2015 was a crazy time. Trump was talking about running for President. Brexit hadn’t happened. And there was another story people couldn’t stop talking about: the incarceration of Steve Avery.
You remember Steve, right? The main subject of Netflix’s resoundingly successful original true crime series Making a Murderer? It reportedly racked up a total of 19.3 million viewers in the first 35 days – over a quarter of Netflix’s subscribers during 2015. Five years later, and Netflix’s new original Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness hit 34.3 million viewers in 10 days and the demand continued to increase through its first 35 days.
Tiger King is another title in a long list of ever-expanding Netflix Original true crime documentaries, following on from Amanda Knox, The Disappearance of Madeline McCann, The Staircase, and even Fyre Festival. It’s without a doubt that the general public has a morbid appetite for true crime. Once associated with campy re-enactments and ominous voice-overs popularised on network tv, most of us were forced to keep this quite weird obsession with murder and mysteries to ourselves for fear of being teased.
But along came podcasts, which gave a new level of credibility to true crime by exposing very real issues. It also brought a new standard of journalism to these cases, what once was simple speculation became investigation. Independent people took it upon themselves to track down the truth for murdered victims in a bid to give closure to families. And perhaps that is what audiences love about them. True crime is an unsolvable puzzle, but for a little while, it allows audiences to pretend that they are superior to the experts, gifting them with the illusion that they have spotted something others have missed. This feeling is intoxicating. It’s addictive. You can’t be proven wrong, but you also can’t be proven right.
And, of course, Netflix knows that. It is simple supply and demand. The more audiences demand of it – which they do (Making a Murderer was confirmed for a second season just seven months after its initial release, despite the first series taking nearly 10 years to film and complete), the more we are bountifully given.
And then came lockdown. Many audiences flocked to Netflix to distract themselves from the inflictions of isolated life: job security, not seeing family or friends, the anxiety of becoming sick. Thankfully, Tiger King, a docu-series that has seen a meteoric rise in popularity over the last few months, was enough to ease such anxieties.
Yet, when the dust settles and the sparks wither, questions arise about the morals of Tiger King’s portrayals of certain individuals. Across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, the same phrase was repeated: ‘That bitch Carol Baskin’. Again and again. “That bitch”, an excerpt humourously taken from Joe Exotics repeated catchphrase. But, is it actually funny? Repeatedly making Baskin the butt of the joke, the villain, the bitch who killed her husband. Or did it just make her fair game, allowing viewers to normalise our cruel and unrelenting behaviour towards a single woman?
And this isn’t uncommon. Participants in Netflix’s 2018 series Afflicted have come forward in droves stating that they were coerced and misrepresented during production, and since have struggled to put their lives back together. Andy King from Fyre Festival reportedly begged producers not to include his infamous ‘dick sucking’ line into the documentary. Detective Colbon from Making a Murderer claims to have been confronted in public by people threatening to ‘kidnap and sodomize him and gang rape his wife’, forcing him to make a safety bunker in his home. The aforementioned Carol Baskin says she is overwhelmed by the amount of death threats she receives, and that she is confronted and followed so frequently that she can’t ride her bike to work safely.
This is not a defense for the subjects of these series, it is doubtful that they are angels. Yet it is unfair to throw anyone into this situation without some kind of conversation or understanding. It is clear that many of these subjects are unaware, or perhaps uneducated about how they will be portrayed in these documentaries, as well as their potential popularity in the public sphere. And this should raise questions about how Netflix protects their subjects. So, how do they put those people first? Do they show subjects the documentary prior to release? Are the given media training? Are they provided with long term care and support to help them deal with their new lives?
Writing for a Medium article in 2018, Janice Feczko, a subject of Netflix’s 2018 series Afflicted, and also a documentary maker herself, claimed ‘the days or weeks before a show goes online, someone [usually] follows up. With Afflicted, that did not happen.’ The result, according to Feczko, was ‘an exploitation of tragic and debilitating situations as sensationalised entertainment rather than using this platform to educate about chronic illness’.
So, no. Netflix does not seem to offer support. In fact, their approach to dealing with controversial content can be summarised by CEO James Hastings’ statement regarding 13 Reasons Why, a show which sparked debate over its portrayal of mental health and suicide. He stated, ‘It is controversial. But nobody has to watch it.’ This distancing between Netflix and its audience is important and should be considered. The streaming giants hold no responsibility for the actions of its subjects. As soon as it is out there, they have washed their hands. What happens next is not their problem.
The reason for this could lie with audiences’ obsession with figures in popular culture. Creators of public entertainment need strong characters to make their show appealing. But documentaries should be different. They should focus on real people, real lives, real experiences, real pain and suffering. As such, the subjects of these true crime documentaries deserve to be treated with decency, to be offered some level of protection.
This is an issue of sensationalism. An issue of moral judgement. Tiger King should be about the animals, to address some huge issues regarding animals in captivity. In the docu-series, exotic animals were cruelly killed and mistreated. Why aren’t audiences talking about that? Why instead has popular culture made Joe Exotic a celebrity, even leading to the casting of Nicholas Cage in his biopic?
Despite seeing tiger cubs being dragged away from their mothers, despite hearing accusations that some of these cubs were killed once they had become too old, despite the shocking conditions we know these animals are kept in, even despite a worldwide pandemic, people flooded to the reopening of Exotic’s former park in Florida. Why?
It is hardwired within our expectations as audiences to search for heroes and villains in every story, and Netflix understands this. They provide a voice for these people, but they also display them in the shop window ready for judgement. Via social media audiences scream and shout at them, laugh at them, even celebrate them. It is a vicious, never-ending cycle. And those that have been left in the wake of this madness are left with the very real, very devastating impact of this attention, to pick up the pieces and reinvent their lives. After all, we have already forgotten who they are.