Horrifying sex crimes, home invasions, kidnappings, night stalkings, disembowelments, cannibalism – these days you wouldn’t have to go further than your favourite streaming service to hear true stories about all this and more.
True crime has been ‘having a moment’ for a few years now, and women’s disproportionately high love of the genre is nothing new, but why is so much true crime content about and seemingly marketed to white women?
In 2010, before interest in true crime soared to the more mainstream highs of today, a study by Amanda Vicary and R. Chris Fraley found that ‘women are more drawn to true crime stories whereas men are more attracted to other violent genres’.
As for why that might be, Rachel Monroe, journalist and author of Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession, tells us: ‘True crime stories explore archetypal themes that humans have always been fascinated by: betrayal, revenge, hypocrisy, justice (and injustice).
‘In the 1990s, it was a genre that focused on intimate partner violence, violence against children, and sexual assault – themes that had long been considered taboo or private family matters; I think that’s one main reason the genre drew so many female fans.
‘And while crime stories have been popular as long as we’ve had a mass media, the recent spread of new storytelling formats – earlier, cable TV and more recently podcasts and limited streaming series – has led to a renewed interest in crime stories (some of them very familiar!) reimagined and repackaged for new audiences.’
Brooke Hargrove, co-creator, interviewer and licensed counsellor with true crime podcast The Fall Line, tells us: ‘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.’
White women’s reputation for being into true crime makes sense when you consider that many of the most famous ‘classic’ true crime cases out there are about white white ladies being killed.
The victims of Ted Bundy, BTK, The Yorkshire Ripper, the recently apprehended Golden State Killer, Harold Shipman, Fred and Rose West, even Jack the Ripper, to name a few – in all of these household-name cases, most if not all of their victims were white/light-skinned and female.
Even In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, the novel credited with bringing the true crime genre into the fore, is about the slaying of a white family.
The study by Vicary and Fraley also found that one reason why women could be drawn to true crime is that they’re interested in learning defence tactics from survivors ‘despite the fact that they are less likely to become a victim (Allen, 2006; Chilton & Jarvis, 1999’.
The paper also states: ‘Despite the fact that women may enjoy reading these books because they learn survival tips and strategies, it is possible that reading these books may actually increase the very fear that drives women toward them in the first place.
‘In other words, a vicious cycle may be occurring: A woman fears becoming the victim of a crime, so, consciously or unconsciously, she turns to true crime books in a possible effort to learn strategies and techniques to prevent becoming murdered.
‘However, with each true crime book she reads, this woman learns about another murderer and his victims, thereby increasing her awareness and fear of crime.’
With that in mind, and with so many of the most famous murder cases involving white female victims, why wouldn’t white women be drawn to true crime?
When asked what her idea of what the stereotypical true crime fan looks like: Rachel tells us: ‘From my research, it does seem as though the audiences for true crime television shows and podcasts skew overwhelmingly female and relatively young.
‘When I went to CrimeCon, an annual true crime fan convention hosted by cable TV channel Oxygen, a cursory glance around the room indicated the audience, at least for that event, was primarily white,’ she says.
However, she adds: ‘But I also spoke with a middle-aged Black man who was there, too – like any genre, true crime is made up of many sub-communities.’
‘I think there is the industry concept of what a true crime fan is, and what they want,’ says Laurah, Brooke’s co-creator, researcher, writer and host of The Fall Line, which focuses on crime stories concerning marginalised communities.
‘I think true crime is marketed to white middle-class women, probably between the ages of 18-50 or so. I’m basing this only on the ads I see, and the way events and conventions are designed.
‘But within our own audience, for The Fall Line, I see more diversity. And probably more importantly, we hear them wanting to hear more stories about diverse cases, which I don’t think the true crime entertainment industry has caught up with.’
There’s also bias in crime news reporting to contend with.
Larah tells us: ‘With a few exceptions, the cases that catch on involve young white women or girls.
‘Occasionally, white boys — usually very young — will also become major touchstone cases, but across the board, media concentrates on young white women who, again, make up a small sliver of the total number of crime victims.
‘And it’s not that those stories shouldn’t be told. They should be. But so should others, and there is a lot of catching up to do.’
Rachel says: ‘A lot has been written about “missing white woman syndrome” – the idea that the news media gives disproportionate coverage to victims who are middle-class, attractive, white women (ideally mothers or college students).
‘There’s also a marked preference for victims that can be superficially portrayed as “innocent.” This depiction of crime victims diverges quite a bit from what we know about who is, statistically speaking, most at risk of violence: young Black men; trans women; sex workers; indigenous women; people struggling with addiction; the homeless, etc. – these folks are rarely at the centre of pop culture true crime narratives.
‘People will explain this by saying that viewers/listeners want victims they can relate to – which seems to me to make a lot of assumptions about who the audience is and their capacity for understanding complexity.
‘There is also a persistent pro-law enforcement, tough-on-crime, lock-em-up mentality to a lot of true crime, which can turn off people from communities that have borne the brunt of the war on crime – that is, communities of colour.’
You could absolutely argue that the reason why so many of the aforementioned killers are so widely known is that their crimes were unusually heinous. However, there are plenty of horrid killers who murder non-white women in hideous ways and the attention these crimes get by and large pales in comparison.
For example, Samuel Little is an 80-year-old Black man who is thought to be America’s most prolific serial killer. He’s been linked to more than 60 murders and claims to have killed as many as 93 women. You’d easily argue that this case is pretty heinous, but Little, whose victims were mostly Black women, is nowhere near a household name on this side of the pond.
The number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) in North America has been referred to as a genocide and an epidemic, yet the waves these cases make even collectively are nowhere near big enough.
When it comes to who’s actually most likely to be murdered, according to a 2018 report from the Office of National Statistics (ONS), while the number of homicides in England and Wales had increased over the years, the rise had been ‘most pronounced in male victims and those in younger age groups.’
Another ONS report released in 2020 found that just under two-thirds of victims were male (64%) while just over a third were female (36%) in the year ending March 2019 – meaning men were still more likely to be murdered than women in England and Wales.
However, the fact that nearly half (48%) of adult female victims that year were killed in a domestic homicide could go a long way towards explaining why it’s easy to feel unsafe as a woman no matter your race – violence always feels so close to home.
Touching on a similar topic, Rachel says: ‘I think it’s easier to fear serial killers — the random stranger sneaking through the night – than the much more common threat to women, statistically speaking: their own partners.’
While the 2020 report also found that there were more white murder victims (71%) than any other ethnic group that year, another study by Cambridge University’s Institute of Criminology, which analysed data from 2000-2019, found that ‘Black homicide victimisation ranged from 200% to 800% higher than that for the White population during that time period’, while ‘Asian rates remained stable at about twice as high as White rates.’
Why do the results of this study and the one by the ONS seem to tell such different stories? The Cambridge study took the estimated population size of each racial group into account in an effort to make their results more proportionate.
Laurah tells us true crime fans ‘want to hear about the people who are actually experiencing the majority of crime in our country’.
‘They want to hear stories of Black and Brown people, of LGBTQ people, of disabled people, and unhoused people, and sex workers, and immigrants, and a lot of other stories we’ve been told – implicitly, by the same faces appearing on our screens, over and over- aren’t worth telling,’ she says.
‘I think the stereotypical true crime fan may have once been an uncritical consumer of tabloid stories, but that has changed. The industry should catch up because there are many cases that desperately need attention.’
‘People watch/read/listen to true crime and think they’re getting an accurate portrayal of the world – there is that word “true” in there, after all,’ says Rachel.
‘But pop culture true crime really does give us a distorted idea of who is most vulnerable (and of who we should most be afraid of). Marginalised communities often have a hard time getting law enforcement to treat them fairly; journalist Emma Eisenberg showed this really clearly in her reporting on two cases in Charlottesville, Virginia, one involving a missing white college student and the other a Black trans woman.
‘Additionally, sensational stories of violence perpetrated by strangers against white women are often mobilized to pass punitive criminal justice laws that don’t necessarily do all that much to protect victims, but do contribute significantly to the crisis of mass incarceration.’
She adds: ‘So it’s not enough just to swap out stories of white victims for a more diverse set of victims; we should also be thinking more broadly about how these stories shape our understanding of society.’
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