Two of the most talked-about pieces of pop culture right now are Netflix productions — Blonde, the Marilyn Monroe biopic, and DAHMER – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, a series based on the life of the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. The conversations that have emerged around the two shows have had more to do with how Hollywood handles stories of abuse, rather than praise for the final products.
Dahmer premiered on Sept. 21 and has already become one of the platform’s greatest successes, despite its clunky title. It has amassed almost 300 million hours of viewing time in the past week alone.
Reaction to Dahmer has caused a lot of static. His victims’ families have publicly questioned the series’ need to “dramatize” and “humanize” Dahmer. Eric Perry, a cousin of Errol Lindsey, one of Dahmer’s victims, tweeted: “It’s retraumatizing over and over again, and for what? How many movies/shows/documentaries do we need?”
Netflix quietly removed the LGBTQ tag on the show after backlash on Twitter, but the platform hasn’t really commented on the pushback from families or the almost obsessive reaction from true crime fans — which reopens the conversation about how exploitative the genre can be.
The hashtag #jeffreydahmer has 4.5 billion views on TikTok. Popular videos include jokes about Dahmer, fan edits and original Dahmer footage to juxtapose with the Netflix show. But beneath the surface, there are some troubling videos, including shipping Dahmer with one of his victims, calling Dahmer “kinda hot” and bragging about being “unfazed” by the violence in the show.
y’all are literally bragging about this ??? pic.twitter.com/3f16cPOTEc
— jordan • they/them (@jd_occasionally) October 1, 2022
“When everyone is freaking out about how ‘morbid’ the show is…” one person captioned their video, according to a screenshot by one Twitter user, @uhhmmily. “And you’re just bummed they didn’t show the actual morbid parts…”
Dahmer was a serial killer and sex offender who murdered 17 boys and men, many of them Black, Hispanic, Indigenous and Asian American. His two youngest victims were only 14. He was able to operate for many years because of the institutional homophobia and racism rampant in Milwaukee at the time. The police failed the 17 victims, and Dahmer’s actions further perpetuated hateful stereotypes about the “deviant” LGBTQ community.
“I felt sorry for him,” Reddit user u/Terrible-Trust-5578, who wanted to be referred to by username, told In The Know after finishing the show. “He flunked out of college, got kicked out of the military and was just generally a disgrace to his family, living in a filthy apartment and feeling like the only way he could get people to stay with him was to kill them. It was just pitiful.”
The Dahmer series is doing a disservice to the victims and their families if audiences come away feeling sorry for Dahmer. The show omits or minimizes certain details — like the shrine Dahmer made using the bones of his victims and some of the more graphic details of his murders. While this could be out of respect for his victims, it arguably deemphasizes how heinous Dahmer’s crimes were.
The director, Ryan Murphy, had to walk a fine line — between risking further offense to the victims’ families and encouraging audiences to sympathize with or lust over an actual killer — but this calls into question why anyone should profit from retelling stories this repugnant in the first place.
Many fans of the show, including u/Terrible-Trust-5578, said that they started to watch the show to learn more about Dahmer’s psychological motivation. Even after watching the show, they said they still didn’t feel that they knew much about “the real Jeffrey Dahmer.”
“Logically, I fully believe he deserved the death penalty,” u/Terrible-Trust-5578 added. “But emotionally… Seeing him get killed was hard to watch.”
The true crime entertainment industry has exploded in recent years. A 2020 report found that in the six years since 2014, more than 200 true crime podcasts had been aired, with a majority of them ranking in the top 20 podcasts. Is everyone a psychologist now?
Lena Derhally, a psychologist and best-selling true crime author, noted that true crime is typically sensationalized — especially since it is marketed as entertainment. This can sometimes allow true crime fans to forget that it’s real.
“[True crime] is not often done with respect to the people impacted by it,” she told In The Know. “People often forget that real people were involved, and these crimes ruined the lives of their loved ones forever.”
The average member of the audience may not be able to comprehend the violence and cruelty. Watching and listening to these stories is a way for true crime fans to feel that they understand these people better — and even to justify what they did.
“We’re uneasy with this level of malevolence in others, and it scares us, so we believe that if we digest a lot of it, it won’t have such a power, and we can figure it out,” David Tzall, a New York-based psychologist, observed. “I see a correlation between the rise of mental health awareness to this type of entertainment. The figures are looked at more than just their crimes and their victims, but [why] did they turn out this way and how could they do what they did?”
Why does the average person need to justify and understand why Dahmer murdered 17 people? Derhally thinks it has to do with wanting to feel safer.
“For a lot of people, [it’s] almost becoming prepared,” she said. “Many true crime lovers are actually listening/watching because it is intel for them — they feel better after gathering information from real crime stories, so (hopefully) they do not become a victim.”
The demographics of these shows is predominantly women, and true crime is marketed specifically toward young white women. A majority of high-profile, publicized criminal cases involve white women, and the fate of missing and murdered people of color is disproportionately underreported.
According to one author and journalist, Rachel Monroe, the genre typically shows a “marked preference” for victims who “can be superficially portrayed as ‘innocent.'”
“This depiction of crime victims,” Monroe told Metro in 2021, “diverges quite a bit from what we know about who is, statistically speaking, most at risk of violence: young Black men; trans women; sex workers; Indigenous women; people struggling with addiction; the homeless, etc. — these folks are rarely at the center of pop culture true crime narratives.”
So if white women make up the majority of the true crime audience but the majority of crime targets are not white women, how do audiences feel “prepared” by absorbing content like Dahmer? Is that a good enough excuse to continue making such shows?
Tzall says Netflix’s Dahmer can only honestly be considered as entertainment — especially considering the creative liberties Murphy took retelling the story. So where should we draw the line between entertainment and the exploitation of real victims? Why do anything as horrific as Dahmer’s crimes need to be consumed through an entertainment lens?
“This show defanged Dahmer, because it became a production, so it can be looked at with less introspection and more entertainment value,” Tzall continued. “You can easily lose sight that he is real and his victims are real, when it becomes a show meant to entertain rather than educate.”
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