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Can’t look away: The phenomena of true crime makes its way to WashU

| Staff Writer

(Illustration by Charlotte Chen)

A burning desire to know — for many, this is what drives their interest in true crime. True crime is a genre built upon the retelling of actual crime cases; these are the stories of lives lost and the reactions of those forced to bear witness. The genre has become omnipresent within our contemporary culture — we now have journalistic exploits, podcasts, novels, and television shows dedicated to these crimes, as a genre. 

Washington University’s expert on true crime is Dr. Elisabeth Windle, a professor of both English & American Literature as well as Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. This semester, she is teaching the Sophomore Seminar “Stranger Than Fiction: True Crime from In Cold Blood to I’ll Be Gone in the Dark,” employing a feminist lens to contend with true crime as a literary genre in itself. 

In designing her course, Windle aimed to approach the study of true crime through a critical eye and literary lens. “Through talking about this really specific, kind of niche group of texts, you can actually ask a lot of really big questions about gender and race, policing, about the justice system,” she said. 

 Windle elaborated, highlighting  “The Missing White Woman Syndrome” that often plagues true crime — the overrepresentation of white women, often  middle to upper class, within media coverage. This phenomenon is inextricably tied to the lack of media representation of those who aren’t white, otherwise economically secure, or have a different gender identity. 

Windle highlights this overrepresentation of white women within true crime at the beginning of her course, urging her students to consider, “What dead bodies are we privileging? In the telling of those stories, who’s getting to speak, and who’s not speaking?”

Windle observes that many of her students quickly come to a consensus on the lack of diverse representation within true crime. “I think college students here do have some degree of awareness that they’re in a unique position — vis-à-vis the institutions of policing in this city and vis-à-vis the criminal justice system in this state,” she said. 

A former student of the course, junior Maddy Kish, spoke to her firsthand experience attempting to tackle the subject in class.  “I think it’s really important to make sure that you are consuming true crime ethically — even though whether this is possible is an entirely different question.” 

Sophomore Rachel Johns, a student currently taking Windle’s seminar, expanded on this sentiment. “Unfortunately for us, true crime cases are not always so black and white,” she said. “I’ve learned how skewed eyewitness accounts, police interrogations, and jury deliberations can be. I feel like it’s very important to view true crime as a WashU student with interpretive lenses rather than absolute lenses.” 

Windle added that the “readerly communities” that consume true crime are often the suburban white woman who is relatively distanced from the threat of violence itself. What may understanding the target demographic of true crime literature have to tell us about its study writ large? Windle comments, “It’s fascinating to think about what readers are getting out of true crime when they consume it.”

When considering true crime in a more removed and academic manner, the way Windle’s class does,  different questions are interrogated: Whose story am I consuming? Who is involved in the re-telling of this story, and how are they benefitting? What may they not be saying?  

Windle admitted to being a fan of true crime, as are many students who enroll in the course. Her class offers an opportunity to interrogate the widespread fascination with the genre, and question how it functions both as entertainment, and as a reflection of greater systemic issues. 

But Windle said at the core, the fascination with true crime stories is simple.  “We can’t look away from the crime, and also our interest in it,” she said. 

 

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