Why I Stopped Watching Making A Murderer
Over the holidays, my Twitter feed and favorite news sites were filled with articles about Making a Murderer, the new Netflix series literally taking the country by storm. Curious, I decided to check it out, too. I made it through the third episode before my feelings of anger and disgust set in, and I just couldn’t bring myself to continue watching more.
To be honest, I’m not a big fan of crime stories, though I sometimes read about them in the news. I shy away from shows like Dexter and CSI because I find them creepy. I tried listening to Serial last year, since I’m a big This American Life fan, but I just found it uncompelling. And as I watched those first episodes of Making A Murderer, I became aware of a theme, something I first noticed in Serial.
What about the victims, I kept thinking; where are their stories?
Both Serial and Making a Murderer focus on the violent deaths of two young women, and the Netflix series also covers a brutal sexual assault in which the victim fought her attacker and survived. The details of each crime are excruciating to hear, and because both stories cover the subsequent trials and imprisonment of the accused, the cases are meticulously poured over for our understanding and our entertainment. But Serial and Making a Murderer share a common characteristic that we easily forget. They are real cases, with real crimes committed against real victims. And in both of these instances, real lives were ended.
The stories are definitely interesting and relevant, and have always held a place of interest for newspaper readers and television viewers alike. In the wake of recent police shootings of black men and women and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, corruption within law enforcement and local government is on the minds of many. Both Serial and Making a Murderer examine the obviously botched murder investigations and unfair trials of the accused, shedding light on the many flaws of our criminal justice system. It’s a fair discussion to have, and Chitra Ramaswamy’s recent article in The Guardian suggests that Making A Murderer marks the shift of the true-crime genre into “mainstream and even highbrow culture.”
As the investigation into these crimes and unfair trials play out, the focus shifts from the victims of the attacks to the alleged perpetrators, and the women who were killed at the hands of angry men fall into the background. That’s what bothers me.
Ann Brocklehurst, a journalist and private investigator, calls these shows “Injustice Porn” in her recent blog post about the topic. She notices the interesting dichotomy that these crimes were committed against women by men, yet women are also the creators of Serial and Making a Murderer, which portray the accused as victims of law enforcement and the justice system. The goal of these programs is to shed light on the men’s stories, to educate the public about the wrongs of our nation’s legal system, and also, to entertain us. In the process, the language and techniques used to explain the men’s experiences often downplay or even insult the victims.
The popularity of Making a Murderer is so immense that it’s become a national phenomenon, requiring a response from the White House after a recent petition to free the accused garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures and continues to grow. Everyone wants a piece of the story, and half-baked, click-bait posts like Slate’s recent article by Leon Neyfakh on Penny Beerntsen, the sexual assault victim featured in Making a Murderer, only add to the problem. Neyfakh titled the piece, “What It Feels Like to Send an Innocent Person to Prison for 18 Years,” effectively placing blame upon the victim’s shoulders, when in reality, she was led astray purposely by inept and corrupt law enforcement. The actual URL for this story even contains a misspelling of Beerntsen’s first name (calling her ‘Peggy;’ her last name is often misspelled), yet nobody at Slate has noticed. What Leon Neyfakh fails to cover in his piece is better explained in Romper’s article, written by Jamie Kenney. I encourage you to read that to comprehend the courage and grace Mrs. Beerntsen possesses.
It’s also worth noting that Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi, the creators of Making a Murderer, chose to include clips of local reporters interviewing the accused and reporting on the crime within the series. Calling the local press “window characters” in an interview with Jen Yamato for The Daily Beast, the filmmakers show the bias already present among the reporters, before the victim is found and the trial even takes place. And near the beginning of the series, reporters were shown constantly asking Steven Avery if he forgave Penny Beerntsen, as if she was the one who set out to frame him for her own sexual assault.
That complete disregard for the victims of these crimes is incredibly hard to take. I noticed it first within Serial and later, while watching Making A Murderer, and I just couldn’t watch any longer. Demos and Ricciardi have been called biased in their own reporting, which they deny, but I think they were careless in the representation of the female victims. It was most likely not intentional and came from a desire to portray Steven Avery, the show’s main subject, in the most empathetic way. Yet, by doing so, it ultimately creates a bias that is palpable, in my opinion.
The crimes explored within Serial and Making a Murderer are tragic and senseless, and their subsequent investigations and trials are equally frustrating. But there has to be a better way to examine this difficult topic without forgetting the women who lost their lives. They weren’t characters in poorly written crime dramas on broadcast television, but actual living people whose stories deserve to be told. Making a Murderer falls far short of this purpose and quickly lost me as a viewer for this reason.
Bronwen Dickey, in her piece for Slate, examines some of the other emotional issues at work within Making a Murderer. Kathryn Schulz, in a New Yorker piece out this week, carefully explores how the show gets it wrong. And recently, the New York Times Magazine featured a long-form article that goes behind the scenes of a special victims unit in Connecticut. It’s both insightful and respectfully written.
From Ann Brocklehurst’s blog: “‘Injustice Porn’ like Serial and Making a Murderer celebrates men who kill and abuse women.”
From The New Yorker: “Dead Certainty: How Making a Murderer Goes Wrong” by Kathryn Schulz.
From The New York Times Magazine: “To Catch a Rapist” by Kathy Dobie.