Women and Murder: The Female Love of Crime Stories

An essay from my second year of university

From Agatha Christie novels to Making a Murderer women statistically tend to love crime stories more than men. This is despite the fact that gender stereotypes would paint women to be sensitive and squeamish. On top of that women are less likely to commit crimes, especially of a violent nature than men. In the British Crime Survey 2009/10 it states that men are at greater risk of personal crime and violence than women.  The female bias towards crime stories at face value does not seem to fit with our understanding of society. However, it is the fact that women are less likely to commit violent crimes instead having a higher chance of being the victim that they are often drawn to crime stories.

The crime genre as represented in literature, TV and film began male dominated. It was not until the 1970s when gendered segregation in the Police Force ended that they were also represented in entertainment. This breakthrough in representation was not seamless. A feminist crime genre grew out of the change. These portrayed narratives of crime that included issues women were concerned with and often contextualised crimes. Once female inclusion in the crime genre reached the critical mass, the female role de-feminised into what is seen as traditional male narratives – brooding, oppressive and police procedural. Although, there is a discrepancy in the representation of men and women in the crime genre. Women are often portrayed as the sidekick to men or highly sexualised.

There are various strong female characters in crime stories such as Jane Marple, Jane Tenneson in Prime Suspect, Ellie Miller in Broadchurch and Roz Huntley in Line of Duty. Female roles in successful crime dramas have affected the look of the Police Force in real life. With a shortage of investigators in CID units, Scotland Yard opened a fast-track scheme where applicants can go straight into detective training instead of spending two years in uniform. Of the 2,731 people who made a full application, 51% were women. Usually, women make up a third of normal applications. Due to the seemingly large impact of crime stories in recruiting women into the workforce, the reinforcement of gender norms in some instances can affect the recruitment and treatment of women in law enforcement.

On Netflix, the dominating entertainment platform, true crime has been the most consistently popular over the last couple of years with viral sensations such as Making a Murderer and Mindhunter. We as a society have a fascination with crime in general. Criminologist Scott Bonn explains, ‘Serial killers excite and tantalize people much like traffic accidents, train wrecks or natural disasters. The public’s fascination with them can be seen as a specific manifestation of its more general fixation on violence and calamity…We receive a jolt of adrenaline ‘as a reward’ for watching the act of killing play out. And it’s this shot of adrenaline that might explain why, even though we know full well that a true crime drama is going to be messy, scary, sad, and possibly quite depressing, we’ll still tune in for the next episode anyway. The euphoric effect of serial killers on human emotions is similar to that of roller coasters or natural disasters.’

Women in the crime genre and in real life are more likely to be victims of violent crime. Therefore, women tend to have more fear and anxiety about being the victim of violent crime. It thought that makes females subconsciously drawn to crime stories as a way to prepare for real-life threats without having to go through an experience too close for comfort. Afterall while a crime story could be real, on the screen or in a book, it does not seem terrifyingly real.

Best-selling crime author Mel McGrath believes that men and women are conditioned differently in their response to crime. She says, ‘From a young age, girls are taught to live in a state of low-level fear.  The dark basement, the creak of the door. As women, we’re primed for physical threat on the street, on public transport, at clubs and parties, even in our own homes. Our conditioning makes us feel more vulnerable. Unlike men, we spend lifetimes imagining the worst that could happen to us. We occupy a realm of imagined violence that men often don’t. So when the worst does happen on the page or the screen, we feel it as a lucky escape.’ She then goes on to discuss that, ‘As women we’re also conditioned not to show rage, especially violent rage, but that doesn’t mean we don’t feel it every bit as much as men. Crime fiction and drama let us feel the outrage we aren’t encouraged to express in real life, about the violence meted out to us by men, and the sense of satisfaction and relief when the (mostly) male perpetrators get their comeuppance.’ She evens contradicts the stereotype that women are more squeamish about blood by saying that they actually more used to it considering they deal with periods, childbirth and their children’s injuries. She believes women are encouraged to consider themselves as a collection of body parts, worrying about their appearance. That means the gore of crime is not more difficult to deal with for women than men, it may be in fact the opposite.

Crime sales have increased by 19% since 2015 to 18.7m, compared to the 18.1m fiction books sold in 2017. Crime always promises suspense and action in a way that general and literary fiction does not. Bestselling thriller writer David Baldacci further accounts for the popularity by saying, ‘In novels, evil is punished, and the good guys mostly win, after solving the puzzle. And all is right with the world. At least fictionally.’ The make-up and impact of crime dramas along with the real-life Police Force has changed over time. The gendered nature of crime and the way we are conditioned to perceive it is more subconsciously impactful then at first consideration. In fact, it can impact what you decide to watch on Netflix.

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