Humans have always been fascinated with horror, from the popularity of public hangings, Truman Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’, to the dark interest in the OJ Simpson trial, true crime has always held a special place in our culture. One thing that true crime has always relied on is a binary view of good and evil, but it tends to overlook the social structures that create them, mainly toxic masculinity and gendered violence.
True crime popularity has exploded recently, especially among women, and its easy to understand why. It is captivating to watch, and dark serial horror is not new, Charles Dickens was doing it, and we are still doing it now. True crime is first and foremost, entertainment, but sometimes it can overlook the broader social problems that facilitate these crimes. Many of the crimes explored in the genre are symptoms of the toxic ways that gender, race and class are constructed.
Many true crime narratives follow the same formula… A beautiful (usually white) woman has been brutally murdered, and the investigation takes a deep dive into the psyche of potential suspects, and their motivations. The common theme tends to be gendered violence, and in most cases, domestic violence. This theme is so common that it becomes a trope, ‘its always the husband’ is quoted everywhere from serious investigations to the Simpsons. The idea of the man being dangerous and the woman being the victim is statistically proven, but often glossed over, because the reality of the situation is not why people are tuning in, its the drama of it.
Hadley Thomas, a reporter for The Australian Newspaper, has created a hugely popular and controversial podcast called ‘The Teachers Pet’, a well-researched discussion of Lyn Dawson’s probable murder at the hands of her husband, former professional footballer Chris Dawson. The story, deeply researched and empathetically presented, follows very dark themes, particularly about domestic violence. Thomas particularly talks about law enforcement being indifferent to the plight of the victims, instead focusing on the ego of the accused man and the belief in the ‘good bloke’ narrative. Notably, Thomas explores the idea that a man’s ego, especially a well known and admired man like Chris Dawson was prioritised over the life of a woman.
True Crime can often expose the victim to retraumatisation, and prioritise the villian over the victim of the crime in pursuit of drama. In the 2016 New Yorker Article Kathryn Schultz interviewed Penny Beernsten, who was a victim of a horrific assault, that is referenced in the Netflix documentary ‘Making a Murderer’. Despite explicitly saying she did not want to be involved in the project. Her private and very traumatic experience was published and used as a plot device and was streamed worldwide. So despite not being directly involved, there was effectively no way out for her, which put her at increased risk of re-traumatisation and further abuse.
It’s true that not all true crime glamourises violence, but it is a risk that a woman’s experience of violence and trauma will be used as a plot device to explore the psyche of a violent man is so common that it’s not shocking any more. You don’t need me to tell you that true crime often crosses into the territory of domestic violence, it’s a big problem, roughly one woman a week is murdered by a current or former partner in Australia. Intimate partner violence affects roughly 30% of women worldwide, and it the largest cause of death among women aged 15-55. True crime, because of its subject material, often follows these same patterns, but often only focused on the horrific end rather than the systemic issues. I get that people come to true crime to be entertained, but when there is such a large audience, I believe that it also has a responsibility to discuss the underlying issues that facilitate these crimes. True crime has a social responsibility to bring attention to the underlying issues of gendered violence and toxic masculinity that often define the crimes.
True crime can be a great at discussing the role of toxic masculinity in domestic violence, without mentioning either of these things explicitly. In ‘the teachers pet’ police were noticeably (if not criminally) lax in investigating Lyn’s disappearance, which Thomas suggests could be due to Chris Dawson’s prowess as a professional football player. My Favourite Murder, most notably, explicitly calls out toxic masculinity when they see it, my favourite quote being ’once again toxic masculinity ruins the party’, an honest and refreshing take on an issue that champions the victim, possibly explaining their massive popularity among women.
True crime profits from violence and that violence is often gendered, and although there have been steps in the right direction, true crime as a genre should call out the underlying factors of the crimes when they see it. Meaning they should be calling out the undercurrents of racism, toxic masculinity and harmful gender roles that dominate these crimes. It is vital that true crime champion women’s voices, and not only use women as a beautiful victim. Not just look at them as horrifying stories out of the norm, but the proliferation of the same, depressingly common problem.
If the recent popularity of true crime podcasts can show us one thing, people want justice, and by including a frank discussion of the underlying causes of these crimes, true crime as a genre could help push a discussion to the forefront and promote change.
What do you think of true crime?