TRUE CRIME TRUTH
Why Is Our Culture So Obsessed With Dead White Girls?
What does it say about us that so many movies, novels, and TV shows (looking at you Dateline) fixate on the subject of violence committed against women?
“Why does Jenny have to die?”
My high school offered a course in film, for one semester. One of the first movies we watched in that class was Forrest Gump. Our teacher raised concerning questions about the way the women in the film were depicted, in particular, the character of Jenny, Forrest’s only childhood friend, a victim of child molestation at the hands of her father, later a drug user, eventually dead by AIDS.
Dumbfounded, I searched my adolescent brain for an answer. Because it manipulates the audience into feeling more for Forrest? It makes her life a tragedy? Jenny sets out to live an independent life and she is punished for it, my teacher offered. Somewhere, in the back of my brain, a door opened. Today, it’s easy to recognize Jenny as a dead girl, the subject of Alice Bolin’s new book: Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession.
Edgar Allan Poe wrote that the “death of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world,” and obviously he was on to something there. From the romantic poets to Twin Peaks, the aforementioned ill-fated Jenny to the hapless victims in horror films who just can’t seem to run fast enough, popular culture is about filled to the brim with dead girls.
Our culture’s obsession with (usually white) dead girls is more than just a successful plot for television and movies. As Bolin argues in the first part of her book, “The Dead Girl Show,” the glamorization of violence against women is a disease. In the United States this year there have been over 150 mass shootings. “Domestic violence,” Bolin writes in her introduction, “is one of the strongest indicators of future mass violence, and their dynamics of control are so similar that some experts call it ‘intimate terrorism.’” We don’t just obsess over violence against women in our popular culture. We are constantly confronted with it in our daily lives.
Bolin is the first to admit that she too shares a fascination with dead girls, in the easily-digestible—in fact, binge-able—form of the true crime “murder” shows, like NBC’s Dateline. “If you watch enough hours of murder shows, you experience a peculiar sense of déjà vu,” Bolin writes, quoting from Gillian Flynn’s deconstruction of the typical “dead girl” narrative, Gone Girl. “It’s always the husband,” Flynn writes. “Just watch Dateline.”
Why is a show that features the murder (usually at the hands of their husbands, boyfriends, or male companions) of women so popular among women? Novelist Megan Abbott writes in the Los Angeles Times that the true crime genre serves “as the place women can go to read about the dark, messy stuff of their lives that they’re not supposed to talk about—domestic abuse, serial predation, sexual assault, troubled family lives, conflicted feelings about motherhood, the weight of trauma, partner violence and the myriad ways the justice system can fail, and silence, women.” A popular true crime podcast, My Favorite Murder, hosted by two women, puts it more simply: “Stay sexy. Don’t Get Murdered.”
Unlike the fantasy of romantic comedies or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, books or series where women (like Jenny) are punished for being human, true crime stories are the stories about the mysteries of real people. “Our trust in men is as unearned as it is unreciprocated —yet it’s expected,” Chelsea G. Summers writes at Medium. “And this is where true crime’s real value lies: Unlike love songs, unlike rom-coms, and unlike romance novels, true crime has no interest in telling us to trust men. Unlike politicians or bosses, it doesn’t seek to gaslight women.”
Women are true crime’s biggest fans because it is a pattern they recognize. And it’s a pattern you’d think would be obvious to anyone. In a piece for N+1 about the 2014 Isla Vista killings, Sarah Nicole Prickett writes, “These killings might have been slowed, might even have been stopped if more members of what is generously called ‘the system’ had the slightest acuity, maybe a little bit of feeling for a pattern, when it comes to fallen, immobilized men and their as-ever easiest targets.”
After all, “64 percent of all female murder victims are killed by an intimate partner,” Cammilla Collar writes in a piece for Medium. And most devastatingly: “Pregnant women and new mothers are more likely to die by murder than as a result of the three most prevalent pregnancy-and birth-related medical complications.”
The female survivors on murder shows also often end up becoming the detectives, taking matters into their own hands and solving crimes committed against their family members. One recent episode of Dateline featured two sisters who knew their father had murdered their mother. Her death had been ruled accidental, but they knew better. Without their perseverance, the D.A. admitted the case would have gone nowhere.
The late Michelle McNamara, obsessed with the unsolved case of the Golden State Serial Killer, became a de-facto detective through the research and writing of her book I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, which led directly to the killer’s capture after more than 30 years at large. Women’s fascination and realization of the ways in which they could become a victim is a knowledge that can be “weaponized,” as Abbott puts it, leading to perhaps different, better choices regarding their own safety and justice for past victims.
In one case, featured on, you guessed it, Dateline, a young woman was able to “weaponize” her knowledge against her attacker. The case was so epic it also spawned its own podcast, entitled Dirty John. The dirty John in question is one John Meehan, a con-man extraordinaire who seduced and married a woman named Debra Newell, only to threaten her and her family with violence when she finally wised-up to his crimes and left him.
Despite the fact that her daughters were terrified of him, Newell, along with her therapist, refused to believe that Meehan could actually be a physical threat to her or her family. One day, when she was getting out of her car, Debra Newell’s daughter Terra was attacked by Meehan. She managed to get control of the knife he wielded and stabbed him 13 times, once in the eye. He later died of his injuries. A search of his car at the scene revealed a so-called “kidnapping kit” that included zip-ties and a shovel.
When questioned by the police about the attack, Terra claimed she had wanted to make sure Meehan would not be a threat to her or her family any longer. She told them she had delivered the “zombie kill,” stabbing Meehan in the head, as the coup de grâce, a move she had learned from one of her favorite television shows: The Walking Dead.