True crime is so popular as ‘there is affinity with the perils women experience in society’

What do you guys consider true crime? Before I read this article, I would mainly associate the phrase with murder, abduction and other physical crimes, but it certainly encompasses financial crimes as well. But generally, I do love a good fictional murder mystery so I suppose it makes sense that interest carries over to my watching the Law and Order franchise, those creepy shows about disappearances on Investigation Discovery, etc.

I never thought too much about my interest in these disturbing topics — perhaps it was the detective aspect — but this Variety article really explores the why of people’s interest in true crime entertainment. In particular, true crime has a large female audience. The execs quoted in the article speculate about that.

“The fascination with true crime has never been stronger,” says Dan Korn, VP of programming at A+E Networks U.K ., whose channels include Crime + Investigation. “We spend a lot of time trying to work out why that is. Did people’s sense of isolation in lockdown have something to do with it?

“People are fascinated by stories of almost inconceivable inhumanity and trying to understand why people do these things,” he adds. “They’re also in love with the detective process — the romance of police detection. The audience loves seeing cops doing their work…”

“I, Sniper, the Washington Killers,” produced by [John] Smithson’s Arrow Pictures, plays out over six episodes. It recounts the shocking account of 17-year-old Lee Malvo and Gulf War veteran John Muhammad, who went on a shooting spree in the D.C. area that resulted in the death of 10 people over 23 days in 2002.

The series, shown by Vice in the U.S. and Channel 4 in the U.K., took 15 years from conception to completion and is typical of highend true crime docus that involve costly, time-consuming edits.

“Once upon a time you’d do something like this as, at most, a two-hour special but now you do it as a box set,” says Smithson, who credits the streamers with raising the bar for true crime. “There’s no question the streamers have acted as a catalyst.”

“The streamers have exposed people to a new way of storytelling,” echoes Olivia Morgan, acquisitions and co-production executive at U.K. boutique distributor BossaNova.

While many of the shows that cut through are editorially and visually ambitious, true crime TV’s core audience remains the same. Murder, mayhem and the mob are a staple part of a lot of viewers’ screen diet. Many shows are aimed at suburban females who tend to watch a lot of daytime TV.

“So many of our viewers are women in their 40s,” Korn says. “A lot of the victims are women … and there is this identification and affinity with the perils that women experience in society.”

He adds: “For some women — and this is not to trivialize it — crime stories have a bit of a soap-opera quality to them. Some of the titles, ‘Nightmare Next Door’ or ‘Women Who Kill,’ have a tabloidesque or soap-opera aspect.”

Morgan agrees: “Female viewers do absolutely love true crime. It’s a human-interest thing — the human stories that are involved in these horrific times. When you tell a story very well, it captures the audience’s empathy as well as the horror.

“Why do people watch horror films? We can’t explain why people are obsessed with the dark side of humanity, but they are. Obviously, true crime captures something in what is traditionally termed the female psyche.”

Morgan says true crime TV needs to evolve to the point where there is less emphasis on the male gaze and some of the other cliches of the genre. “You don’t want to fall into the trap of ‘Here’s another rape of a blonde girl.’ When you’re developing true crime, it’s important to be aware of how the material can be sensationalized,” he says. “You need to be a responsible distributor and encourage development that veers away from the traditional male-focused narrative and think about how the story is relevant to today and appeals to modern audiences.

While the past content includes “a real penchant for the ultimate victim being female,” that’s not actually the case.

“Unfortunately, there are more murders committed against women,” Morgan says. “Statistically, more men murder men than women murder men so it’s always going to be a bit one-sided. These shows need to be research-based, rather than sensationalist and build on the stories from the point of view of the investigation and have a genuine point of difference that isn’t that kind of unhealthy ‘Wow, isn’t it dreadful that this actually happened?’ These days you need to be cleverer than that.”

Clearly, producers need to be sensitive to the feelings of the victims and their families to avoid gratuitously sexing up the crime. “Anyone who works on these programs is constantly on a tight rope of trying to create something that is compelling. It’s easy to cross a line into areas where, as a filmmaker you feel less comfortable,” Smithson says. “You’ve got to be aware that you’re dealing with real people and real victims.”

[From Variety via Yahoo]

What would you say started the latest wave of the true crime craze? I would say the first season of Serial, though I suppose that’s just my perspective. The Law and Order franchise is also ubiquitous and became very easy to binge watch with the rise of streamers. And then, my absolute favorite, Only Murders in the Building, is about the true crime craze and the personalities it attracts. What the article says about streamers and a new way of storytelling is true: streaming series really allow a story to unfold and breathe, instead of condensing most of the relevant details into an hour or two and missing a lot of nuance. (In general this is my opinion on TV vs. movies, but I’m aware this is an unpopular opinion).

The suggested reasons why women might connect more with true crime stories are interesting. I disagree with the soap opera comparison — even though he qualified that comment by saying he didn’t mean to trivialize it, it definitely came off as a little condescending. I think the human interest speculation is correct. Making generalizations here, but I think we empathize and think about the people at the center of these stories and try to imagine what their lives are like. And then there’s always the “it could happen to anyone, it could happen to me” aspect. Real crimes against women are often heavily covered in news and often unsolved, so watching stories that solve or at least attempt to solve these crimes can bring a sense of resolution and relief. And perhaps consuming this media about terrible things that can happen can make other, everyday life problems seem lesser in comparison.

Photos are from Netflix’s American Murder: The Family Next Door featuring Shanann and Chris Watts

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53 Responses to “True crime is so popular as ‘there is affinity with the perils women experience in society’”

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  1. Eurydice says:

    Nope – don’t like it, won’t watch it.

  2. Heather says:

    Serial definitely sort of awakened the true crime obsession but Dateline in particular has been around for many years for a reason. And then you have 48 Hours and 20/20. And before that, it was the original Unsolved Mysteries (the new reboot on Netflix is really well done). I think it’s the need to try and see if we can ‘arm chair detective’ the crimes and solve them. It’s like a puzzle.

    As a victim of a horrific crime – my father was murdered by a hitchhiker in the 70’s which was of course peak hitchhiker killing time – I’m always fascinated with the family of the victim and how they cope and how they are doing in general. I was too young to understand the horrific way my father died – or really death in general – but I’m always amazed my mother survived that and went on to raise me and my sister alone. She never remarried.

    • equality says:

      Nobody close in my family has been murdered but, I agree, I like to see that the survivors are doing well, especially when their are children involved.

    • BothSidesNow says:

      @ Heather, I am incredibly sorry for your loss, as well as the loss that your sister and Mother experienced as well. Please accept my condolences.

    • Stacey Dresden says:

      That is so sad Heather. I’m terribly sorry.

  3. Willow says:

    I like reading mystery fiction and mystery/crime shows. Not because of the crime itself, but because of the search for clues and how the detectives figure out the crime. True crime stories, I think it’s important to publicize the unsolved ones, especially when a person is still missing.

  4. Noki says:

    I am almost out of true crime shows to watch from hbo max,hulu,netflix Lol i especially watch at night before bed,when i tell people ts soothing they cant understand.

    • Bre says:

      At a basic level, I’ve always thought that men liked watching sports so much because of their natural drive towards competition while women like true crime because of a natural drive to solve problems

    • Aevajohnson says:

      I’m right there with you. I fall asleep to True Crime ASMR on youtube most nights.

      • BothSidesNow says:

        I enjoy the true crime stories as well but I think we can all agree that the audience is both male and female. I find the stories fascinating due to being a woman and wanting to try and solve the crimes themselves, just as @ Bre described. We are problem solvers and are involved in wanting to help.

        But there are still a great deal of men who watch, produce and create true crime content on all platforms.

  5. ipetgoat2 says:

    It definitely is part of the reason these shows and stories are successful – women’s lives are being shown, the perils of it, and that helps female viewers associate. One could argue it’s a woman-based genre, and it’s a sad indicator of the lack of stories being told about women’s lives that this genre skews so heavily towards women, and of the reality of the dangers we face.

    • BeanieBean says:

      That’s the crux of it I think, the realities of the dangers we face daily. We’re the ones who are taught to have your keys out when going to the car or the front door, to park under a light, to always have that $20 bill tucked away for cab fare, etc. It’s perilous being a woman.

      • Tiffany:) says:

        Yes! I think women are drawn to true crime because of SURVIVAL. We are trying to collect information on how to stay alive.

        My true crime watching started when I was a kid watching Unsolved Mysteries. I had different escape routes planned in my house in case the murderer came in the front door, or my bedroom window, etc.

  6. Songs (Or It Didn't Happen) says:

    I mean, I enjoyed true crime when it came in *gasp* book form, but I find this newer trend of true crime fascination disrespectful and hindering at some points when the crime is recent or ongoing. The Gabby Petito case, for example, when misinformation was being put out and everyone posting their opinions and theories before the body was even cold,caught up too much in solving “the mystery” that many forgot these were very real people grieving, and actual trained investigators trying to bring the guilty to justice….. And I realize it has always been that way when there is a sensational crime that grips the nation, but social media amplifies it and really, really puts it in your face.

  7. Scal says:

    True crime has always been a thing. Think back to Jack the Ripper, in cold blood etc -but you can also see it in old news papers from the 1800s. Like you said-there was 20/20 and dateline and various mystery shows in the 70s-90s.

    Now with the internet and streaming you have a lot more media that are also trying to cash in. More stories that would have stayed local getting out there.

    • BeanieBean says:

      ‘If it bleeds it leads’, as true today as it ever was.

    • Truthiness says:

      I really enjoy SOLVED true crime, at the end you have taken someone dangerous off the streets. The catnip I like the best are the true crimes where the police were 100% stumped and psychics pointed out who to focus on and where to look for evidence/blood drops/clothing.

      Watched a story last week how a psychic helped find the famous serial murderer John Wayne Gacy, after one of the families asked for her help when it seemed like a hopeless cold case. Given a posession, that poor psychic had visions of the missing boy’s death but also that it was a house of many many deaths, she was horrified and traumatized. At least they got their man, Gacy was executed.

      • LaUnicaAngelina says:

        I also prefer SOLVED true crime stories. Whatever you watched about the psychic sounds very interesting. What was it? Thanks!

  8. zinjazin says:

    I watch it sometimes, as sad as it is it’s stories about women and their lifes and loves.
    It is also a reminder to myself to stay vigilant and not be to trusting about what people I let into my life, since I have been to naive in the past.

    • minx says:

      I used to watch “I Survived,” that show definitely made me want to be aware of my surroundings! The predicaments weren’t all crime stories but I found it fascinating because the narrators, well, survived.

      • zinjazin says:

        Thankyou so much for your suggestion Minx! 🙂
        I will check it out!
        ( sorry for the late answer but I’m other the other side of the pond so to speak, at least I guess so, because I am always late or early with my comments it seems!)

      • minx says:

        I’m not sure exactly where you can find “I Survived”, I don’t think it’s in production anymore. But it must be streamed somewhere.

      • zinjazin says:

        So I went looking and turns out they are available on YT amongst other options for streaming!

  9. Loco Moco says:

    I am addicted to it. I can watch a whole weekend of true crime. That’s my version of Netflix and Chill. The only shows I won’t watch is the ones where the crime is unsolved. I have to know that someone is going to be punished for their crimes.

    • BothSidesNow says:

      I can watch the unsolved ones but the ones that I am truly addicted to are the urban legend stories as well as National Park disappearances too! I am fascinated by stories of skin walkers, el chapocabre, as well as eastern Asian urban legend stories, many of which are actually true.

  10. Doodle says:

    I have liked true crime since I was a kid and my mother made some questionable parenting choices regarding what she allowed us to watch. My brother and I were obsessed with the made for TV movie about Diane Downs starring Farrah Fawcett – I think I was ten when that came out. As far as what this guy said about the tabloid shows goes, I don’t watch any of those, they are too soapy for me and too disrespectful. I am going to CrimeCon at the end of the month and many victim advocates and families attend and speak, and last year Gina DeJesus spoke and she was incredibly inspiring.

    In general, it’s more the psychology behind the crimes I find interesting. For example, three kids grow up in a typical suburban family. Two are fine, one becomes a ritual killer. Why? I want to know the why. I don’t understand it, but I want to. Can we find patterns in that sort of behavior? I was in the fourth grade when I first heard about forensics being a career choice but I sucked at science. This is my way of compensating.

  11. Stephanie says:

    I like to watch some true crime here and there but it has gone to a new level lately. I think women watch because some stories help make you more aware of certain red flags. (Just my opinion obviously). I do know people-both men and women- who absolutely aren’t interested at all in true crime.

  12. Hannah says:

    As a sexual assault survivor who reported too late and my abuser was never brought to justice, I enjoy the stories where there is some level of justice or accountability, it’s the one thing I have never had and I need to believe that it exists.

    • SIde Eye says:

      So sorry this happened to you Hannah. Yes that’s one thing these shows do for me as well bring relief that these people got caught. I like to see crimes get solved and people held to account.

  13. SIde Eye says:

    I love Only Murders in the Building. It’s my favorite show of all time. I grew up watching murder mysteries like Columbo and Murder She Wrote. I apologize if this sounds awful but I associate these kinds of shows with my childhood and there’s a comfort to re-watching them. I know that’s strange cause someone gets murdered in every episode. Also I grew up in Canada watching Keith Morrison and Valerie Pringle on the news. And I find Keith Morrison’s voice to be so soothing – so now I’m all caught up in Datelines and Dateline Secrets Uncovered. I really loved Law & Order, especially where Jerry Orbach and Benjamin Bratt were together on it, with Carrie Lowell.

  14. Gracie says:

    I think there is certainly a different tone to the true crime shows now – there are some that focus on notorious cases but add information about the press or attitudes of the time that may have hindered justice. That is pretty interesting – learning how the investigative process has evolved (or not). I don’t mind most of the shows featuring crimes against women, because statistically it is true and exposes this problem. Anything that highlights and imprints on people the prevalence of DV, failures of the legal system to protect stalking victims, or other common themes is to our benefit imo. Some are incredibly hard to get through, because victim voice is more prevalent now, but I think it’s okay to be curious about the motives, etc.

    • Deering24 says:

      That’s why I love A Crime To Remember (cancelled for no good reason, unfortunately. 😭) It featured crimes that broke the mold (for example the segregated southern town that united to find the Gaffney Strangler)— and were often lost to history. It was terrific at showing changes in societal attitudes and investigating science/techniques. And it looked terrific—every episode was done in the relevant period style.

  15. Andrea says:

    I grew up in the suburbs of Toronto in the 90s, in the shadow of two of Canada’s most notorious murderers. I won’t name them because why feed into their egos. The victims families have suffered greatly including trying to stop a film from being made. I’m a little fuzzy on the details, but it was a Laura Prepon movie, over 2 decades ago. The girls who went missing were my age at the time. I feel so much empathy for the victims and their families. I cannot derive any sort of pleasure from true crime.

    • Celebitchy says:

      I was in Buffalo, NY for college around this time and I know who you’re talking about. Absolutely awful.

    • BeanieBean says:

      Oh, god, yes, I remember reading an in-depth Newsweek article about them. And wished I hadn’t. That haunted me for the longest time.

    • Doodle says:

      A friend of the family knew one of the victims. Her mother spoke at our school. To this day I cannot listen to anything regarding that crime because so much of the story as it is known is sanitized – and what is known is truly heinous. I still love true crime but I absolutely can’t with that story.

  16. MeghaO says:

    As someone who has people in their life that have experienced trauma I can’t watch fictional Law and Order type shows. If you live through it, it feels glorifying to see it played out for cash/ad revenue/ratings. Maybe someone who hasn’t experienced it may learn something from these shows, but I highly doubt needing to watch multiple episodes on these topics is educational past a few episodes let alone 20+ years of them… Listening to true stories where there is some sort of repercussions/vindication are a bit less salacious.

  17. Case says:

    I feel differently than most people commenting on this — I’m a huge fan of the horror genre because it actually does more to examine women’s stories — about grief, agency, womanhood, motherhood — than most dramas do. It allows women to be real and flawed and unlikable like no other genre and I love that. But I can’t do true crime. The idea of taking real people’s pain and turning it into entertainment disturbs me, and I also really prefer not to hear about things that could very realistically happen to me.

  18. DeltaJuliet says:

    I think my interest began during the Laci Peterson disappearance. We were the same age and both pregnant with our first children. I related to her and I was so devastated (although honestly not surprised) when the truth came out.

  19. Jo says:

    I am glad to know that some of the victims of crimes enjoy watching these documentaries although sad to confirm that others don’t. I’ve always wondered that: how about people who have gone through this and then see these horrendous crimes callously depicted as “comforting to watch?”. But the human psyche is far more complex and I am sure that knowledge is power for some and feeling safe might be the confort they talk about.
    I believe that women can be more empathic and interested in others, therefore, there is a sense of curiosity and learning in some documentaries (certainly not all). There was a doc on Netflix about the disappearance of a kid that touched upon society’s view of lesbianism and self-homophobia which was interesting.
    However there is a line for me. I could not watch making a Murderer, and in hindsight, Serial was equally exploitative albeit done with less sensationalism. The doc whose photos in this article were taken from (The murdered next door, I think), scarred me for life. I recoil every time my mind goes there. We live in the era of information and some of us are hooked on it. But not all information is just that, or a research into society. Some crimes truly provide an onlook on our societal biases but a lot of them are voyeuristic in my opinion and now I am far more interested in documentaries about art, high finance schemes (the Maxwell one on BBC is really compelling) or weird con schemes such as Bad Vegan.

    • Doodle says:

      Don’t F*ck With Cats on Netflix goes into this a bit – how some true crime people go way too far down the rabbit hole and start going vigilante on people and ruining their lives. I like watching documentaries that are well done and make me think and question my own opinion about things, for example I have watched Werner Herzog’s Into The Abyss twice as it looks at different angles of the death penalty – the inmate, the inmate’s intimate partner, the prison warden, the guard – and right at the outside you know what Herzog’s opinion is and that he isn’t trying to change any outcomes. Both times I watched it I have sat back and questioned people’s motives, and that’s where my interest lays.

      • Jo says:

        I haven’t watched that Herzog documentary yet. Loved Grizzly Man (I think?) and now I have to watch Don’t F*ck with Cats 😅 I also like to watch things that either question my opinions or that present nuance even in a situation where it is clear who is wrong and who is right. Because one thing is justice and the other whatever led for a situation to escalate. Humans are fascinating and a lot of docs reduce them to caricatures.

  20. minx says:

    Depends on the case, some are definitely more compelling than others.

  21. BeanieBean says:

    Fascinating thesis. For me, though, I can only handle fictional murder stories–and only the light ones, at that (I like my murder fun! I just picked up the latest Stephanie Plum book. ;-). True crime is just too much for me, it weighs on my mind too much. Fictionalized true crime, the ‘based on a true story’ variety, I can handle, too, just not reality. For example, the photos in this post? With those sweet little girls smiling at the camera? I’m afraid to even look up who they are.

  22. damejudi says:

    I was middle school age when John Wayne Gacy killed his last victim-who a teen neighbor happened to be dating. I remember all of the televised news coverage. I think this primed me to become a true crime aficionado.

    Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark resonated with how she asked herself, why am I so interested in this?

    Why am I so interested in true crime? Why can I read it, and watch the documentaries-but I’ll never watch a horror movie.

  23. Usedtobehappy21 says:

    Im a reader and I always got my true crime in the form of a book (Ann Rule, Joe McGinnis, Gregg Olsen, Vincent Bugliosi, Peter Maas). In my late teens and into my mid-20’s I read nothing but true crime. I had boxes and boxes of the shit. I was obsessed. I later became a paralegal for criminal lawyers because of my interest in it. I’ve since outgrown it mostly to the point of only watching a few shows on regular cable occasionally and not really listening to the crime podcasts. I’m still a reader but don’t really read it anymore. Maybe I’m true crimed out from basically a lifetime of it?? I’m not sure. I think because of the streaming platforms and the abundance of podcast material out there, it is appealing to the masses. Before, not everyone read so if you didn’t read you maybe watched American Justice or Forensic Files but it wasn’t everywhere all the time. Now it’s there no matter if you want to read it, listen or watch. Whatever your poison is, true crime is there for your viewing, listening and watching pleasure.

  24. Flowerlake says:

    I watch the youtube of some of the women who compile the information about these cases.

    Some are really good, compasionate and try to give tips about being safe (like: careful who you give your information online too etc). Might seem obvious but women can’t afford to be naive and trusting unfortunately.

    The reason I watch them is because they show it from a woman’s point of view.
    Just tried a few on youtube until I found some I think seem genuinely respectful.

  25. diana says:

    I’m obsessed with Snapped. it’s incredible what people will do for a little insurance money

  26. Leskat says:

    Just FYI, that bottom picture of Chris Watts does not have Shanann in it. That’s his mistress.

  27. stormyshay says:

    I think women have a natural curiosity with wanting to understand people. I have always been interested in true crime, from watching dateline, to reading books on serial killers, etc. The theories and psychology behind why someone does what they do, is fascinating. It certainly makes me be more cautious with strangers or when in unfamiliar surroundings. The last year or so I have been into listening to Morbid on iTunes. They do such a good job focusing on the victims and exploring the impact on others, aside from the perpetrators.

  28. The Recluse says:

    Dateline, 48 Hours and 2020 are the grand old dads of this sort of programming. We still watch Dateline. Sometimes they cover big event natural disasters like the tsunamis in Indonesia and Japan.
    SNL did a video skit all about murder shows. It was the episode that one of the Jonas brothers hosted. Look it up if you haven’t seen it already.
    As for my fascination with true crime programs, mine goes back to Charles Manson and his family. He was the boogeyman of my childhood, as I used to tell my much younger co-workers: the boogeyman was real when I was a kid.
    Personally, I have a hardcore fascination with anything involving art, like the Netflix series about the Gardner Museum thefts in 1990.

  29. Trillion says:

    There’s gotta be some My Favorite Murder fans on this thread, no? Celebitchy Murderinos? Anyhow, MFM got me into the genre when they started their podcast a few years ago. Unfortunately, I did finally listen to the episode about a close friend of mine that was raped/murdered and that was a mistake on my part. I do have to give it a rest from time to time because it does make me paranoid and depressed.

  30. Von Barron says:

    I work in forensics and I do not like the true crime genre. I do biocultural profiles on long term unresolved missing and unidentified individuals, among other things.

    I also taught undergraduate intro to forensics. Many students took the course because of their love of true crime.
    By the end of the semester they all thought it was stylized and not realistic.

    I’d much rather see stories about missing white woman syndrome or the fact that at any given time 80,000 + individuals are missing or unidentified in the US. Anything with a call to action.

    My general take is that If you wouldn’t feel comfortable watching or listening to the true crime media while sitting next to the victims next of kin, you shouldn’t be consuming it.