Skip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.

Opinion: It’s time to examine the ethics of true crime consumption

  • 0
Opinion: It’s time to examine the ethics of true crime consumption

A girl I know has a bright pink rhinestone-encrusted container of mace on her key chain. It’s meant to be a cute accessory, but all the glitter and girly decorations in the world won’t change what it is: a weapon. It’s a symbolic reminder of the reality those perceived as feminine live in: we are not safe. Out of 1,000 sexual assaults, only 25 perpetrators will be incarcerated. That’s 2.5%.  

True crime has exploded over the past few years, especially considering the popularity of the recently-released series about Jeffery Dahmer, which is now Netflix’s ninth most-watched English language series of all time. It’s a morally ambiguous genre, and people who consume true crime should critically examine the impacts and consequences of engaging with the genre. 

In a world where one in three women will be victims of violence, there’s something appealing about watching a villain like Ted Bundy or Charles Manson through true crime. They’re larger than life and can be put behind bars in a way that the systemic problems plaguing society cannot.

A 2018 study published in the Journal of Radio & Audio Media found that 73% of true-crime podcast listeners are women. When people try to explain their fascination with true crime, a few reasons may come up. The pragmatic argue that by learning about serial killers’ and rapists’ methods, they may be able to protect themselves. Others may want to understand a killer’s mind. 

From that 73%, the most “prominent” reasons they consumed true crime were entertainment, convenience and boredom, and that “three motivating factors were found to be significantly more salient for females than for males: social interaction, escape and voyeurism.” 

As a predominantly female genre, true crime sees a similar level of criticism as other “feminine” interests. We all remember the years of Twilight slander and hatred toward Fifty Shades of Grey. While many critiques made about this content have merit, the traditionally feminine media are held to much higher standards than those of their masculine counterparts. That’s why I’m not immediately sold on many of the mainstream criticisms surrounding the ethics of consuming true crime.

Critics often don’t consider women are likely to be victims of trauma, obvious or subtle, while living in a patriarchal society. Easy-to-consume true crime media like semi-comedic podcasts allow a detached, possibly traumatized viewer to feel powerful.  

Lately, I’ve been interrogating my own reasons for consuming true crime content only to struggle to justify the potential exploitation that I’ve been indirectly engaging in. I was looking for a defense for true crime, but the reasons found in the 2018 study on why people consume content in this genre feel pretty damning. 

It makes me think of Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, specifically when the protagonist’s wife Mildred and her friends watch a TV show where white clowns chop one another’s limbs off. But watching true crime can feel worse because these are true stories about real humans whose lives were tragically cut short. Their families are still out there, struggling with the crushing weight of loss, and we are laughing at pithy slogans like “stay sexy, and don’t get murdered,” a tagline of the popular true-crime podcast My Favorite Murder, hosted by Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark.

In a 2017 column for The New York Times, contributor Jes Skolnick writes about My Favorite Murder

“Its appeal is less about the details of the stories themselves than about Ms. Hardstark’s and Ms. Kilgariff’s friendship and their processing of their own fascinations with true crime.” 

Perhaps my comparison to Fahrenheit 451 is too harsh, but it feels questionable to turn these types of gory stories into easy listening or the cornerstone of a community. 

True crime is a diverse genre, and not all content is easy to consume. The Fact of a Body is a heartbreaking book. When I listened to it, I had to take several breaks, often just to cry. It evokes pain I know people in my personal life have faced so viscerally that I can’t imagine calling it “entertainment,” but I still chose to spend my time that way. I wonder if my second-hand pain makes the financial profit from a person’s death just like I’m paying out sorrow to some metaphysical bank as if that somehow benefits a woman who lost her child. 

People have always been interested in the dark, gory and macabre, and after all the arguments are made for and against true crime, people still choose to engage with the genre, mainly because it’s easy. 

I don’t have an obvious answer for whether or not true crime is morally OK to consume, but I think we need to be aware of what it is. It’s like remembering meat comes from animals. The content we consume does not exist in a vacuum, and if the reality of it bothers you, perhaps you should find another way to fill your time. 

Load comments