During the past few years, the true crime genre has exploded in popularity. Thanks to the national obsession with the “Tiger King” documentary series and the Gabby Petito case, Netflix has flooded its streaming service with true crime anthology miniseries. These shows come complete with movie-style trailers that invite the viewer to try to solve the mysterious demise of the victims, who are usually young, beautiful white women. (You can watch a sample of them here, here, here, or here.) In fact, much of the genre is not only focused on white women, but is marketed directly to them as well.
Brooke Hargrove, a licensed professional counselor who also runs a true crime podcast, found this slightly paradoxical: “Though we’re living in a time that is statistically safer than previous decades, there is more awareness of crime and more moral panic about crime and the possibility of being affected by crime. That’s even though the primary audience targeted for true crime—which based on advertising campaigns certainly seems to be white women—are much less likely to be the victims of violent crime.” And yet white women by far make up the majority of the fan base. At CrimeCon, an annual true crime convention that began in 2017, over 80% of the attendees are white women.
In addition to the numerous television programs, there are a ton of true crime female-led podcasts, which are some of the most listened-to podcasts on the internet: “Serial,” “My Favorite Murderer,” “Missing & Murdered,” “Up and Vanished,” “Wine and Crime,” “Crime Junkie,” “White Wine True Crime,” “Someone Knows Something,” and the list goes on and on. Recently, however, certain podcasters are promoting a rather morbid scrapbook for fans, with some of them hawking their own to sell. This is how you know things have gotten out of hand.
Can I just say, I love how she casually mentions that the likely suspects are her friends and exes?
Besides DNA and handwriting samples, there’s much more to these binders. You are supposed to add your dental and medical records, along with copies of your passport and driver's license. You are also supposed to name all the places you frequent, provide your phone access code, list all of your contacts, include copies of all your keys, and have plenty of photos. There are even sections for bank account details and social media passwords, which supporters say are needed in order to save the police days of work from breaking into your computer to look for suspects.
I’m not going to begrudge anyone who wants to do this. Yet the reality is, according to the National Crime Information Center, we are experiencing the lowest number of missing person cases in over 30 years. The problem with these binders is that it is far more likely they will be found by the wrong person, whom you would have just given complete access to your entire life.
There were 1.2 million residential burglaries in 2019, and one of the top items stolen was personal documents, right ahead of firearms. This binder is a goldmine of information for any criminal, especially a stalker or identity thief. If you still decide this is something you just have to do, please make sure this is your most safeguarded item. Experts aren’t even sure of their usefulness, although most seem to say they are harmless—as long as they are very well hidden.
The one thing all the experts agree upon is that if you do have one of these binders, you should never, ever post about it online. Ironically, that seems to be the first thing people do when they get one, which actually increases their danger of becoming a victim.
However, I didn’t want to make this story about the weird trend of these morbid binders. Instead, I wanted to understand the paranoia that’s driving their popularity, and wondered if the key was behind the marketing of the demographic. I’m not the only one to notice the population of the fan base. Rachel Monroe, journalist and author of “Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession,” pointed out that the target audience for these shows are overwhelmingly young and female, as she explained to The Guardian:
One thing troubling about the true crime genre is how disproportionately it favors stories about attractive middle-class white women who’ve gone missing versus stories about the people who are much more likely to suffer violence in our society.
When was the last time Oxygen or Investigation Discovery did a show about sex workers? Or young black men, who are actually the primary victims of violence in the United States? Those victims don’t make it onto those shows.
These shows tend to ignore minorities who are most at risk of violence, including Black men, trans women, sex workers, Indigenous women, people struggling with addiction, and the homeless. None of these are the typical victims of any of these shows, which imply there is an epidemic of missing young, middle/upper-class white women in this nation. There isn't. However, there truly is an epidemic of missing/murdered Indigenous women and girls in this nation, and it’s a story that’s been almost entirely ignored by the media.
Native American women are three times more likely than women of any other race to experience violence, according to the Justice Department. In Montana alone, Indigenous women are more likely to be raped and murdered than go to college. But try to find a true crime miniseries on a Native American woman on your streaming service.
In fact, the Netflix film “American Murder,” which was the streaming platform’s top movie in 2020 when it came out, focused on a murder taking place in an oil field in Colorado. The movie was criticized for completely ignoring an associated story about several Indigenous women being discovered in the exact same shale basin in Colorado as the white woman featured in the story.
There is even a website from the Columbia Journalism Review that calculates your “press value” if you go missing. Try it out here yourself. I just hope you do better than me. I’m an old, ugly white guy from Florida, so I didn’t do too well.
According to my profile, I am only worth 14 stories: nine from local outlets (likely the Orlando Sentinel and Fox35 Orlando), and five in national outlets (Miami Herald and maybe even The Washington Post, if I’m lucky). Sadly, the local NBC and ABC outlets would most likely ignore me, and I can forget about CNN, NPR, or Fox News. (That would be especially problematic for me, since all my rural neighbors only watch Fox News.)
At best, stories of my disappearance would reach 22% of the nation. In comparison, a missing white woman in her early 20s living in Nevada would have over 120 news stories in local and national outlets that would reach over 92% of the country.
The profile scan ends by mentioning several active missing cases featuring people of color that haven’t received even one single news story. This bias ties into the true crime entertainment fad that obsesses over young white women. Yet there is also another reason for this narrative.
A constant theme on these shows centers on the tough-on-crime approach, especially in the episodes where the police are closing in—usually in the real interrogation scenes. These scenes in the police interrogation room often showcase the most dramatic footage of the entire series. I do admit getting self-satisfaction watching the known murderer or kidnapper being roughly questioned by police detectives because I already know they did it.
Yet that’s a problem: True crime stories typically feature the suspect after we already have a lot of evidence that the person committed the crime. The reality is that people from communities of color, which have borne the brunt of the so-called war on crime, are many times sent to jail due to false confessions from these types of police interrogations. In cases where DNA evidence has exonerated the suspect, over 29% were from cases that had a false, coerced confession. Unfortunately, 60% of those false confessions were from the African American community.
If you want to understand how that can happen, John Oliver focused an entire segment of his show on shady police interrogations:
There are several theories as to why white women are so obsessed with the true crime subgenre. Social psychologist Amanda Vicary claims the obsession among women is based on self-preservation. “My thinking is that this fear is leading women, even subconsciously, to be interested in true crime, because they want to learn how to prevent it,” she told Forbes.
Essayist Alice Bolin, who wrote “Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession,” told Vice that crime stories are ubiquitous in American culture because of their “power to reinforce social order—in this case, that women are most comprehensible as victims, in danger from men.” She notes that the female victims in these programs are always treated as problems to be solved.
The most interesting to me was from a social media influencer named Mishalema, who posited her own theory. She suggests that the subgenre’s popularity among white women is the result of a loss of the “privilege of victimhood.” For the past few years, there has been a sudden rise in the “Karen” phenomenon on social media where there are countless video clips showing angry white women being just as oppressive, mean, and even violent as certain white men.
As Helen Lewis writes in The Atlantic: “The target of Karen’s entitled anger is typically presumed to be a racial minority or a working-class person, and so she is executing a covert maneuver: using her white femininity to present herself as a victim, when she is really the aggressor.”
These women are now being held accountable by the public for their actions, and that has impacted the clout white women have long enjoyed. The fact that all of these true crime stories focus on the victimization of innocent white women helps to reclaim the status of victimhood, along with the sympathy, care, and attention that many feel they have been losing and are craving.
I’m sure most fans will disagree with Mishalema’s thesis. When fans are asked, most agree with Vicary and say the stories help them prepare in case they are targeted. Others say they just enjoy a good mystery. Still others blame the pandemic for the spike in interest in the true crime trend, which seemed to coincide with Netflix’s mega-hit release of “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.” American mystery author Tod Goldberg believed the lockdown promoted the true crime genre “because when you feel like you’re out of control and that nothing is within your ability to stop things around you, it’s actually very gratifying to read about some chaotic thing that a normal person, a cop or detective or whatever, or science—particularly science—figured out or solved for.”
There’s nothing wrong with being a true crime fan, as long as it doesn’t border on obsession (like those weird binders) and remembering that the victims are real people. Some psychotherapists even believe it helps people manage their fears about the world. One positive consequence from the true crime craze has been shining a light on the inequities of the criminal justice system. There are Black creators who are trying to use their true crime platforms to raise awareness of Black victims that have received little to no attention.
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Additionally, three Cherokee women started a podcast called “We are Resilient: A MMIW True Crime Podcast." (MMIW stands for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.) They view it as an obligation to bring attention to the epidemic of missing Indigenous women. One of the creators, Maggie Jackson, put it this way: “Gabby Petito’s case was solved solely on social media. So, social media’s power is really great, and if we can use that in a positive way, we can solve one or two of these cases and start bringing these families justice.”