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.