Vilified Victims: The Problematic Portrayal of Violence Against Women in True Crime

During multiple lockdowns this year and last, I have found myself reaching for true crime documentaries and films on Netflix. There’s something about them that’s just so compelling to me – I’m the kind of person who stays up on Wikipedia deep dives reading about serial killers, much to my shame. However, many of these shows and films fall short at representing their female victims in a respectful way, or in some cases, at all. In light of Sarah Everard’s murder, an act of patriarchal violence, perhaps it’s time to think about how we treat and portray female victims of male-perpetrated violent crimes on our screens.

Ted Bundy is one of the most profiled serial killers in history. His horrific murders have been the inspiration for at least seven films and five TV series, such as 2019’s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile starring Zac Efron. Based on Bundy’s ex-girlfriend’s memoir, the film was criticized for glorifying the murderer and failing to do justice to his female victims. When we centre the male perpetrators of violent crimes, play up their charm and intelligence, and pass off the real lives they cut short and affected as an afterthought, we glamorize men who kill. Bundy was known for being attractive and charming, but many feel that the film’s portrayal of him went too far, leaving his victims obscured.

Zac Efron as Ted Bundy in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile Trailer / Netflix / Movieclips / Youtube

True crime drama films tend to miss the mark, but are documentaries any better at representing the reality of violent patriarchal crime? In my viewing experience, many sensationalize the physical acts of the murders rather than the victims themselves. A painful example of this is the Netflix series The Ripper, which details the crimes and trial of the infamous Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe. Issue was taken with the name of the documentary, with the victims’ families co-writing a statement: “Please remember that the word “ripper” relates to ripping flesh and the repeated use of this phrase is irresponsible, insensitive, and insulting to our families and our mothers’ and grandmothers’ legacies.” While an attempt was made to talk about the victims, the series is guilty of playing into the fascination with Peter Sutcliffe, at the cost of representing his female victims sensitively. In particular, many of the women are pigeonholed into being sex workers, with the implication being that their lifestyles warranted this kind of risk, when there is little evidence that many of the victims were actually involved in sex work. It seems that whenever women are murdered, there is an attempt to rationalise their deaths, or at least provide some kind of motive for the murderer to kill them. It should go without saying that all women, regardless of their line of work, class, or background, deserve to go out at night without being killed. It’s as relevant now as it was back then.

Still, in amongst all the bleak and disrespectful portrayals, there are films and series that get it right. The BBC’s documentary on Peter Sutcliffe, The Yorkshire Ripper Files, spoke of the awful attitudes the police held towards the women they were supposed to be protecting and seeking justice for, as well as covering the Reclaim the Streets protests. Far more time and respect are given to the victims than any other documentary on Sutcliffe that I’ve seen. In terms of true crime drama, Three Girls, a BBC series about the Rochdale sex abuse scandal, centres the teenage victims and treats their stories with care and respect. Maxine Peake’s portrayal of social worker Sara Rowbotham, who became the key whistle-blower in the case, is equally sensitive. Throughout the process of making Three Girls, Rowbotham was consulted, along with the female police officer assigned to the case, DC Margaret Oliver, and prosecutor Nazir Afzal. I believe this was the key to the show’s sensitivity and success – rather than sensationalizing the perpetrators of the sexual abuse, the show focuses almost solely on the victims and their fight for justice.

True crime as a genre has a long way to go before education, rather than glorification, is brought to the forefront. Female victims of violent patriarchal crimes deserve basic respect, and for their stories to be told in the first place. Research shows that when women are dehumanised, men feel more able to abuse them. The routine dehumanisation of women in true crime, slammed as sex workers who were at fault by virtue of their lifestyle, deemed to be ‘asking for it’, or just not given a story at all, is not only offensive, but it’s dangerous.

It’s time that victims of patriarchal violence got to tell their stories, and those who are no longer with us are respected.

-Caitlin Barr

Featured Image Source: The Ripper / Netflix / Youtube

One thought on “Vilified Victims: The Problematic Portrayal of Violence Against Women in True Crime

  1. Yes! Exactly that! As a survivor of male violence the focus on the man is incredibly upsetting to me. The perps names should disappear from history, it is the victims that should be remembered.

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