Murder in the Mainstream

Elizabetta Pulcini asks why the public romanticise the criminal protagonists of TV.

Elisabetta Pulcini
21st February 2019
Ted Bundy's 1968 VW Beetle is now on display in Washington D.C's Crime Museum

It doesn’t feel like the intent of shows like ‘You’ and the Ted Bundy documentary is to romanticize serial killers and stalkers. Yet unsurprisingly, the conversations have turned on to the killers’ looks, charms and wits.

Penn, who portrays Joe Goldberg in ‘You’, has tried to instruct us silly women on what a monster his character truly is. He called out those who fantasized about his character on Twitter. After all, he lies, he stalks, and he kills. Then why do we put him on a pedestal? Well, because he is the protagonist of course. We were inside his head: from a storytelling stand point, we were him. The problem is not with women being attracted to psychopaths, the problem is with creators always choosing to give a voice to the killer rather than the woman being persecuted. Watching ‘You’ means learning more about the dynamics of toxic relationships. However, it also means that you will do so through the eyes of a predator: his face will be the one on the cover. His voice will be the one to tell you how things are, or ought to be. You too, will see the victims as helpless, unremarkable and small, and him as the complicated villain, with a heart-breaking backstory.

Watching ‘You’ means learning more about the dynamics of toxic relationships.


People defending this choice will insist that the reason why he is the narrator, is so that we can truly understand the psychology behind such unholy thoughts.  But then, if as a society we are so drawn to mentally ill individuals, why do we keep getting the same type of killers proposed to us? Dexter Morgan, Joe Goldberg, Ted Bundy. These are all white, handsome, intelligent and worst of all charismatic protagonists. They are all shown to have some type of cheap backstory, which justifies their actions. Except it doesn’t. Why do we never get stories where the protagonist is a cripple paedophile who rapes a different child each episode? Because it’s not cinematic. Because although any sane person watching these shows knows that the only acceptable reaction to these horrific actions is disgust, in the context of storytelling, it is inevitable to not root for a charismatic protagonist. Because on some level, we admire these extraordinary men. We root for their escape. We secretly cheer with every victim. We admire their intelligence, and crave their bravery. Because of course, I could never do what they did. The lens that portrays these people rarely treats them like the sick bastards they are. They always appear mysterious and fascinating, even when they explicitly tell us, they are not.

On the contrary, the Netflix documentary, “Conversation with a killer: the Ted Bundy tapes”, appropriately approaches the story of a real life serial killer.  It doesn’t glorify or polish his story. It doesn’t hide the pain of his mother, in favour of a storm of adoring women. The people around him are neither one dimensional nor uninteresting. If anything, the documentary uses the benefit of hindsight to break down the character of Ted Bundy, through the eyes of the professionals who saw him for who he truly was. Journalists saw through his lies. Psychologists were aware of his manipulations. Lawyers annoyed by his incompetence.

The documentary highlights why these shows’ premises are truly played out and unoriginal. After his first conviction for the rape and murder of two university students, the judge said to Ted ‘You’re a bright young man. You would have made a good lawyer, I would love to have you practice, but it went another way, partner. Take care of yourself’. We live in a society that is fascinated by the ‘handsome devil’ types, and we certainly don’t need TV-shows to feed into this stereotype.

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AUTHOR: Elisabetta Pulcini
Film Editor 19/20 and Law (LLB) graduate. An Italian passionate about journalism and the law: always up for a debate. @ElisabettaPul

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