Misrepresentations of Homicide in Pop Culture

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How often do you consider the experience of the victim of homicide cases rather than the perpetrator? Professor Ashley Wellman is invested in supporting victims of unsolved homicide cases with their grief and trauma, unlike many pop culture crime narrations.

By Amanda Smiley, class of 2019

Danger and crime are undeniable facets of society. The same acts of violence that make horror movies murder mysteries so popular and enticing are horrific when they happen in real life and are shown on the nightly news. The criminal mind is both feared and revered in today’s society. But while pop culture is increasing its criminal content to appease viewers’ demands, one major player gets left behind: the victims.

Texas Christian University criminal justice professor Ashley Wellman researches the ways victims and survivors of homicide crimes go unnoticed and are poorly represented in pop culture. Wellman not only teaches criminal justice classes at TCU, but she works as a mediator between law enforcement, families and individuals who have suffered from – or been victims of – unsolved homicide cases. Frustration in unsolved homicide cases often stems from the fact that victims and survivors don’t have closure on the crime and do not feel supported by law enforcement, she explains.

Families dealing with unsolved homicide cases “have such a different grief process because they don’t have anyone to blame other than other family members, the victim, themselves, the police…[they often suffer from] this layer of blame and frustration that they can’t overcome until they have a perpetrator.”

A conversation with one particular mom who lost her son to homicide gave Wellman a new perspective. The mom simply wanted someone to talk to about her feelings, her grief and her lack of closure, and Wellman was eager to be that person. Wellman went from working with law enforcement to being an advocate for grieving families and victims soon after, saying it really was as simple as “being compassionate and being a human being.”

The consumption of pop culture is not that simple, however. Wellman explains that because people are fascinated with crime (particularly the perpetrators) producers – and even writers – utilize the narratives they know will sell. But, the storyline that sells isn’t always reflective of real-life homicide cases.

The frustration between families and law enforcements usually starts with the treatment of the victim or situation on the basis of race and sometimes social status. Wellman explains that the majority of homicide crimes are inflicted on people of color and people in marginalized areas of society. Generally speaking, crime shows and films do not frame homicide narratives around these kinds of people. On television, the victim is often white and female.

It’s true: white, female homicide narratives sell better than the more likely homicide cases involving people of color or people in marginalized communities, explains Wellman. Understanding the audience is key to any media production, and producers and writers know that the average viewer is not going to be as interested in the homicide of a black male drug dealer or a hispanic prostitute, says Wellman. In many news releases about homicides, the media will often “diminish the victim’s character” by noting that the victim was a “known drug dealer.” Wellman notes that this allows viewers to “feel like it couldn’t happen to them” and frames an inaccurate perception of homicide cases in general.

Many families involved in cold case homicides have expressed their frustrations to Wellman and told her, “because my loved one was either African American or some other minority, or that they live a fringed lifestyle like a prostitute or drug dealer, that the media doesn’t cover them in the same manner.’” Wellman explains, producers “are picking cases that don’t fit the norm of homicide, and therefore it’s further disenfranchising people who are actually impacted by these crimes [most often].”

This discrepancy applies to serial killers, too. Although incredibly rare, the media and pop culture often inflate the perceived prevalence of serial killers, and the recent chatter about Ted Bundy is just one example of this. Netflix released “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes” in January of 2019, and the movie “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” starring Zac Efron is set to be in theatres in fall of 2019. If serial killers are so rare, why is Ted Bundy an increasingly popular character in American pop culture? The answer lies in the stereotypes and misperceptions aforementioned, Wellman suggests.

Ted Bundy was indeed a charming, attractive, educated individual, as many sources note. While these qualities undoubtedly make him an “interesting” character, his victims were exactly those expected in pop culture homicide narratives: white, female, and not in marginalized communities.

Ted Bundy is no typical serial killer, and his victims are not typical victims. Wellman explain that this is precisely what media and pop culture do all the time: they cater to what sells. “A serial killer [is] incredibly rare…but it’s not interesting to know that two drug dealers got into a debate and shot each other… it’s not interesting to know that a prostitute got in the wrong car, unless [the perpetrator] ends up being a serial killer,” explains Wellman.

While homicide perpetrators are often misrepresented, there is a greater disservice to homicide crimes, suggests Wellman. The experience of the victim or the victim’s grieving family is often disregarded not because people do not care, but because grief makes people uncomfortable. Wellman says that a person is often fascinated with the deviant mind behind criminals, but hearing a person’s experience with grief and trauma is uncomfortable and saddening — and in turn doesn’t sell.

“We are so interested in how the criminal mind works, and very rarely do we pay attention to the way a grieving mind works….[Victims will often hear people say], ‘People get tired of hearing our story. It makes them uncomfortable. So, our reality is everyone else’s discomfort.’”

Television shows “Shattered” and “The Killing Fields” are among the few to attempt to represent the victim’s perspective. However, these have had limited success because the portrayal of victims simply “does not sell.”

While Wellman agrees it is okay to remain fascinated by the criminal mind and the psychology behind behavior, the appropriate recount of any homicide event should represent both the perpetrator and the victims involved. She explains, “If you want to give a story justice and honor about what happened in a homicide event, the victim’s life story and the victim’s family have to have a representation or it doesn’t do the whole story justice.”