In their quest for justice, true crime shows have forgotten the original victims

More than one victim here.
More than one victim here.
Image: AP Photo/Morry Gash, Pool, File
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The hit crime investigation Making A Murderer premiered on Netflix on Dec. 18, 2015. In it, writer/directors Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos follow the trials of Steven Avery, a man convicted of the sexual assault and attempted murder of Penny Beernsten, exonerated 18 years later, and then arrested a few years afterward for the murder of Theresa Halbach. The show gained widespread attention for its portrayal of a corrupt and ineffective criminal justice system, and sparked a petition for the pardon of Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey signed by almost 130,000 people.

Serial, the record-breaking 2014 podcast, similarly captured public attention for its exploration of the case of Adnan Syed, currently in prison for the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee. Through Adnan, Serial explored the apparent failures of the criminal justice system that led to his conviction. Since the podcast aired, Syed and his defense team have decided to return to court to argue for a new trial.

Each of these shows has been alternately celebrated and attacked by critics for their analyses of their respective legal cases. Both the creators of Serial and Making a Murderer have been accused by prosecutors of misrepresenting facts, and of disregarding certain truths. What everyone seems to agree on, however, is that both programs have commendably drawn attention to a topic that deserves a place in American public discourse: our broken, racist, self-protectionist, and often immoral criminal-justice system.

But Serial and Making a Murderer also share another distinguishing factor, one that is far less praiseworthy: the relative silencing of the realities of domestic abuse and violence against women. Perhaps inadvertently, both shows reveal a subtle yet sinister reality about the relationship between violence against women and true-crime shows, and their tendency to simplify and misrepresent what intimate partner violence looks like.

It could be argued that the showrunners have purposely focused on the problems of the justice system first and foremost, leaving little time or space for other issues. And yet, Serial was able to devote part of an episode to discussing anti-Islamic sentiment in Baltimore in the late 1990s, while it had no room to discuss Syed’s allegedly controlling behavior of Lee. By the same token, Steven Avery’s history of violence toward an ex-girlfriend was not deemed worthy of inclusion, despite that show’s hours and hours of footage.

It’s also worth noting that both of these shows focus on men who have been, or who have claimed to be, victims of false accusations. In Avery’s case, Penny Beernsten later realized that she had mistakenly accused him, and Avery was cleared. In Syed’s, the podcast provides evidence for his having been potentially falsely convicted. This common thread is worrying in light of the deeply held fear that victims, most often women, sometimes fabricate rape and assault charges, feeding false-rape-claim hysteria. Crimes of domestic violence or rape already have problems being prosecutedand even reported.

While it is important that we examine the shortcomings of our legal system and bring attention to men and women who have been punished for crimes they did not commit, we cannot compound injustice with more injustice. By focusing almost exclusively on narratives where violence against women is an afterthought and the main protagonists are falsely accused, we implicitly contribute to a culture in which victims feel they are less likely to be believed.

Of course there’s an obvious, albeit depressing, reason why true-crime so often focuses on women killed by men. According to Rachel Goldsmith, associate vice president of domestic violence shelters at Safe Horizon, “Thirty-four percent of women who have been victims of homicide have been killed by an intimate partner, whereas for men that number is 2.5%.”

And yet, highlighting the prevalence of these crimes doesn’t guarantee a fair depiction from the victim’s point of view. Quite the contrary in fact. True crime generally shows only “one component of domestic violence,” Goldsmith tells Quartz. She continues:

Murder, physical violence, bruises, and injuries paint a limited picture of what domestic violence is, when in reality there are multiple forms. Very few abusive relationships begin with physical violence. Often it’s weeks, months, years, of power dynamics and controlling behavior such as name calling, put downs, controlling finances, and other threats, which we don’t pay attention to as a society.

The fact of the matter is that men don’t just kill their partners and ex-partners out of nowhere, and violence is usually preceded by other forms of abusive behavior. Making a Murderer and Serial have a huge platform, which means they also have a huge opportunity to educate viewers so that they can better identify and prevent abusive behavior in their own lives.

In a recent op-ed in The New York Times on the correlation between domestic violence and murder, a 2012 study notes that the best way to reduce the levels of violence against women is the active engagement of strong, independent feminist movements which influence public debate and galvanize political will around the issue.

Aside from supporting the work of these feminist movements, we need to stop treating domestic violence as the status quo. TV shows that feed off such violence bear part of the responsibility here. But we as consumers also need to make sure we don’t watch shows like Making a Murderer uncritically. It is only by becoming more aware of the problem that we begin to better name—and act against—it.