By Raegan Boettcher
Art by Milanne Berg
*Warning: Includes discussions of violence against marginalized individuals.
I spent most of Summer 2021 working a monotonous office job in my hometown. My job involved scanning decades-old records because no one else had the time to do it themselves. To get through the arduous nine-to-five grind, I turned to podcasts (and the occasional episode of Bob’s Burgers). I sampled a few fiction podcasts, a couple of political education series, but more often than not, I found myself entranced by true crime. One in particular — My Favorite Murder, hosted by Georgia Hardstark and Karen Kilgariff — enraptured my attention. With its blithe humor and rambling banter, it provided mindless entertainment and background noise while I rustled through dusty filing cabinets and stalked the clock.
In the middle of the summer, I noticed myself glancing over my shoulder on the way to my car after work. I stopped listening to music when I went on walks around my neighborhood, and I briefly entertained the idea of buying a taser. It took some time to realize the correlation between my near-obsessive true crime consumption and my sudden fear of getting murdered in my rural, middle-class hometown that has not seen more than petty theft in decades. When these pieces finally clicked into place, it felt like a revelation. (Wow, listening to a bunch of podcasts about people getting murdered makes you worry about getting murdered? Who would have thought?) I began thinking about what it is that draws so many people to true crime.
The most obvious answer is morbid curiosity. People love rubber-necking at car crashes on the side of the highway, watching terrifying horror movies, and generally sticking their noses into places where they do not belong. At its core, that is true crime — sticking your nose into horrific stories of extreme violence, so gruesome that it makes you shudder, yet not being able to turn away. True crime succeeds at being infinitely consumable.
It all hinges on true crime’s own digestibility. This seems ironic, given its subject matter, but part of what is so attractive about true crime is how neatly the story always ends. It is a clean and mostly uncomplicated narrative. You start off with the bad guy — the serial murderer, in most cases — and you give him a sympathetic victim, almost always a wealthy white woman. The bad guy murders the sympathetic victim and the nation goes into an uproar; at the end, the bad guy is caught and conveniently given a death sentence. Archetypal narratives of justice, betrayal, and revenge naturally entice and entertain. Although everyone who engages with the true crime genre has heard the Ted Bundy story a dozen times, we keep listening because we know the tension and anxiety, in the end, will be resolved. For unsolved cases, we keep coming back because we ache to finish the story. The telling and retelling of unsolved cases invites audience participation in their conclusion; listeners are welcomed and encouraged to play the part of detective.
But why do women consume true crime at much higher rates than men? Around 73% of true crime listeners are women. Rachel Monroe, journalist and author of Savage Appetites: Four True Crime Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession, stated, “‘In the 1990s, [true crime] was a genre that focused on intimate partner violence, violence against children, and sexual assault — themes that had long been considered taboo or private family matters; I think that’s one main reason the genre drew so many female fans.”
True crime provides an outlet for women to discuss the taboo fear of victimization, but is this fear substantiated? Statistically, crime in the United States is at an all-time low. Murder and non-negligent manslaughter comprised only 5 crimes per 100,000 people in 2019. Interestingly, men actually represented 77% of homicide victims, despite how much true crime circulates around stories of victimized women. Nonetheless, there is a pervasive moral panic about violent crime.
True crime manufactures an idealistic narrative in which perpetrators are punished and this moral panic momentarily abates. The hosts of My Favorite Murder, for example, vie for the quick and brutal death of infamous criminals, with minimal investigation into the harms of the criminal justice system. As of January 2020, the Innocence Project documented around 375 successful exonerations. Of these 375 cases, 97% were wrongly convicted of murder and/or sexual assault. Twenty-one of these exonerees were previously sentenced to death. Though this is a relatively small sample size given the sheer size of the prison-industrial complex in the US, (with over two million people currently incarcerated) this gives us a sense of the widespread impact of pro-capital-punishment rhetoric.
Regardless of these harmful sociopolitical implications, the true crime genre thrives on female obsession with female victimization. My Favorite Murder’s signature “feminist” slogan — “Stay Sexy, Don’t Get Murdered” — has made its way onto stickers, mugs, T-shirts, license plate frames, and tattooed on the skin of more than a few people. Cult-ish implications aside, My Favorite Murder ends every episode with a reminder to its primarily female listeners that consuming true crime will prepare them to escape from violent criminals. First of all, this places the burden of violence prevention onto women; as a corollary, it shifts the blame of being attacked onto women who have been victimized.
Their tragedies serve as cautionary tales, continuing to perpetuate harmful social expectations for women. As women, we have always been taught to be on our guard while walking alone at night and to put our keys between your knuckles for self-defense (though I later learned that this is poor advice — look it up). We are burdened with preventing our own tragedies. Being raped or murdered becomes your fault because — what exactly? You didn’t consume enough media about gruesome murders to prepare yourself? You didn’t have a precomposed escape plan for if/when you get thrown into a strange man’s truck? My Favorite Murder turned the sensationalization and commodification of violence against women into a faux-feminist mantra, empowering women to finally fight back against violent men — as if doing so had not occurred to anyone before.
Although — let’s be honest — it was never about all women. If you based your perception on true crime, you would think that white women are the number one most endangered species. In actuality, the rate of homicide victimization for Black individuals was six times higher than that of white individuals. White women, then, are amongst the least likely demographics to be victims of a violent crime, but make up a disproportionate slice of the genre’s fanbase.
This makes sense when you realize how much of the true crime genre circulates around the victimization of white women. The hosts of My Favorite Murder made occasional attempts to include minor violent crimes against queer people and people of color, but that’s really only the tip of the iceberg. The true crime genre proliferates a societal anxiety about white women being attacked, often associated with the phrase “missing white woman syndrome.” “Missing white woman syndrome” refers to the exhaustive media coverage for middle and upper-class white women who become victims of violent crimes, in comparison to the radio silence for deaths in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. To give a modern example of this, we can look to the Gabby Petito case.
In June 2021, Petito embarked on a cross-country roadtrip with her fiance, Brian Laundrie. She later disappeared while traveling through Grand County, Utah in August 2021. As the details of her case slowly trickled into mass media, her disappearance sparked a national uproar, commanding the immediate attention of most major news outlets, law enforcement, and hundreds of amateur social media sleuths who unpacked every tidbit of information on Petito and Laundrie’s profiles.
Petito was active on social media and documented most of the trip on her Instagram account. People all across Instagram and TikTok decided to personally investigate her case, picking apart details of her life to try to find her killer. Emma Berquist, once the victim of a brutal stabbing, proclaimed in an article she wrote for Gawker that, “I think I would rather get stabbed again than have TikTok users descend like vultures on my social media, zooming in on pictures of my messy bedroom to analyze the tedious minutia of my deeply average life.” In this social media detective work, the lives of real victims are turned into media spectacles and thought experiments; the lives of victims’ families are torn apart for any shred of intrigue.
Now, a slight disclaimer: what happened to Gabby Petito is a horrifying tragedy. Petito was not at fault for her own death or how society responded to it. I am not judging Petito as an individual; rather, I am discussing her case as a symptom of a much larger societal ill. Petito did not deserve what happened to her, and neither do the thousands of other people to whom we, as a broad society, do not lend our grief. There is a fundamental lack of similar dedication to the deaths and disappearances of anyone who is not a wealthy white woman, from both mass media and law enforcement. At the end of 2021, there were over 89,000 active missing person cases — 45% of them involved missing people of color, and only around one-fifth garnered media attention. In 2016 in the United States alone, there were 5,700 known incidents of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
True crime requires no moral or political legwork on behalf of its audience. Enjoyment of true crime is directly correlated with how little you think about what you are consuming. I never listened to My Favorite Murder for the quality of its political education or how it made me think critically. I cannot say that my worldview shifted much in those hour-long jaunts through the worst of crimes against white women. But true crime does not exist in a vacuum — it should not have the luxury of ignoring the societal implications of what it discusses or what anxieties it circulates.
I am not saying that you need to stop consuming true crime entertainment. I still watch Dateline with my family; I still browse through Netflix’s true crime documentaries when I have a spare moment, though I do not find it so appetizing anymore. It is unrealistic to expect ourselves to stop participating in society or consuming anything that may be deemed “problematic.” However, we need to start thinking critically about the media we are consuming and how we might be perpetuating these social concerns — this is a realistic expectation for ourselves. Next time you find yourself clicking play on that true crime podcast or booting up Netflix for the latest “ground-breaking” documentary on Ted Bundy, have a second thought about why you are hearing this story and not another one.
If you are interested in learning more about the unrecognized victims of tragic violence, I have included a few places you can refer to, though this is not an exhaustive list:
Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women: https://www.csvanw.org/mmiw
Black and Missing: https://blackandmissinginc.com/
Not Our Native Daughters: https://www.notournativedaughters.org/
Ausencias Ignoradas (Ignored Absences): https://data.eluniversal.com.mx/ausencias-ignoradas/index.html
For more information regarding wrongful convictions and the harms of the prison-industrial complex, here are two additional resources:
The Innocence Project: https://innocenceproject.org/
The Sentencing Project: https://www.sentencingproject.org/
*Title is a reference to Only Murders in the Building, created by Steve Martin & John Hoffman.
 Kelli S. Boling and Kevin Hull, “Undisclosed Information — Serial Is My Favorite Murder: Examining Motivations in the True Crime Podcast,” Taylor & Francis Online 25, no. 1 (2018): https://doi.org/10.1080/19376529.2017.1370714.
 Aidan Milan, “The Racial Bias of True Crime: Why is murder marketed to white women?,” Metro UK, January 1, 2021, https://metro.co.uk/2021/01/01/the-racial-bias-of-true-crime-why-is-murder-marketed-to-white-women-13615372/.
 John Gramlich, “What the data says (and doesn’t say) about crime in the United States,” Pew Research Center, November 20, 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/11/20/facts-about-crime-in-the-u-s/.
 Alexia Cooper and Erica L. Smith, “Homicide Trends in the United States, 1980-2008,” Us Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, November, 2011: https://bjs.ojp.gov/content/pub/pdf/htus8008.pdf.
 “Research Resources,” The Innocence Project, 2022, https://innocenceproject.org/research-resources/#:~:text=To%20address%20the%20frequently%20asked,best%20available%20study%20to%20date.
 “Criminal Justice Facts,” The Sentencing Project, 2022, https://www.sentencingproject.org/criminal-justice-facts/.
 “The Official MFM Merch Store,” My Favorite Murder, https://myfavoritemurder.com/store.
 Cooper and Smith, “Homicide Trends”
 Christina Maxouris, “A timeline of 22-year-old Gabby Petito's case,” CNN, January 21, 2022, https://www.cnn.com/2021/09/16/us/gabby-petito-timeline-missing-case/index.html.
 Emma Berquist, “True Crime is Rotting Our Brains,” Gawker, October 12, 2021, https://www.gawker.com/culture/true-crime-is-rotting-our-brains.
 Unfortunately, much information regarding other individuals of different ethnic and racial backgrounds is not available. Many communities of color are considered “white” within the framework of census demographics, which may significantly confound metrics on missing and murdered victims of color.
 Melanie Eversley, “When women of color disappear, who says their names?,” The Guardian, October 4, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/oct/04/when-women-of-color-disappear-who-says-their-names.
 Ruth Hopkins, “When the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Crisis Hits Home,” Teen Vogue, September 11, 2018, https://www.teenvogue.com/story/when-missing-and-murdered-indigenous-women-epidemic-hits-home.