T/W: Very brief non-explicit references to assault, murder, victims
There’s just something about true crime which fascinates us – is it the often gruesome details? The twisted minds of serial killers? Unsolved vanishings? Or perhaps that many popular stories are about people just like us, who just happened to be caught up in something intensely grim, whether the victim or the perpetrator?
But a deeper question for me is: why are women so fascinated by these stories?
Okay, okay, don’t get me wrong – not all women are obsessed with true crime. But the true crime genre of entertainment is massive. It’s spawned shows like Unsolved Mysteries, which trended on Netflix after its release, Zac Efron’s film The Zodiac Killer, a multitude of best-selling books, podcasts, and even (in my case) one of our own STAR radio shows. I certainly love to discuss the motives and murder signatures of popular serial killers (a morbid pastime, I know).
The average reader – not yourself, of course – might assume that the gender ratio for the true crime audience is 50/50. Or maybe even lean more towards men because aren’t they stereotypically more aggressive, more violent, more dominant? And wouldn’t women be put off by gruesome details, often inflicted upon their own sex? And yet, this may surprise you, some estimates place women at 70% of the true crime audience [1–2].
A few journalists have tried to address this phenomenon through arguably unflattering views of women. Since most victims of these stories are women, perhaps we are fascinated by our own victimization  and vulnerability. Apparently, we say to ourselves, “So, this is what happens when we don’t heed the warnings of ‘don’t walk at night! Or alone! Or without pepper spray!’” Maybe it reinforces those messages we’ve heard all our lives. Or maybe it’s inherent masochism or voyeurism  to watch people of our sex lack control over their life outcome. Or actually our inherent sense of compassion  compels us to watch — theoretically with eyes brimming, pitying the women involved.
For some reason, I don’t think I would enjoy Buzzfeed Unsolved as much as I do if any of those were the case.
Another popular suggestion is that our brains are subconsciously researching self-defense tactics  in case we become those unfortunate, unlucky victims ourselves. But in most of these stories, the woman doesn’t defend herself – except perhaps in those rare instances which seem to be attributed to luck, not any kind of martial arts skill. Another theory wonders if we simply want to understand the motives  behind the crimes – and thus I suppose to avoid severely angering anyone to an extreme point. But many intriguing cases in popular culture seem random, with motives outside of logical comprehension, so I think that’s an unhelpful lead.
I can see how any of these theories may be a small part of why women enjoy true crime. However, here’s my theory:
By consuming so much media about male-dominated mystery and violence, we are pulling away from this patriarchal perspective of men being so dominant and decisive over women’s lives. We are strong enough to inform ourselves of the evils of the world and, to a certain extent, overcome the fear and terror we are supposed to feel while listening to these cases. We reassure ourselves that we are not, as an entire generalized sex, inherently victims. We are not scared into submission and overcome by the fear of these situations happening to us. We are empowered.
But, on the flip side, why are men not as intrigued? Falling back on stereotypes, consuming violent media that often portrays men as the perpetrators might reinforce their sense of control and domination in life – which by default they already seem to have and therefore explains their disinterest. However, I would disagree with that. In complement to my theory, perhaps men instead experience a sense of discomfort and a degree of terror at how normal it seems for their sex to play the perpetrator of the assault, or the murder, or the kidnapping. They would rather refrain from this epiphany and partake in a genre they enjoy more. However, that’s a broad generalisation as there’s still a significant male audience for true crime, albeit far less than women – and a minority of popular true crime cases do involve male victims and/or female offenders.
In summary, no matter who you are, why do you enjoy true crime? The thrill, the mystery, or maybe even the rejection of the patriarchal yoke? That’s up to you to decide.
- A. M. Vicary & R. C. Fraley, Captured by True Crime: Why Are Women Drawn to Tales of Rape, Murder, and Serial Killers? Social Psychological and Personality Science, 1 (2010) 81–86. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550609355486.
- K. S. Boling & K. Hull, Undisclosed Information—Serial Is My Favorite Murder: Examining Motivations in the True Crime Podcast Audience. Journal of Radio and Audio Media, 25 (2018) 92–108. https://doi.org/10.1080/19376529.2017.1370714.
- D. Yates, Women, More than Men, Choose True Crime Over Other Violent Nonfiction. (2010). https://news.illinois.edu/view/6367/205718 (accessed February 6, 2021).
- BBC Radio 4 – Woman’s Hour – True crime: Five reasons why women love it. (n.d.). https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/5BQCFMQd3mPqj7YT4hlvdCL/true-crime-five-reasons-why-women-love-it (accessed February 6, 2021).
- M. Sharma, This Is Why Women Are Obsessed with True Crime Stories. (2020). https://www.vogue.in/culture-and-living/content/why-are-women-obsessed-with-true-crime-stories (accessed February 6, 2021).