Why do crime documentaries always blame women?

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By Jasmine Waters

After three rounds of lockdown, the scripted arc of our favourite crime documentaries leaves women vulnerable to dehumanisation for the sake of sensationalist drama in an entirely new way. 

In the same length of endless time, many of us spent lockdown blissfully ‘completing Netflix’ from the comfort of our sofas. Others were increasingly subjected to violent domestic conditions, unable to seek safety and sanctuary elsewhere. Early figures pointed to 50 suspected domestic abuse killings occurring during the first lockdown alone, with the act of abuse in lockdown itself described as an “opportunistic infection”

Our nonfiction forms of media consumption often paint a picture of national domestic abuse as chilling, transparent and – most importantly – factually accurate. However, the additional lens of a documentary can taint the truth in the name of capital profit and entertainment.

Male violence against women is often extremely complex, showing itself and its effects over long bouts of time. As a result, it’s difficult to pinpoint and understand, and never appears in exactly the same way twice. It is this serious urgency and potential for misrepresentation that leaves the portrayal of abuse and the ‘woman victim’ to fall prey to the narrative documentary frame – after all, what’s a Netflix drop if it can’t leave us shook, or trending on Twitter? 

The narrative arc of true crime 

Looking back at the barrage of streamed true crime releases in the last few years, it’s not surprising that the same constructed narrative arcs and angles appear when the spotlight shines on women ‘done wrong’. The obsession with labelling sex workers and framing them negatively in The Ripper. Male directors profiting from female trauma in Murder to Mercy and The Death and Life of Marsha P Johnson. The continued media gaslighting of Amanda Knox.

These titles won’t be news to anyone – we’ve seen them all. Instead of spending time with friends in a restaurant, we hung out with Sister Cathy Cesnik and watched Lindsay Haugen scream into the void in favour of a drink down the pub.

The biggest red flag comes with the continued missing validity – of events, opinion and our perceptions of the women themselves. Since TV subscribers have had little else to do but exhaust the supply of crime-on-demand, could perceptions of women in trouble be warped thanks to a lack of human interaction? Could the momentum of “she was asking for it” increase – not slow down – while we happily skip to the next episode?

The ‘villain edit’ of Linda Lee Couch

In season 2, episode 4 of Netflix’s popular series I Am A Killer, we receive a masterclass in the ‘victim to monster’ edit of a woman scorned in the form of Linda Lee Couch. Killing her husband in 1984 after suffering years of heinous domestic abuse, the documentary episode distinctly captures this transition in a tidy three-act structure. 

We are presented with the normal, all-American family, an opening gambit of “I am a good person”. Linda is a woman taking all the right societal steps, the courtship with her husband-to-be clean and pure, leading into the monstrous abuse she continued to suffer at his hands. We see glimpses of gun culture and classic family values, culminating in what is shown to be an innocent act of self-defence.

As quickly as this image leaves our screen, monster Linda replaces it. The accounts of her personal life are immediately chastised as “claiming abuse” by former assistant prosecutor Patrick Dinkelacker. He grasps at embedded sexism and stereotypes to back his beliefs, reawakening the most used domestic abuse denial line since time immemorial: “why all these years later?”. In the eyes of the law, a traumatised Linda needed to report abuse as soon as it happened, otherwise her turmoil wasn’t valid. We’re told the previous facts don’t favour the deceased, implying the bigger tragedy is the defamation of a man’s character.

The third act provides a gut punch in the guise of Linda’s children. Isolated and removed from their former lives, we see childhood trauma sensationalised to further the narrative of a deranged woman. Listening to statements from 2020’s imprisoned Linda, her daughter delivers the gasp-worthy climax of having a hand in concealing her father’s death. Through that veneer is a woman clearly not of sound mind making decisions she wasn’t capable of. Despite this, not even the social connotations of a shaking geriatric can derail the narrative of evil, monstrous woman.

Parting with a warped take on the American dream, Linda tells interviewers she dreams of living out her final days free. They tell us she’s been denied parole at least five times.

A tale as old as time?

Are we doubting Linda’s intent of doing what she did? Probably not. It’s a question of  documentary editing preying on fragile mental health, creating a subconsciously harmful narrative that locked down viewers could absorb. At a time when the outside world is a sparse memory, we’re less likely to question what we’re presented with.

Adding to the media depiction of crazed, criminal women is another terrifying thought. With justice servers and protectors like Patrick Dinkelacker getting substantial air-time, will his sexist views seem acceptable to say? Or worse: will they act as a deterrent to not report future abuse? 

Throughout everything depicted on our screen, downplaying the severity of ongoing mental trauma caused by domestic abuse can’t be denied. The longevity of impact is unknown – were the abuse naysayers in Bikram influenced by past media coverage? Will history repeat itself when viewers watch the traumatic assault on Cheryl Araujo in Trial by Media?  

We’re yet to properly know, outside of tweeters weighing in with anger and disbelief over the latest woman at the heart of a globally trending crime documentary. What we are definitively left with, is a message that not only will people in powerful security positions not believe women – the documentaries we love to consume won’t either.