Trigger Warning: Violence against women
There has been, in current times, a glamorous light shined upon by pop culture on the trope of criminology and the serial killer. From Ted Bundy to Ed Kemper, shows and films on these anti-heroes have begun to fascinate people in the mainstream of public life with renewed vigour in the past few years.
The anti-hero or villain has always had a special kind of appeal to the human psyche, due to various reasons ranging from subversion of authority, indulgence of anger people have towards others, helplessness to express in a way they would like. However, there exists several feminist problems with worshipping the serial killer, even apart from moral or humanistic ones.
For one, these killers have committed crimes against women far more than they have against men, because a majority of them have been rapists of women, even though rapists of men have also existed among their ranks. Some of the most notorious killers in history are guilty of this – Ted Bundy raped and killed women who resembled a lady he was associated with in his lifetime, ‘fictional’ Jack the Ripper maimed and killed sex workers in brothels, and ‘Dr Death’ Harold Shipman primarily killed elderly women who were his patients. Even though the occasional Jeffrey Dahmer (killer of men, homosexual) also existed, the narrative of rape and murder is overwhelmingly tilted towards female victims.
Idolising these people or getting de-sensitised to the heinous nature of their crimes via their packaging as ‘entertainment’ and/or ‘good looks’ not only takes away the voice of suffering of their female victims, but also gives viewers newer ways to dehumanise and torture women they may have bones to pick with. When a Netflix-like giant packages some serial-killer story as entertainment, with an actor with charming looks as the protagonist, they have the right to. The public deserves to know the perverted through art just as they deserve to know the sacred. However, the sad part arrives when only the serial killer’s side is shown: there is no show, till date, portraying Bundy’s or the Ripper’s victims with their stories, that is as popular as the documentaries and movies that exist on these killers.
There is a reason why that is so. (Trigger Warning: The following line has graphic sexual violence details) Karen Sparks/Joni Lenz was beaten with a metal bed frame by Bundy, who proceeded to insert that weapon in her vagina – giving her permanent brain damage and landing her in a coma for the rest of her life. Bundy also claimed that he burned Donna Gail Manson’s skull in the fireplace of his girlfriend, Elizabeth Kloepfer. These are horrible, unimaginable things to happen to someone or their family, and keeping the real-life consequences of serial killers’ crimes far away from “entertainment” ensures that viewers have to deal with a less dirty, less messy world: One they can visit when they are in “leisure”, and even delight in when they solve “crimes” like in whodunnits before looking at the solution piece of the puzzle. In general, they are given a clean chit from a life full of pain in the aftermath of these crimes, which most people wouldn’t like to deal with.
Unless the voices of the victims and their narratives are broadcast alongside the killers’, people take away only the twisted glory of the killer, and not the humanity and sensitisation needed in dealing with what they did. This is the oldest marketing trick in the business book – sell happy thoughts to customers so they buy more, and the customer in this case is the true crime aficionado.
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However, the true-crime aficionado isn’t the most problematic of the target viewers. Sure, they took away a few hours of entertainment bathed in someone else’s excruciating pain. However, an entirely twisted breed of person might use this as fodder, may become influenced by these narratives and start to take lessons from them. Media propaganda is extremely popular, in privileged hands. In 1915, D. W. Griffith’s film “The Birth Of A Nation” was openly appropriated by the Ku Klux Klan, which the movie glorified and legitimised. It served to give the then-defunct Klan a recruiting tool for new members, and revive itself. It also led to attacks by Klan’s people outside theatres and on streets, torches and hammers in hand. This was a landmark moment in the history of American racism, which, for a while, actually converged with and even led to history textbooks in the USA being edited to include several racist overtures and undertones.
It is not hard to relate this to the present day. Someone, with an axe to grind against some woman who he thinks has “wronged him” by either turning down his romantic proposal or something similar, will first appropriate the Bundy or Kemper narrative to think she, not he, was in the wrong. Second, they will think it is okay to rape and kill her in the most humiliating of manners, therefore. Third, these shows will give them a way to do that and get away with it, because some of the crimes shown are really logical and intelligent. Without proper sensitisation in society, this is always a possibility. In fact, studies show that most audiences relate most with the main character of a piece of art or literature even if s/he is not a ‘hero’ or ‘protagonist’, and modern big-ticket shows with plenty creative ability will always find a way to show serial killers in a charismatic light, lessening the moral impact of what they actually did.
Obsession with serial killers could prove to be dangerous, if the wrong person finds access to the material on them, and channelises actions in an entirely unsocial way. As with most facets of society, this trope, that of the sexy serial killer, has its own sexist problems, and for starters, one can only hope that while eulogies to them continue to entertain with shock value, narratives of their ‘survivors’ also get to see the light of day.
Featured image source: USI Shield