for The Wandering Land, I had three options. Option 1: make them all straight, white, middle class, and entirely content with the current political and economic situation in the US. Despite ticking the boxes for “neutral” and “apolitical” in many people’s minds, this would have been a deeply political choice because it would have offered an unrealistically homogenous depiction of the artistic and academic community of Tucson, thus reinforcing and supporting heteronormativity and a lack of diversity. That’s a political position.

Option 2: Make the characters superficially diverse, but don’t have them experience any racism, sexism, homophobia, or ableism, and don’t depict them as having a viewpoint shaped by their identity in any way. Again, this isn’t politically neutral. This is once again making a political choice by deliberately erasing systemic inequality and differences in perspective, but this time it’s cloaked in a thin veneer of palatable faux-diversity. Readers arguing for this position want an interracial relationship, but don’t want to be reminded of the ways in which interactions with racist family members lead to a strained dynamic. They want an Arab-American lesbian, but they don’t want her to have a perspective on queerness and sexuality different from that of the hegemonic white gay community.

Option 3: Make the characters diverse, and do the best job I can to depict them as having a political existence and views shaped by their experiences. This is a political choice because it is a deliberate effort to include diverse voices and to acknowledge the realities of structural inequalities.

I went with option three, but the point here isn’t really about why you should or should not write diverse characters. That debate, and the even more important debate on how to write diverse characters well if you come from a position of privilege, has been articulated far better elsewhere (such as in this Writing the Other roundtable). My point is to show that these options are all equally political. In choosing the illusion of an apolitical world and collection of characters, you are in fact just making a different political choice than I did. It doesn’t make it any less political, it just makes it more comfortable for a specific subset of readers.*

Of course, politics can be poorly integrated into a story. There are far too many examples of characters serving as mouthpieces for an author’s preferred utopia. If a character has been allowed to lecture another character in Ayn Randian fashion for countless pages, the writing sucks and the story suffers. But that’s not what’s going on here. This is punishing content creators for every passing remark or piece of dialogue that reminds the reader/listener that those with politics and experiences different from their own exist in the world.

Guess what? Working to frame worldviews different from your own as extraneous politics while propping up your own perspective as the assumed normative neutral a political act, bitch.

For those already gearing up to argue that it’s not the politics, it’s that the references are “shoehorned in” in some way, I’d like to suggest actually checking the runtime and/or number of political references in the story. Example: I recently saw a comment about the great audio drama The Strange Case of Starship Iris, focusing on the “forced” nature of the diversity and the fantastical notion of people discussing preferred pronouns upon first meeting. As anyone who has ever spent time in queer spaces can attest, introductions with pronouns are entirely commonplace for a lot of people. It’s not a weird conversation to have in an LGBT bookstore or in any number of other queer-friendly spaces. Moreover, the conversation in question occurred early in the series, took place over a minute at most, and was immediately followed by various acts of space-intrigue. In other words, this irate listener would have branded the presumption of binary pronouns as apolitical, but a minute’s discussion of gender identity qualifies as forced.

Or let’s take one complaint about The Wandering Land, which is that it is critical of organized religion (uh, yeah, dude, have you met me?). This presumably stems from scenes taking place in an Irish Magdalene institution, in which a young woman is emotionally and physically abused. This is a setting and situation ripped entirely from real-world events. I didn’t make up any part of it, and since it didn’t involve rape or the murder of infants it could be argued that I softpedaled it compared to the reality. Subsequent commentary by the characters is essentially restricted to one character making an angry remark about the Catholic Church being responsible for so many of the world’s problems.

Reader, if such blasphemy shocks you, I have terrible news about what your lapsed relatives have been saying about religion when you aren’t around.

When a diverse group of people with progressive politics hang out, there will be snarky remarks about religion, capitalism, and racism. There will be numerous people who do not identify as straight. You might not like it, but it’s realistic characterization for a story taking place in our world.

But what about fictional worlds? This brings me to another odd variant of the “no politics” complaint: “Writing political stories is fine, but this is sci-fi! I just want escapism, keep the politics in the serious literature!” In this category I would place several negative reviews I have seen for N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy, featuring some variant on “she’s trying to say something about slavery and racism, but I want sci-fi adventure! Not a history lesson.”

First of all, this idea of apolitical sci-fi displays a baffling lack of awareness of the genre’s history, which has made pointed political and social critiques from the beginning. Beyond that, however, it posits that it is possible to create an alternate fictional world that has no parallels or overlaps with our own. Even worse, it reinforces the view of sci-fi and fantasy as lesser genres incapable of challenging viewpoints or making statements in the same way as “serious” literature. It’s a strange kind of sci-fi fan who actively works to reinforce the genre’s position on the fringes of the literary world.

The reflexive response from conservatives at this point tends to be that only progressive politics get put on display, that there isn’t the same kind of pandering to conservative politics. But here’s the thing: every time a story features heteronormative relationships or an all-white cast of characters or assumes the readers’ familiarity with Christianity, that is political. And that happens all. The. Damn. Time. You just don’t notice it because your politics are constructed as the normative default. The cold hard truth is that if you are the type of person who takes issue with progressive politics, the vast majority of our written and visual media is still made for you. By definition, conservatism is the politics of the status quo, which means (again, by definition) that stories that don’t push political and social boundaries are politically conservative.

To sum up: there is no such thing as an apolitical story. It doesn’t matter if it takes place on the moon. It doesn’t matter if it takes place in fairyland. It doesn’t matter if there isn’t a single human character. There is no such thing as an apolitical story. There is only a choice between the politics that align with what the reader already believes, and politics that challenge them. Content creators do not owe you a story that “keeps the politics out of it”.

And, if you feel the urge to complain about a story’s politics, at least be honest about why. Be honest about the fact that you are centering yourself the default reader/listener, and you are uncomfortable with stories that do not seem to be entirely for or about you. That discomfort is ok; all of us who write and read from a position of privilege experience that. It’s when you refuse to confront that discomfort for what it is and deal with it that it becomes a problem.

*NOTE: To be absolutely clear, I’m not claiming to be an expert on writing diversity or to be the arbiter of how best to approach it. I feel like I can say I did the work to research and write diverse characters well, and I make it a priority to read work from people of color, disabled writers, and LGBTQIA people, but I leave it to readers to judge how successful I am in that attempt and I welcome any perspectives on things I could have done better. These examples are entirely for the purpose of discussing the myth of “apolitical” vs. “political” choices.

Patreon Fund

Hey all! I’ve decided to launch a Patreon page. My podcasts already have dedicated pages to support things like website and podcast hosting costs, but this fund will help me make progress toward my as-yet-unnamed follow up novel. I’m offering some pretty sweet goodies in exchange for your generous donations, so if you feel like some free flash fiction and free signed copies of my next book, head on over here to kick in a few bucks. Any donations are hugely appreciated. Every dollar makes a difference.