Like a lot of people, I’m not immune to the allure of the true crime genre, whether that takes the form of a podcast, a movie, a book, an article or a television show.
I’m not sure where my fascination with crime began, perhaps it manifest out of a fascination I already had with the horrific: Reading R.L. Stine horror/mystery books as a kid, as I recently discussed. As a teen, I also loved the TV show Criminal Minds (2005-2020) because of how it tried to get into the mind of a killer. And of course, the idea of catching a killer is exciting.
There’s something about the act itself — how could someone do this to another human being? — and its ripple effects for decades on the family involved, the family of the killer even, the police department, and the community at large. But also, of course, is the whodunit aspect: Who did this, and why haven’t they been caught? Granted, not every true crime story is a story about a killer who got away with it or got away with it for a number of years (or decades!) only to be caught recently.
But also, there’s the empathy. It hurts to think about anyone being killed, but it particularly hurts to think about children, teens or young adults being killed, snuffed out of existence before even having a chance to have a full life.
Some of my favorite true crime consumptions have been Netflix’s 2015 documentary series Making a Murderer, Michelle McNamara’s posthumously published 2018 book I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer, Dave Cullen’s 2009 Columbine book of the same name, a number of podcasts (god, where to even start with that), a number of documentaries (again, god knows where to start there), and of course, if you follow me on Twitter, you know I’m obsessed with Dateline, NBC’s “signature newsmagazine” true crime show.
However, there’s a problem with the true crime genre as outlined in this Aug. 21 Elon Green feature in The Appeal, “The enduring, pernicious whiteness of true crime.”
True crime is a genre that primarily tells the story of white victims, with (sometimes) heroic police working to solve the crime, and as told by white voices.
Now, this article isn’t the first time I’ve noticed this “pernicious” issue. I’ve lamented to my sister-in-law, who is also a Dateline fiend, that Dateline seems to only tell the stories of white victims from “sleepy towns you’d never expect.” It’s a story. It’s a narrative. All meant to sell to us, the white viewer, because, the thinking goes, we’ll be more sympathetic to a white victim than a black victim (or Hispanic or Muslim or …). And yes, I know, I’m sure Dateline has done stories with black victims, but it is not the norm.
I’m ashamed to say, as Wesley Lowery, one of my favorite reporters, pointed out, I didn’t even know who Samuel Little was, aka, the most prolific serial killer in America, but he killed black women. So, naturally, his crimes didn’t rise to the surface because he wasn’t Ted Bundy killing white girls. And again, to do the throat-clearing, this isn’t to say that white girls don’t matter; it’s that black girls should matter, too.
I was pleasantly surprised (but then horrified because it’s true crime) that one of the Unsolved Mysteries episodes, “No Ride Home,” from the revamped show on Netflix actually covered a black man’s murder. That’s a start in the right direction.
So that central thesis from Green’s piece — that we need to tell more diverse stories with diverse voices — is rather axiomatic, or should be. But there are many other worthwhile, deeper points within the article.
- True crime has lead to misconceptions about crime and how the criminal justice system works. Because it’s selling you a narrative — we gotta catch the bad guy! — it’s necessarily feeding into the mass incarceration mindset. Or that knee-jerk reactions to awful crimes manifest worthwhile policy. Take for instance a policy I vehemently disagreed with when reviewing McNamara’s book. The state law that came about in the hunt for the Golden State Killer, whereby state law mandates DNA collection from arrestees. Anyone arrested on suspicion of a felony, without a warrant or any finding by a judge that there was sufficient cause for arrest, has their DNA collected. To be clear, this law did not help catch the Golden State Killer, who was recently caught and sentenced to 12 life sentences, but it will have the adverse impact of harming a great many people accused of crimes, which often disproportionately affects minorities. It’s also clearly unconstitutional. We can have empathy for the victims without implementing knee-jerk laws that have unintended, negative consequences.
- Another issue related to the above is the centering of police, as Green talks about. Too many reporters, particularly in the “good old days” took police narrative as Gospel. And obviously, the public at large, who sits on juries, did, too. That mindset among journalists I think has started to shift, but it has not shifted as much among the public. Watch any Dateline episode, and when someone exercises their constitutional right to not speak and get a lawyer, the viewers flood Twitter with, “Oh, he’s guilty.” You do not have to talk to the police. Get a lawyer. Know your rights. But also, police, like producers and content-creators of true crime, have their own narratives and biases they’re pushing to gullible reporters and the public, so it serves us well to not always center police in the true crime genre. There are ways to tell the story without that framing.
- Green made me completely rethink what true crime even could mean. I’ve always thought about true crime in an individualized way: There’s been a murder. That’s so intimate and individual at first blush. Sure, again, there’s those ripple effects on a great many people and a community, but I always thought of it as an individualized act. However, Green seems to make the point that there’s a collective element involved. When black writers were writing about true crime, the perpetrator was society itself against black bodies (“society becomes the adversary”). When James Baldwin wrote about the Atlanta child murders between 1978 and 1981, he was looking at a bigger scope of how those murders fit into the social milieu of the time. Or the issue of the federal government’s inhumane treatment of children in our immigration system; isn’t that a true crime story, Green is basically asking?
“If a dog bites man again and again and again, that, too, is a story.” – Elon Green
As someone who is obsessed with the true crime genre, I never want to lose sight of the negatives of the genre, mainly, all the aforementioned issues and what Green discusses in the article, which I highly recommend. I also recommend Wesley Lowery’s GQ magazine story about the brutal lynching of Timothy Coggins, the indifference therein for three decades, and the satisfying conclusion (if you can call any part of a true crime story “satisfying”).
We can do better, as those telling the stories, and those consuming the stories. We must. Lives literally depend on it. Fair and equal treatment and justice depends upon it.
Have you noticed these “follies” as well when watching true crime, if you’re also obsessively into true crime as I am?