Yet feminist critics of this new entertainment genre are missing in action
We are in the middle of what, for lack of a better description, I will call a radical feminist moment. Not a day goes by without some poor soul being shamed on the internet for a multitude of sins ranging from mansplaining and manspreading to not fully supporting affirmative consent policies or depriving women of jobs in the gaming industry.
Yet right in the middle of this media-fuelled, girl-power moment, something inexplicable has happened. A new favourite entertainment genre — let’s call it “injustice porn” — has emerged that celebrates the men who kill and abuse women.
Funnily enough, the usual feminist suspects have next to nothing to say about injustice porn’s woman problem. And even weirder, the genre’s most recent hits — the 2014 podcast Serial and the 2015 Netflix documentary series, Making a Murderer — are produced and directed by women who systematically minimize, dismiss and ignore crimes against women.
The result of our current over-fixation on things like everyday sexism and microaggressions has been not just to turn the trivial into the supposedly important but the inverse as well — it’s made the important trivial.
Thus when Steven Avery douses a cat and gasoline and throws it on a fire to watch it suffer, the directors of Making a Murderer suggest their protagonist was just goofing around and the cat mistakenly fell in the fire. Adding insult to injury, online apologists explain that this is how rural folk treat animals.
Dr. Drew Pinsky, an addiction medicine specialist, pointed out on the Reasonable Doubt podcast that Steven Avery looks like he suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome, but that doesn’t fit the lovable-Avery-clan narrative (Photo: courtesy of Netflix)
Likewise, when Adnan Syed, the hero of Serial, writes “I’m going to kill” on a break-up note written to him by his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee, journalist Sarah Koenig dismisses it as a “a detail you’d find in a cheesy detective novel” and a “stray thing” that could be meaningless. Never mind that 18-year-old Lee actually ended up murdered, her body dumped and half buried in a Baltimore park. Koenig can’t even be bothered to ask Syed about the note.
The Serial journalist also managed to overlook the fact that Hae asked a teacher to help her hide from Adnan and that, in her diary, she described her ex-boyfriend’s possessiveness as a problem, a direct contradiction of what was said on the podcast. Yet despite Koenig’s consistent minimization of incidents that are classic warning signs of intimate partner violence, there has, in almost a year and a half, not been one serious feminist critique of in the mainstream US media. (Yes, early on a couple of Brits expressed shock, but they were pretty much ignored and then forgotten.) Instead, Serial won the prized Peabody Award for excellence in broadcast journalism.
Hae Min Lee wrote a break-up note to Adnan Syed telling him to move on, accept her decision to end their relationship, and “hate me if you will”
Adnan Syed wrote “I’m going to kill” on the back of the note, which his supporters variously dismiss as a “stray thing” and so much teenage drama
Now, injustice porn history is repeating itself with Making a Murderer. The directors Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos leave out key evidence about Avery’s possible guilt and history of violence against women. They never explain why he asked specifically for Teresa Halbach, the 25 year old woman he was convicted of murdering, to come to the Avery salvage yard and photograph his sister’s car. They fail to mention how he had answered the door in a towel on one of her previous work visits. Nor do they acknowledge that Avery used *67, which blocks the callers’ name, to phone her twice on the day she disappeared.
The filmmakers also portray Avery’s parents as kindly homespun hillbillies, showing his father tending to his garden and his mother spending years fighting to get her son out of jail. They skip over the fact that Avery looks like he might have fetal alcohol syndrome and don’t bother to mention that all three of Avery brothers have criminal records including multiple charges for assaulting women.
Older brother Charles was charged and acquitted of sexual assault in 1988. And then in 1999, his ex-wife accused him of sexual assault and wrapping a phone cord around her neck. Along the way, he pled guilty to disorderly conduct. Younger brother Earl pleaded no contest to sexual assault and two different sets of battery charges. He was also charged with sexually assaulting his two daughters.
As a result of these omissions — apparently no big deal in injustice porn land — the abusive and dysfunctional Avery family has developed quite the internet fan following. Stop by Reddit’s Making a Murderer forum and you can participate in threads entitled: Anyone else wanna give Steve Avery’s mom a big hug?, “I know you like lettuce.” – The incredibly endearing Allan Avery” and What can we do to help the Avery family?
In contrast, family and friends of the victim have been subject to internet abuse based on their treatment in Making a Murderer. “Mike Halbach seems awfully creepy,” tweets Kinsey Schofield, a tv personality and journalist to her 286,000 Twitter followers.
“My “#MikeHalbach is the worst” tweet is still getting likes. I’m so happy people agree. Mike…you are the worst. #MakingAMurderer,” boasts Seth Lieber, who describes himself as an Actors’ Equity member.
Empathy is not a requirement for injustice porn fans
While the filmmakers aren’t responsible for every idiot on the internet, this reaction was completely predictable. Ricciardi and Demos treated Mike Halbach, Teresa’s brother and the family spokesman, unconscionably. Every time he appears, he’s made to say something that’s just been carefully debunked for the audience. From his very first quote, about how the process of grieving his sister might take days (yes, days!), the directors never miss an opportunity to make him look bad. Halbach doesn’t get so much as one sympathetic quote. The only thing the filmmakers don’t do is play spooky music whenever he appears.
Such are the requirements of injustice porn. When the convicted man is your protagonist, the audience requires and will find someone to witch hunt. After Serial ended, Syed’s advocate-in-chief, Rabia Chaudry, joined up with two other lawyers to start the Undisclosed podcast, which, since its inception, has produced one conspiracy theory after another, smearing a long list of people along the way.
Their friend and fellow Serial-obsessed podcaster Bob Ruff devoted show after 2015 show to innuendo and unfounded accusations that Don, the guy Hae dated after she dumped Adnan, was a far more likely killer even though he had something very important that Adnan didn’t — an alibi.
Nor is Injustice porn kind to victims although it often tries to disguise this with hashtags like #JusticeforHae #FreeAdnan, while ignoring the fact that freeing remorseless Adnan would be about the biggest injustice possible for Hae.
Injustice porn fans turn the female victims into props designed to support the most ludicrous and offensive theories. For the purpose of finding her fantasy, anyone-but-Adnan killer, Rabia Chaudry suggested Hae, who took only the occasional puff of pot, was a weed smoker with a big enough habit that she would be visiting shady drug dealers after school, which was how she got killed. Hashtag victim blaming.
In a related vein, Making a Murderer uses footage of Teresa Halbach, talking about what would happen if she were to die, without putting it in context, namely that it was a university video project. As a result, Teresa’s mental health has been questioned and it’s been suggested she might have killed herself although how that would cause her cremains to end up in the Avery salvage yard is never explained. Hashtag more victim blaming.
Yet another fact that Making a Murderer withholds from its audience is that the people Steven Avery’s lawyers would have thrown under the bus — had the judge allowed the defence to name alternate suspects — were his two brothers, his nephew and brother-in-law. That was an inconvenient truth that didn’t fit the adorable Averys narrative and would have taken some explaining. Why bother when it was so much easier just to make Teresa’s brother and ex-boyfriend look bad and serve them up for the online lynch mob?
Essentially, the only reason the filmmakers were able to so successfully mythologize the Averys is because, in 1985, Steven Avery was wrongfully convicted of rape, a crime for which he was exonerated by DNA testing after spending 18 years in jail. The wrongful conviction was a result of tunnel vision on the part of the police, a mishandled identification process for the accused assailant, and the victim’s compelling yet mistaken testimony that it was Avery who had raped and viciously assaulted her. After he was finally released from jail, Avery sued the county for $36 million, but just as it looked like he was about to receive a fat settlement, he was arrested again for the murder of Teresa Halbach. Like all wrongful convictions, it’s a shocking tale — yet something of a challenge for Third Wave feminists preaching that the victim must always be believed.
None of this is to deny that Ricciardi and Demos make a convincing argument that some of the evidence used against Avery in the murder charge might have been planted. And it’s also hard to disagree with their conclusion that Avery’s 16-year-old cousin was wrongfully charged and convicted, failed by everyone, including his lawyers, at every step of the way. As for Steven Avery himself, I have no idea whether he did it or not. But like his lawyers, I believe that whoever did kill Teresa Halbach was associated with the salvage yard.
In this respect Making a Murderer is very different from Serial, where there was — as the transcripts for Adnan’s trial and the police files of investigation clearly demonstrate — no miscarriage of justice. The prosecutor Kevin Urick was half right when he described the killing of Hae Min Lee as “pretty much a run-of-the-mill domestic violence murder.”
Where he was wrong however was in his failure to understand that there is indeed a mystery at the heart of Serial. It’s just that it has nothing to do with Adnan Syed, whose unoriginal motive and story are as old as time. What made Serial a mystery was the presence of Jay, a Shakespearean character, who first goes along with Syed, becoming an accessory after the fact to murder, but later confesses his crime to police. His testimony sends Syed to jail for life plus 30, and left every Serial listener puzzling and arguing over why he did what he did.
The post conviction relief hearing recently granted to Syed and coming up in February is the exploitation of a legal loophole and most likely the result of the publicity the podcast generated. The defence is contending that Syed’s counsel was ineffective because she failed to contact Asia McLain, who was presented in the first episode of Serial, entitled The Alibi, as the witness who could have exonerated Adnan had his lawyer done her job. Never mind that Asia’s a total flake who appears to have her alibi days mixed up, she was part of the false groundwork Sarah Koenig laid to convince the audience that something was not quite right about the Syed case and that if they wanted to find out the truth, they would need to accompany her on her emotionally manipulative podcast journey.
The promise was not kept, however. Koenig copped out and never provided the truth. Her “I nurse doubt” cri de coeur was V.2014 of “if the glove don’t fit you must acquit.” Just like race beat out gender two decades ago at the OJ trial, allowing a wife killer to be transformed into a symbol of justice for African Americans, so, today, can Adnan can be hailed as a representative of the wrongfully convicted and the Averys celebrated as exemplary Americans while the Halbachs are trashed.
This is because, in the end, Injustice porn isn’t about either truth or justice. It’s porn, which means it can only supply a cheap frisson. If it leaves you with an uneasy feeling about the women victims, it’s because it should.