Why Are Women Obsessed With True Crime?

There are TV shows, podcasts, and now entire channels dedicated to female-focused murders—is it one big revenge fantasy?

Image: Lwp Kommunikáció

During the season finale of Bravo’s “Vanderpump Rules,” Queen Bee Stassi Schroeder confronts Cool Girl Ariana Madix about why Ariana doesn’t like her (Stassi’s opener: “Why don’t you ever put me in your snapchats?”) The girls are beyond drunk, and Ariana responds by crying about her upcoming cocktail book. Stassi is thrilled to see Ariana vulnerable and comforts her, which Ariana appreciates. Beginning to show a soft side toward Stassi, Ariana says during a conciliatory cheers: “And don’t say I’m mean. I’m not mean. I’ll fucking kill you.”

Stassi takes a greedy sip of her beer, lighting up: “How would you do it?”

Ariana responds, “Well, it would be slow.” Stassi chuckles, delighted. “Because if I’m gonna do it. I’m gonna make it hurt.”

“Well maybe we have more in common than we think,” Stassi says, “because I like the thought of murdering people too.”

“I mean, if we couldn’t go to jail — ” Ariana begins.

“ — Hashtag murder,” Stassi interrupts. “For life. But like the number — ”

Now the women are speaking simultaneously, outlining the hashtag with their fingers: “4-L-Y-F-E.”

Stassi goes, “are we the same person?” The girls break out into wild laughter.

From self-proclaimed addictions to “Law & Order” and “My Favorite Murder,” to bizarre drunken reality TV power plays, it seems women are obsessed with murder. Or at least the idea of it. I’m a criminal defense attorney who has worked on murder cases, and I fully understand the tendency toward dark humor when dealing with traumatic subject matter: it’s sometimes necessary to stay sane. But it’s always struck me as odd the way women flippantly and delightedly confess an obsession with murder, as though revealing a salacious sexual fetish. And when Stassi and Ariana simultaneously uttered “#Murder4Lyfe,” I knew I needed to figure out what the hell was going on.

A 2010 study published by Social Psychological and Personality Science found that higher numbers of women are fans of true crime than men. Accordingly, crime fiction shows like “Law & Order: SVU,” “CSI,” and “Bones,” all boast a majority of women viewers. (Hell, Taylor Swift even named her cat Olivia Benson after “Law & Order”’s protagonist, and then went on to cast the actress Mariska Hartigay in her “Bad Blood” video.) Investigation Discovery (ID), a network that features documentary-style true crime shows mostly of a violent nature, is one of women’s most-watched cable networks on television. The female-focused Oxygen Network recently rebranded to focus on true-crime programming in order to remain competitive, phasing out shows like “Bad Girls Club” in favor of weekly podcasts like “Martinis and Murder.” The podcast “My Favorite Murder,” which is hosted by two women, hit the number 1 spot on the iTunes comedy list just five months after launching in the beginning of 2016.

A recent Atlantic article attributed women’s interest in “My Favorite Murder” and similar media to the “shadow hypothesis,” or the idea that the fear of sexual assault pervades women’s thinking and makes us more fearful generally. While it is unlikely that we or someone we know will be murdered by a stranger, it very likely we or someone we know has been or will be subjected to sexual violence from an intimate partner. Francine Prose wrote that beneath the “frothy, sexy” exterior of HBO’s recent hit “Big Little Lies,” the show conveys “a message about the prevalence of overt and hidden violence against women.” And even if we aren’t subjected to explicit violence, scholar Andrea Dworkin wrote that “penetrative intercourse is, by its nature, violent;” Catherine MacKinnon argued that it is “difficult to distinguish” rape from ordinary intercourse “under conditions of male dominance.”

One theory for the popularity of these shows among women is that after years of social conditioning to be agreeable and passive in the face of constant aggressions from the men they know, watching unfamiliar male perpetrators swiftly and harshly punished by the criminal justice system is a compelling narrative. Furthermore, women can position themselves as the aggressors (in a fictional world where they can “get away with it”) — a la Stassi and Ariana — for the same reason: a revenge fantasy or a sort of inverse Freudian sublimation of the threat.

The Atlantic article declared that women are drawn to these shows and podcasts as a way to ease our anxiety and to prepare us for real-life threats. In 2015, Julianne Escobedo Shepard chronicled her own ID addiction for Jezebel, describing a summer in which she watched the network “in what was almost a state of hypnosis.” As she “became more enthralled,” the “anxiety kicked in” — her dreams became filled with “vague threats in dark shrouds,” her days spent latching locks, “convinced that it was my fate to die horribly at the hands of an evil stranger with a violent past.” The words felt familiar as I read them, as I recall a similar summer — one in which I spent my days with my childhood best friend and true crime addict. Together, we would watch Dateline, 48 Hours, SVU for full days while nibbling dry cereal under blankets on the couch.

I thought the habit was harmless. In fact, I felt closer to my friend. Then one night I left her house to get sushi and became convinced someone in the restaurant was hatching a plan to kill me. My brain concocted an intricate plot, compelling me to wait in the bathroom until I could see his car leave through a crack in the window. I had developed true crime anxiety and, like Escobedo Shepard, I realized it was time to take it “down a notch.” But without the binge-watching, I no longer wanted to watch these shows at all. The obsession was part of the fun.

Psychology Today declared that from a neurological perspective, true crime narratives can be addictive to viewers:

People [] receive a jolt of adrenaline as a reward for witnessing the terrible deeds of a serial killer. Adrenaline is a hormone that produces a powerful, stimulating and even addictive effect on the human brain[….] The euphoric effect of serial killers on human emotions is similar to that of roller coasters or natural disasters.

Escobedo Shepard spoke to a fellow ID Addict from Florida, who admitted to watching the network “all day every day.” She explained the shows keep her “on her guard — especially being a single woman, it keeps me more aware to know what to watch out for.” Anna Breslaw likewise told The Atlantic that she “exorcis[es]” her “anxiety through obsessively reading about true crime.”

Social scientist Amanda Vicary worries that indulging a true crime addiction will only increase viewers’ anxiety, in turn creating “vicious cycle.” Vicary believes the media helps feed this paranoia: “we hear about women getting raped and killed, and we want to know more — possibly as an unconscious way to help us survive if something were to happen to us or to prevent something from happening — and in turn, we end up reading more and more about women being killed, fueling the paranoia.” The “My Favorite Murder” hosts feed this paranoia by concluding at the end of every show: “stay sexy and don’t get murdered.”

“My Favorite Murder”’s implicit thesis is that by being smart and fierce, women can protect ourselves from random attacks from rapists and murderers. The hosts have recounted the story of notorious serial killer Ted Bundy, who would lure his female victims by pretending to have a broken arm and needing help carrying his bags. Essentially, he attracted his female victims by playing into our conditioning to be polite. Accordingly, “Fuck politeness” is emblazoned on podcast merch.

While the idea that women should eschew their training to be agreeable in order to protect ourselves can be a powerful feminist statement, it becomes dangerous when we’re told the consequence is random attacks from serial killers. One of the hosts of “My Favorite Murder” frequently admits to rarely leaving the house. If these programs create anxiety to the point that women end up staying inside, they paradoxically reaffirm women’s place in the home — encouraging the very power imbalance that renders women vulnerable in the first place. Studies show that women are more likely to fear violent crime, despite that statistically men are more likely to be victims. Likewise, in the most publicized cases, the victim is a middle class white woman saved by a white man, and as Tara McKelvey wrote for the BBC, the “perception of victimhood is partly a media creation.”

Author Ariana Reines powerfully concluded in her blurb of Joni Murphy’s 2016 novel Double Teenage, which follows the lives of two girls coming of age in the 1990s: “Are dead women the only kind our culture wants or understands?” Early in the novel, the protagonist watches “Law & Order” every week with her father. She falls into the “comforting rhythm” of a “brutal attack” followed by a “swift rotation of justice.” I recently spoke to Murphy, who called the weekly procedural a “systems project” that repeatedly affirms that the cops and the DA are “doing their best” and “they know how to find the guilty person.” This is particularly comforting in a world where a Stanford athlete drunkenly rapes an unconscious woman found in an alley and is disciplined as leniently as though he were caught underage drinking. But anyone who has worked in or even read about criminal defense knows the way true crime shows portray the justice system is gravely unrealistic. In many murder cases, guilt is elusive. There are rarely eyewitnesses; even if there are, memory is imperfect. Forensic science is unreliable. There is no obvious “good guy,” no one is “evil.” Victims and perpetrators alike are poor victims of a system that repeatedly fails to protect them.

Murphy sees “Law & Order” and its spinoffs as offering “utter predictability” where none normally exists — “It is very black and white, a world without much nuance or history or deep humanity.” She also noted that shows like “Law & Order” are told from a male perspective, meaning that women watching “must watch through the male gaze to see characters they might identify with.” The general message these shows is: “you must trust the (male) structures to solve the crimes that will inexplicably happen to you.”

The tongue-in-cheek approach of My Favorite Murder, Martinis & Murder, #Murder4Lyfe is a turn away from the earnest “black-and-white” justice of “Law & Order.” Stassi and Ariana flip the narrative so that they position themselves not with the victim, but with the perpetrator. A recent interview with the My Favorite Murder girls played out similarly:

“As to the future of My Favorite Murder, well… “I think I want to start killing people,” Kilgariff deadpans. “I could get away with it, too.”

“Start with me! That’s the final episode,” jokes Hardstark.

But all versions derive from the same place: a fantasy about experiencing agency, having control over what is done with and to our bodies, unleashing the aggression we’ve been conditioned to keep bottled up. The problem is they’re all stuck in the “victim/aggressor mode” — as Murphy told me: “Liberation […] can’t just be a switching but a reorganization and move away from these binaries that cause suffering.” In an era in which the threat to women’s bodies is more intense than ever, it’s time we start examining women’s addiction to terror-inducing true crime programming — in which a fictitiously efficient and male-dominated justice system enacts revenge over dead women — with a more critical eye.

Anna Dorn is a writer and attorney living in Los Angeles.