‘Injustice porn’ like Making a Murder and Serial celebrates men who kill and abuse women

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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.

10 Questions about Making a Murderer

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.

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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 I'm going to kill note

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 Schofielda tv personality and journalist  to her 286,000 Twitter followers.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

Who killed Teresa Halbach if it wasn’t Steven Avery?

A new opinion piece: ‘Injustice porn’ like Making a Murder and Serial celebrates men who kill and abuse women


If you’ve watched the new Netflix series Making a Murderer, you’re probably left wondering who killed Teresa Halbach and why. The 10-part documentary makes a very convincing case that the local police planted evidence and provides a strong motive for why they might have done such a thing.

The filmmakers don’t, however, try to make the case that the police actually killed Teresa. Instead they do something highly unethical and cast suspicion on her brother, her ex-boyfriend and her roommate.

Almost every time Mike Halbach, the brother of the victim and the family spokesman, comes on the scene, he’s made to say something that’s just been carefully debunked for the audience. The camera stays focused right on Halbach to let it sink in just how wrong he is. From his very first quote, about how the process of grieving his sister might take days (yes, days), the directors Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos 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.

They also make Teresa’s ex-boyfriend look terrible on the witness stand, suggesting he hacked into her voicemail for nefarious reasons. Ditto the roommate who helped out the ex-BF.

Mike Halbach

Entirely predictable results of unethical filmmaking: Mike Halbach never was nor never should have been a suspect

Ricciardi and Demos are good at casting doubt  and the well-primed audience got their message loud and clear. The internet is now chockablock with justice warriors demanding Teresa’s brother’s head and spreading rumours about her ex-boyfriend and roommate. But there’s a problem and it’s a big one — in the eight years since Steven Avery’s trial ended, the filmmakers don’t appear to have followed up to see if their suspicions were actually merited. Based on their final product, they either didn’t bother to  look or turned up zero.

In other words, they made Teresa Halbach’s brother, her ex-boyfriend and her roommate look bad without having a single scrap of evidence against them. They appear to have provoked a mob for nothing more than narrative tension, which is especially ironic in a documentary about the dangers of witch hunts.

Alternate suspects to Steven Avery

Here are the people the lawyers wanted to point the finger at: No brother, no ex-BF, no roommate. It’s an Avery-heavy line-up

What’s more, the Making a Murderer team did all this without mentioning that none of these three men were included on any list of alternative suspects. All we hear is that Avery’s original defence team was prevented from discussing other possible suspects in court. The filmmakers don’t tell us that those suspects were all related to the Avery clan and the salvage yard and that they included Steven Avery’s brothers, Earl Avery and Charles Avery, his brother-in law Scott Tadych, his nephew Bobby Dassey and — wait for it — Brendan Dassey.

Yes, you read that correctly. All the while Making a Murderer is building a case that the prosecution of Brendan Dassey as a murderer alongside his uncle is a gross miscarriage of justice, they neglected to acknowledge that taht Avery’s very competent defence team was also prepared to throw Brendan under the bus. Turns out real life is way more complicated than even a 10-hour documentary.

The problem for the filmmakers is the lawyers were probably right. If Steven Avery didn’t kill Teresa Halbach, it was likely one or more of the people on their list. That’s not as good a story as leaving it up in the air and implying the cops or the victim’s brother or her ex-BF and the roommate did it. But if you think about it, it actually makes a lot of sense that the murderer was connected to the Avery clan.

It explains why no one ever saw the victim again after her stop at the salvage yard, why her cremains were found on the property and why there were multiple calls to her cell phone from Steven Avery’s phone, including calls using *67 to block his ID. As the appeal defence lawyers’ documentation shows, the Avery clan had a long history of violence against women. It’s not unthinkable that one of them might have tried to lure and sexually assault an attractive young photographer. And there’s no reason they couldn’t have done this with Steven Avery’s phone.

Imagine this scenario: One or more of the extended family members got rough with Theresa and ended up murdering her. If the cops hadn’t come a calling, they could have used her murder as a way to blackmail Steven Avery out of some of the multi-million dollar settlement he was about to receive for his false rape conviction. If the cops did start poking around, the real murderers could accuse, even frame, Steven.

Needless to say the cops had a much stronger motive to pin the murder on Steven than they did to go after the other Averys. If Steven was the murderer, the county’s settlement payment problems vanished and their reputations were well on the way to repair. If it was just another Avery or Avery in-law, they still had the settlement and reputation problems.

The documentary makes a convincing case the police helped things along by planting evidence, especially the key. As for the car, that could have been the police or the actual murderers. Steven Avery could have been in on it or oblivious.

Either way, however, having an Avery or Avery-in-law as the culprit puts up some narrative obstacles for the filmmakers. Ma and Pa Avery are portrayed lovingly as salt of the earth types. They’re never asked how they managed to raise three sons with such a long and documented history of violence. And the directors gloss right over the well known fact that before his wrongful rape conviction, Steven Avery doused a cat in oil and threw it on a fire.

Such are the demands, however, of creating a wrongfully convicted protagonist the public will flock to support. It’s far more difficult to be sympathetic to Steven and Ma and Pa Avery, if it was their own dysfunctional brood framing up Steven and Brendan alongside the cops. It doesn’t quite reach the required outrage levels if the family did it. Much better to be vague so that the public can go to town on the  police or the victim’s brother or a mysterious German man.

Not to mention that if the filmmakers had decided one of the brothers, nephews or brother-in-law likely did it, Ma and Pa might have pulled right out of the multi-year film project and left the directors empty handed. A Shakespearian or Faulkneresque tale of a dysfunctional and dangerous family is of no use to anyone if you don’t have the legal rights to tell it.