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The true crime genre became popular in the late 2010’s and has since become a very unique cultural phenomenon. This genre consists of documentaries, podcasts, YouTube channels, and so much more to tell the stories of victims of murder or abduction or those who commit these atrocities. True crime documentaries feed into the natural human fascination of learning about what we are most afraid of. Generally, the genre focuses most heavily on the cases of violence against women and children. This genre also focuses heavily on the murder or abduction of young and conventionally attractive white women. There has been research about the heavy racial bias of the stories that get told within this genre.
Some of the most often talked about and sensationalized true crime cases center around white women and girls. One such example is the massively publicized case of Casey Anthony and her alleged murder of her two-year-old daughter, Caylee, in 2008. Anthony was a young and beautiful single mother who seemed to have everything going for her until her young daughter was reported as missing. Casey was suspected of harming her daughter and reported to police by her own parents after her father, George, discovered her impounded car. He famously described the car to a 911 operator as smelling "like there’s been a dead body in the damn car." Months later, the remains of Caylee Anthony would be discovered in a wooded area.
After Casey Anthony was charged with first degree murder, her trial would begin and gain massive publicity. At first it was suggested that Anthony was a neglectful mother, choosing to go out and party and leaving her daughter with “Zanny the Nanny,” the nanny that Anthony claims was responsible for what happened to her daughter, despite evidence revealing that no such woman existed. There would then be allegations that Casey’s father, George, was actually responsible. Reports claimed that Caylee had drowned in the family’s pool and George had attempted to cover it up. George would even be accused of molesting his own daughter, Caylee, during her childhood.
Eventually, in 2011 Casey Anthony would be found not guilty of murder and would walk free. There are many theories in this case about what really happened to Caylee. Despite the massive amounts of evidence against Casey, such as her repeated search history for “chloroform," as well as the stain found in her car and the clear smell of death, a resolution about what happened to the little girl was never reached. This case was massively sensationalized and continues to be discussed in documentaries and other forms of media to this day. It is extremely likely that if Casey Anthony had been a woman of color who was accused of killing her daughter, the case would have either not received nearly as much press or the jury would have even voted in another direction.
Another ugly truth of the true crime genre is that often, conventionally attractive male serial killers gain somewhat of a cult following from women learning about them or watching their trials. One incredibly famous example of this is the obsession that so many women had with Ted Bundy around the time of his trial and conviction as information was revealed about the horrible ways in which he murdered women and deceived everyone around him. There is a term for this morbid obsession known as “Hybristophelia,” which is the sexual attraction to people who have committed heinous crimes. Many serial killers have even met partners after they spent time in jail or otherwise gained a fan base. This example in particularly grossly sensationalizes the horrible crimes that people have committed and causes them to be something of a false idol.
Ted Bundy in particular has been sensationalized through the Netflix movie Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, starring Zack Effron as well as Netflix’s The Ted Bundy Tapes, which both portray Bundy as an attractive young man who committed horrendous crimes. This is a clear example of the glorification, sensationalization, and obsession with the true crime genre. It reveals some of the strangest and darkest parts of humanity where we become fascinated with, obsessed with, or even attracted to the things that inflict the most fear.
At its core, true crime centers around violence committed against beautiful women and the fame that they gain after it is too late and they are already gone. One recent and heartbreaking example of this is the murder of 33-year-old London woman Sarah Everard. Everard disappeared on March 3, 2021. Since then, a London police officer was charged with her kidnap and murder when her body was later discovered. This case hits home for so many women around the world because Everard was murdered while simply walking home at night.
Many women have begun to share their own stories of the fear that they feel about walking home at night. Women are taught to carry pepper spray, to hold their keys between their fingers to be used as a potential weapon, to walk near or park under street lights, and always tell someone where they are going. Sarah Everard took every precaution, and she was still murdered. Women are taught to be afraid while the real issue stands that men aren’t taught not to inflict harm. Despite the fact that this case has raised awareness for this phenomenon that women around the world experience, the sensationalization around Everard's has taken an ugly turn.
There has been extreme victim blaming against Sarah Everard. Despite the fact that she took every precaution, she was still blamed for her own murder for the simple fact that she chose to walk alone at night. Women are taught from a very young age to be afraid, and yet they continue to be the ones blamed for the horrors that they experience, rather than the men that commit them. For most women, sending a text like “text me when you get home safe” to their female friends is second nature. We fear for our friends. We don’t let each other walk alone at night, at least not without informing someone of our whereabouts. We fear what will happen between the door to our apartment building and our car parked two blocks away. Everard felt this fear. She followed these steps, yet she still died and was blamed for her own death.
This is the ugly side of the true crime genre. While at its core, it may aim to tell the true stories of the victims, it can so often become exploitative. After someone is gone, they can no longer vouch for themselves. Sarah Everard isn’t alive today to tell us her side of the story. This genre, while unlikely to go away anytime soon, needs a means of reform in order to end bias favoring white women over non-white women, idol worship, and victim-blaming.
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