Reflections on the True Crime genre
I don’t entirely trust people who like true crime. This is something of a self-drag because there are a handful of true crime podcasts that I do enjoy, and I often use the Oxygen network as background noise. But, I like to think my interest is largely clinical. I’m interested in the psychological breakdowns and patterns of behavior in true crime. I have to draw the line, however, at idle speculation or fandoms dedicated to serial killers/rapists, days spent drafting theories of crimes, or ignoring the blatant incompetence and negligence of the cops when “solving crimes.” For me, there is no appeal to playing vigilante, pathologizing behavior, and trying to identify potential antisocial markers in those I meet.
As a genre, true crime has sanitized stories of true terror, turning the predation of the most marginalized people into a quirky personality trait for people to bond over. Far from an interest in the human psyche or a study of brain chemistry, true crime has become a pop-culture phenomenon that turns violent, graphic stories into a spectator sport with an often comedic tone. As a trend, true crime encourages the public to hoard bloody stories like magpies—trading tales of gore and human depravity, attempting to one-up each other with increasing degrees of obscurity and speculation. But most disturbing is the implication that enjoyment of true crime as entertainment is actually indicative of a higher intellect, a sign of highbrow taste. True crime has convinced a not-insignificant portion of the population that they can, and should, take on the burden of “solving crimes” by playing neighborhood savior and harassing those who look sufficiently out of place.
True crime has become legitimized as aesthetically and intellectually appealing for people who like a good challenge. The genre is rife with speculation, encouraging bystanders and casual observers to guess at case details while tragedies are played and re-played in media disregarding the wishes and feelings of family and friends. This dispassionate and detached voyeurism exhilarates the viewer (listener or reader), creating an addictive experience that lives on beyond the initial introduction to a story or case. In other words, true crime sensationalizes the very real stories of predation, horror, and violence that plague marginalized people—the same people most often overlooked and discarded by the law enforcement entities tasked with solving crimes. Because at its core, true crime is “copaganda” or media designed to portray law enforcement as valiant, heroic, and above criticism. Intentional or not, true crime media positions law enforcement as the hero and incarceration as the ultimate justice.
For those that traffic in true crime, the real people and communities at the center of these stories have become interchangeable, if not expendable. “No Humans Involved” has become a (likely unintentional) truism that discards the complex humanity and agency of society’s least desirable. The houseless, the poor, the drug-using, and those who trade sex become afterthoughts, while their circumstances become justifications for those who prey on them, those tasked with finding justice, and those who commodify their stories to “create content.” And while those that create such content often assert that they only want to tell the truth or “shed light,” in doing so, they are giving space to those who commit heinous acts of violence. They are encouraging a cultural shift that mythologizes the most predatory of our society, turning them from people that live alongside us into larger-than-life collections of deviant behaviors.
After decades of being casually labeled less than human, hearing cops, prosecutors, and journalists laud themselves and each other for their “work,” renews the humiliation, degradation, and dehumanization for those at the center of these stories. The casual acceptance of this was exemplified on a recent episode of Tenfold More Wicked: Wicked Words, when filmmaker Joshua Zeman responds to Suffolk County police refusing to take a mother seriously when her daughter, an escort, goes missing, saying, “In their defense, a lot of these sex workers—not all—but a lot, are drug-addled.” Zeman bookends this statement with ridiculous assertions like “Backpage eroded [sex workers’] intuition for danger” while insisting that he’s “talked to sex workers.” The implications here are deeply disturbing. Not only is Zeman putting forth that sex workers are a stereotypical monolith, but he also leads the listener to infer that we deserve to be stalked, harassed, murdered, and ignored because we may use drugs or use a website to pre-screen clients. What defense is there to be had for refusing to acknowledge someone’s humanity because you don’t like the way they earn a living?
Certainly, there are true crime aficionados who claim to support marginalized people, yet they seem incapable of acknowledging or accepting critique over their continued use of slurs and dehumanizing language. I find it difficult to believe these claims when they’re often followed by support for the same police who spend years, decades even, ignoring mounting evidence and patterns of behavior in favor of placing blame on victims for their “high risk” lifestyle. I further struggle to believe in this professed solidarity when the same true-crime podcast hosts openly and unashamedly endorse the Nordic model to an audience of millions, ignoring the oft-stated reality that any intervention by law enforcement continues to put sex workers and drug users at risk for assault or harassment.
The combination of presumed expertise, uncritical and blind acceptance of cop narratives, and encouraged idle speculation has created a dangerous fanbase of amateur detectives using comedy and hero worship to analyze unspeakable tragedies. True crime has created a culture that commodifies murder and sexual assault, making martyrs of both those who prey on the most marginalized of us and those who do little to prevent or investigate this violence.
Adrie Rose is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer and portrait photographer. She covers sex, sex work, and Black culture.