Last week, Netflix released “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story,” a 10-episode series about the serial killer that preyed upon gay men, often gay men of color and sex workers (AV Club). The show is the latest in their ongoing collection of stories on murderers and serial killers. The docudrama quickly became the most-watched show on Netflix. Still, criticism is mounting after family members of the victims shared their frustration on social media, disclosing how none of them were contacted nor consented to the show’s release. The backlash shows the growing pushback to media portrayals of victims and highlights the disparities of how we relish in violence against marginalized people but fail to protect them.
The true crime genre is popular and quickly growing. A 2019 study found that over half of its respondents were interested in true crime entertainment (Civic Science). And a comprehensive analysis in Time found that the pandemic was likely to increase people’s appetite for the genre (Time). Often lost in the mania of a new show are the ethics of how it was made. From podcasts to TV shows and movies, many true crime productions are created without speaking to the victims or their families, forcing them to share their feelings on social media. Interestingly enough, in 2019, Netflix producers did contact the victims’ families of the victim for the series “I Am A Killer.” They begged the studio not to move forward with the project. The studio did, anyway.
• If you consume true crime content, reflect: which of the previous episodes centered on the victims? Did the creators mention any input from the victims’ families?
• Consider: what does dignity look like in telling others’ stories? How can you be a better storyteller in your life when carrying the words of others?
Events or crimes on public record don’t need consent to produce legally. Morally and ethically, it’s disturbing that production companies make money off the pain and trauma the victims and their families have experienced, especially when they’re excluded from the process. One scene from the Netflix series depicts a nearly identical re-enactment of an emotional court statement issued by Rita Isbell, the sister of Errol Lindsey, one of Jeffrey Dahmer’s victims. Isbell, who was never contacted before the production of the series, shared her thoughts with Insider:
When I saw some of the show, it bothered me, especially when I saw myself — when I saw my name come across the screen and this lady saying verbatim exactly what I said.
If I didn’t know any better, I would’ve thought it was me. Her hair was like mine, she had on the same clothes. That’s why it felt like reliving it all over again. It brought back all the emotions I was feeling back then.
I was never contacted about the show. I feel like Netflix should’ve asked if we mind or how we felt about making it. They didn’t ask me anything. They just did it.”
But it’s all the more twisted that our society obsesses on violence inflicted on others – especially women and other marginalized groups – and fails to protect them in everyday life. Serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer often focused on people they believed wouldn’t be missed – marginalized individuals already cast aside in society. And the data tracks – violence against LGBTQ+ people – especially those of color – has been growing over the past few years. LGBTQ+ people are four times more likely to be victims of a violent crime than straight people (Williams Institute). In this group, trans and gender nonconforming people are most likely to experience harm (HRC).
Stories of violence against marginalized people are less likely to be reported. Prominent news anchor Gwen Ifill referred to this as “missing white woman syndrome,” “the media’s seeming fascination with covering missing or endangered white women — like Gabby Petito, Laci Peterson, or Natalee Holloway — and its seeming disinterest in cases involving missing people of color” (NPR).
Just last week, 22-year-old Dasia Johnson was brutally murdered by her abusive ex-boyfriend. She was missing for a week before her body was found dismembered and stuffed into two suitcases in her apartment in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn. Johnson, a victim of domestic violence, had a restraining order against her ex, and neighbors repeatedly called the cops after previous incidences of violence (NYPost). Currently, her ex is still at large. Despite the gruesome severity of the crime, most major news outlets have failed to report it, sparking outrage on social media (Twitter).
Our society prefers to capitalize on the deaths of marginalized people but refuses to protect them while they’re alive.
Some victims’ families will willingly participate in media around true crimes, like those often seen in cold or unfinished cases. Even with informed consent, consider what it says about us that, as a society, we must rely on media to seek justice. We must do more today to ensure that harm experienced by the most marginalized never becomes trivialized, especially after they’re unfairly taken from this world.