Ground to a Pulp: Sexualizing Women in Media Crime Narratives

Welcome to True Crime Week at POMEmag! We’re bringing you reviews and articles about all things TRUE CRIME – fictional True Crime, true true Crime, and everything in between.

Please note that the article below describes sexual objectification in crime fiction. This stuff can be really upsetting to write about or read, so we’re letting you know up front that this article gets a little intense due to the nature of the topic. 

Who was the first creepy TV producer to puzzle over a murder mystery script and advise the writers to add in just a little bit more cadaver jugs? I mean, somebody must have been the first, right? Whoever it was left a pretty rich legacy behind, as crime subgenres from legal dramas to murder mysteries all share a love for ladies with a bad case of Sexy Death.

Everybody knows that the best real and fictional “true crime” stories revolve around murder, and the best, most scandalous murders usually happen to beautiful women. Why do beautiful dead girls capture our cultural consciousness so much? Are we, as a society, angry about some “deranged psycho” robbing us of a valuable natural resource? Have we been trained as a culture to hate beautiful women, and feel vindicated when they are hurt, as if they owed us something and we are taking it back from them in blood?

Murder mysteries and forensic investigation shows both revel in stories about beautiful female murder victims. They provide pretty fantastic, textbook examples of the Madonna-whore complex in action. Beautiful dead girls usually fall into one of two categories: “perfect” victims and “deserving” victims.

The “perfect” victim was sweet and innocent in life, and her tragic death either serves as a lesson in how unfair the world is, or about how evil the murderer must have been, to strip the world of someone so blameless and pure. The “deserving” victim is an old-school morality lesson. Unlike her counterpart, she might fuck strangers, take off her clothes for money, abuse drugs, yell at her mother, reject the romantic overtures of sweet and wronged men, cheat on her spouse, yell, curse, or drink – in short, she deserved it, and by unwrapping her murder, we are also unwrapping the history of mistakes she made before her (un)timely demise.

In the best of cases, the first category of murdered women float around as ghosts, their lingering presence prodding their stalwart husbands and fathers to serve their memory by bringing the killer to justice. In the worst, the second category of murdered women lay sprawled out on the ground, a gash in their stomachs spilling their intestines out onto the floor, and their breasts, pert and shapely as they were in life, out of their bra and in the center of your TV screen.

At the gym recently, I jogged directly under a TV playing one of the many indecipherable forensic investigation dramas that seem to be on every channel at the same time. In the first few minutes of the show, a girl takes ecstasy, wildly kisses another woman in front of a group of men at a party, stumbles onto a patio and falls into the pool. A man jumps in to save her… but instead, holds her beautiful blonde head under the water and chokes her to death. The camera lingers on her blue face, her pouty lips parting slightly, her eyes vacant. The police later fish her body out of the pool and hoist her over face-down. Even though her pasty skin makes her death clear to the viewer, the camera still lingers on her perfect ass while the detectives talk about how she must have made some of the men at the party “a little too angry.” What I remember most perfectly is the way the camera lovingly panned across her body as she drowned in the pool, and also that the only other person on the treadmills seemed very comfortable under the Univision TV and I wished I had chosen a better place to jog.

How many beautiful corpses do we have to endure before more of us realize that women are people? Is the standard for being a woman in society so high that even our remains have to be sexually appealing?

On the other hand, the most insidious thing about these beautiful corpses is how meaningless the women they used to be are to the story. In real life, and in the universes of these fictional murder mysteries, these women had passions, hopes, dreams. They had cats and mac and cheese, yearbooks and first kisses and debt and not only was all of that wiped out with their murder, but they cease to be important at that point as well. Murder mysteries don’t have room for grief and mourning, unless it is perfunctory and fuel for the protagonist(s) to “find the bastard who did this.” Regardless of whether or not the victim had a personal relationship with the people tracking down her killer, she was still a person up until someone turned her into a sexy corpse. In death, as in life, her beautiful body was more important than any of the other things she was.

Forget about the obvious examples like all the CSI knockoffs and the entire pantheon of Law and Orders. Can anyone lead me through the convoluted plot of the first season of True Detective and tell me anything about the curvy dead girl with the amazing butt, other than that she was murdered? People gave that show a pass because of the production value, the winding plot, and the star power behind it. People (who may or may not have learned everything they know about medieval society from Robin Hood: Men in Tights) also excused the rampant misogyny on Game of Thrones for years because of “historical accuracy.”  But how many times did the TV show replace consent with rape when adapting the book series? Drawing a line from Game of Thrones to True Detective, it’s not hard to imagine that the former cultivated an environment of extreme sexual objectification and abuse where the latter could thrive. I’m not implying that HBO was a wholesome place before Game of Thrones came along, but the show also gave us “sexposition” as a term. Objectification in Game of Thrones has been a cultural phenomenon for years. Now, you can watch prestige dramas back-to-back where you can see every female character’s nipples at least twice, regardless of whether or not those nipples are on a living body.

As viewers, we have the power to push this trope into “doctor-approved cigarette” levels of obscurity. Negative fan response to Game of Thrones this season (quite possibly) had an effect on its ratings. Bloggers and critics and angry randos on social media are taking content creators to task for their demeaning, dehumanizing contributions to contemporary pop culture. We can also seek out and support narratives that challenge the “perfect” vs “deserving” victim dichotomy and avoid sexualizing dead women, and speak out against ones that don’t. We have NCIS, but we also have I, Zombie (which is about as perfect as a challenge critique of the “Sexy Dead Girl” trope as it gets).

I realize that the point of a murder mystery isn’t to mourn the dead. We want to unravel, to probe, to dissect. We don’t have space in our lives to grieve for people we don’t know.  But do we really need to reduce the departed to a plot element in the story of their own deaths, for no other reason than our own titillation? And do we really need to take that dehumanization a step farther and reduce dead women to what little their bodies can still offer us as viewers? We can demand more from the media we love, and we should. Please take note, TV producers, screenwriters, and other media-making people: if your female characters live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse, please don’t make us see them naked afterwards.

CC Calanthe

CC Calanthe

If you prick your finger and write “Cat Fancy” on your mirror during a harvest moon, CC will appear behind you and make you put human clothes on your pets. CC is Head Crone in Charge at POMEgranate Magazine, as well as the co-host of Moon Podcast Power MAKE UP!!
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