The romanticization of crime: Can hot people get away with anything?

Sarah Karkoff, Staff Writer

In light of the new Netflix show “Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story,” conversation surrounding the glamorization of violent offenders has resurfaced in mainstream dialogue. As the entertainment industry continues to churn out countless movies and shows about male serial killers, it begs the question of what message is being sent by highlighting their stories. By romanticizing their crimes through true crime and fictional portrayals, it is easier for society to downplay the seriousness of the atrocities committed by these people. Casting conventionally good-looking actors to play these roles exacerbates the issue. 

Attractive people are treated preferentially in society—a concept dubbed “pretty privilege” or the “beauty bias.” This is especially evident in the workforce, with research showing an income gap between those that are not good-looking and those who are. Pretty people are more likely to appear trustworthy to hiring staff and get called for further interviews.  

The same concepts are applicable to crimes and forgiveness. A 2010 study at Cornell University found that unattractive people are more likely to get longer and harsher sentences when compared to attractive people. It seems as if good-looking people are considered less responsible for their harmful actions. Furthermore, men are more likely to benefit from this perceived bias; both men and women are more likely to forgive conventionally handsome males.

Now, there has been an astounding amount of serial killer media in the past few years. Actors such as Zac Efron, Ross Lynch, Darren Criss and Evan Peters have recently portrayed these killers on screen. 

Evan Peters, who has previously portrayed violent offenders in “American Horror Story,” starred in the new Jeffrey Dahmer show. The internet fawned over his performance; it was Netflix’s most-watched new show within the week of its release. Disturbingly, many on social media focused on the attractiveness of the actor whilst downplaying the crimes he portrays. Some have even gone so far as to say the show was not violent enough for their tastes. Evidently, these fictional depictions allow viewers to dissociate the real from the fictitious. 

The show is especially irresponsible in its treatment of the victims and their families. Since Dahmer’s actions are of public record, the show’s creators were not required to speak with the victims’ families. The mother of Tony Hughes, one of the victims, claims that Netflix’s dramatization of the events is inaccurate. Moreover, she states, “I don’t see how they can use our names and put stuff out like that out there.” When these shows are produced with such disregard for the people still impacted by the events, it is clear that they have been made for selfish reasons. Rita Isbell, a family member of one of his victims, stated, “I could even understand it if they gave some of the money to the victims’ children…If the show benefited them in some way, it wouldn’t feel so harsh and careless.” Every time a new portrayal is released, victims’ loved ones are subjected to heightened scrutiny and online discourse that disregards their feelings without providing any benefits, all while their images and trauma are exploited for money. 

Unfortunately, these men do not always have to be portrayed by the internet’s favorite white boys to receive sympathy from the internet. True crime itself allows people to form unhealthy attachments to these dangerous individuals, and a culture of obsession leads to forgiveness. One such example is the perpetrators of the Columbine massacre. The internet’s access to journals, notebooks, love letters and the “basement tapes” created a subculture that referred to themselves as “Columbiners.” With some of these obsessed individuals finding the shooters attractive, parasocial relationships were formed, paving the way for acceptance and forgiveness. 

Parasocial relationships have become common in the true crime community. A study reports, “As with all celebrities, [serial killers] have become products of consumption for the general public as represented by their adoption by popular culture in all forms of media, allowing for those who are interested to become fans, regardless of the notoriety of their acts.” Due to the commercialization of horrific crimes, fans engage in parasocial relationships to understand and rationalize deviant behaviors. Such behavior, combined with how society treats those deemed attractive, leads to a dangerous philosophy. These parasocial relationships enable viewers to treat victims as means instead of ends. Essentially, it is easier to treat the victims as just parts of some story than actual people. 

Even if these documentaries and shows initially did not aim to elicit sympathy from viewers, in the end, does it really matter what the creator’s intent was? Although the producer of Netflix’s Dahmer show allegedly wanted to center the victims in the story, if people instead form parasocial relationships with the perpetrator, any original intent is lost. This will happen when people continue to tell the story from the criminal’s point of view—especially one with a typically pretty face. 

As you consume certain types of media, it is important to consider its effect. True crime is often incredibly tasteless in its regard to victims. Even further, as parasocial relationships become more relevant online, it is apparent that this is a topic that is often inappropriately handled. Nuance is often lost in online discussions—a fact that is incredibly self-evident in media involving serial killers and mass murderers. The industry continues to cast societally attractive actors, making nuance even more unattainable.