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An Unsolicited Opinion: The morality of true crime entertainment

By Katherine Moody
moodykat@grinnell.edu

It would be hard to understate the popularity of true crime entertainment in 2018. While true crime has always been popular, the recent surge in the popularity of podcasts has increased the reach of the genre. Ushered in by the wild and unprecedented success of the first season of Serial in 2014, which according to CNN averaged 3.4 million downloads per episode, a boom in new true crime podcasts has commanded the attention of millions of Americans. My Favorite Murder, a comedy podcast in which two friends, Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, joke about their “favorite” murders, emerged out of this boom. The podcast averages 19 million listeners every month; it has been heralded by some as a feminist retooling of true crime, a genre notorious for its tendency to fetishize violence and enshrine violent criminals. After listening to several episodes, I can promise you, it is not. Instead, My Favorite Murder reveals the problems inherent in the true crime genre.

True crime often revels in violence against women, who make up most of the genre’s fan base. According to a 2010 study in the Social Psychological and Personality Science journal, women are more likely to be drawn to true crime stories than men.

Marni Feuerman, a licensed clinical social worker, attempted to explain this finding during a 2018 interview on INSIDER. According to Feuerman, “Women have to live in fear on a daily basis that they can easily become a crime victim.” Feuerman also noted that true crime stories often end with the capture of the perpetrator, which can be comforting to women.

A 2017 Buzzfeed News article praising My Favorite Murder reflects much of what Feuerman said. The piece asserts that the podcast “sets itself apart by helping female listeners gain a sense of protection, control, or at least reassurance.” What the article fails to consider is that it does so at the expense of crime victims.

The episode “My Second Best Murder” begins with both Kilgariff and Hardstark introducing themselves and exclaiming, “We love murder!” Kilgariff explains that they, “love to talk about bad things that have happened to good people.” Then Hardstark jumps in, playfully proclaiming, “Hopefully they won’t happen to us if we talk about it enough!” About eleven minutes into the episode, after a frolicsome back and forth, Kilgariff agrees to talk about her favorite murder for this episode. Kilgariff recounts the case of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka and how, in the 1990s, Homolka helped Bernardo abduct, rape and murder young women, starting with Homolka’s own 14-year-old younger sister. Hardstark exclaims, “I love this one!” And Kilgariff continues, describing how they drugged Homolka’s younger sister before Bernardo raped her while Homolka videotaped it. “This was her younger sister,” says Kilgariff through laughter. My Favorite Murder is, after all, a comedy podcast.

It is true that not all true crime entertainment laughs openly at stories of rape and murder; some, like Serial, profess to draw attention to flaws in our criminal justice system and illuminate miscarriages of justice. However, My Favorite Murder reveals the problem inherent in the genre: it turns stories of horrific violence and trauma endured by real people, often recent enough that the victims’ families and surviving victims are still alive, into entertainment for audiences to consume. Try to imagine your own death or trauma being laughed about by two women and the millions of people who laugh along with them. Imagine those two women monetizing the story of your death or trauma, selling merchandise and a $39.99 annual subscription to a “fan cult” which includes access to a “cult forum” where your murder or trauma will be a fascination.

The Buzzfeed article about My Favorite Murder says that the podcast helps women “regain control of their own survival narratives” and quotes a woman using a pseudonym as saying her interest in true crime was precipitated by her own molestation as a child. Imagine women justifying their fascination with the public spectacle of your trauma as healing or educational, but refusing to use their real names when discussing their own traumas.

My Favorite Murder, along with the vast majority of true crime, frequently reduces victims, including survivors, to nothing more than props. Symbolically, a correction to the Buzzfeed article notes that a previous version had misidentified a murder victim. It might seem strange to think about the privacy and dignity of a dead person or someone we’ve deemed a “survivor” of crime, but given the ubiquity of true crime entertainment, it’s something our culture needs to grapple with.

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  • S

    Suzanne NathanFeb 16, 2019 at 2:41 am

    Thoughtful, well-written and provocative article. Although I cherish free speech, podcasts that humiliate and further harm victims are sadistic and inappropriate. There are many more effective ways to empower women. I applaud Ms. Moody’s insight and wisdom.

    Reply
  • K

    Kristina SchopperFeb 15, 2019 at 11:05 am

    For an article claiming to express concern for victims of violent crimes, I need to point out that you’ve dismissively shamed a survivor for making the choice to not share her name with literally millions of people (as Buzzfeed tends to reach) after she was courageous enough to share how a simple podcast was able to help her heal. Furthermore, at least in the case of My Favorite Murder, victims of violent crimes have not only reached out in full support but have even attended the show as guests, again in full support. If you have never been the survivor of a violent crime I recommend you reconsider your cause and qualifications to post a piece like this, especially when so little listening of the actual podcast has been done. (I don’t say this to be argumentative — that you have not dedicated much time to these podcasts is obvious from your citations and overall interpretations.)

    These podcasts (which I highly recommend you actually give a legitimate listen to) aim less to entertain and more to empathize with the victims, shed light on how our justice system operates, and help you feel a little bit more like the constant threat of violence posed to women, or people of color, or members of the LGBTQ+ community, is a thing you can handle.

    I’m open to and interested in a conversation about this — feel free to reach out! At the very least please omit the section which admonishes a survivor, as this is the reason so many survivors experience a stigma surrounding their trauma and have a hard enough time talking about it in any capacity.

    Reply
  • A

    AlFeb 15, 2019 at 11:01 am

    Well, this was certainly poorly researched. Karen and Georgia have said many times that they aren’t laughing at the victims, rather they are using humor to process and respond to traumatic events. Watch any standup comedy act and you’ll see that humor is one of the primary ways humans deals with difficult subjects. The work this podcast has done to de-stigmatize mental health issues is incredible, and the hosts have created a powerful, supportive community of fans who have been inspired to raise awareness and funds for a variety of social issues and criminal justice reform. To judge this podcast by its second episode — before they truly found their footing and explored their purpose — is premature and uninformed. True crime is so much more than a fascination with the gruesome details, so your unsolicited opinion is also deeply naive.

    Reply
  • S

    ShelbyFeb 15, 2019 at 6:20 am

    I respect your opinion, but I also don’t think you understand the fans’ fascination with true crime or the point of what they are trying to do. I also don’t think you even tried. We as a society (women especially) have always been told to like “girl” things. Anyone (women it feels more than men) admitting he/she is fascinated by true crime and murder was something to be ashamed of. These women gave us a place to come that makes it feel okay to be fascinated with this gruesome and horrible aspect of humanity. They also have done a ton of great things for the community that you failed to mention in your article. They have helped create communities that have started “murderino” fundraising opportunities where the money goes to all sorts of great causes like “End the Backlog.” There is so much more to this show and this community than what you have painted here, and I am disappointed to see that you did not fully research this topic before posting an article such as this. There is also proof that victims of crimes are not offended by this material. Karen did an “I Survived” retelling on the show and the victim of the crime actually reached out to them and said how grateful she was and how honored she was. She said that the retelling was done perfectly. She was not offended at all. I am not saying there are not people who would be offended, but there are some who are not. I hope next time you’ll do more research on a topic before writing an article as one-sided as this. Good luck.

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