Maybe it’s just the cop shows I happen to watch, but it seems to me that an awful lot of murder victims on television are attractive young women.
In a recent article in the UK’s Guardian, Jessica Mann, an author who also reviews crime fiction, complained about “sadistic misogyny” in crime fiction. She also gave readers the scoop on what has to be one of the most egregious examples of bad covers ever: The picture of a female corpse on the cover of a novel in which the murder victim is male. According to the article, Mann said the publisher said, “‘Dead, brutalised women sell books, dead men don’t.'”
(Is there a way to add the word “dead” to “There’s a bimbo on the cover of my book” and still make it scan?)
But while I’m sure there’s some misogyny going on here, that’s not what really bugs me about all these fictional women murder victims. What bugs me is that they are complete fictions. The truth is, women are much less likely to be murdered than men.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics, 79 percent of murder victims in the U.S. in 2006 were male. In fact, the BJS says men were at greater risk for all kinds of violent crime except rape and sexual assault.
Now I haven’t watched anywhere near all the cop shows on TV — there are way too many of them — and I’m not going to go through a couple of years worth to see how many women they killed off as opposed to men (that’s material for someone’s popular culture dissertation). But at least among the shows that I’ve watched, women were more than 21 percent of the victims.
Some people — like the publisher Mann referred to — would call that poetic license. The TV shows, the novels full of dead women, they’re fiction.
I understand that. I write fiction. There are times when you don’t want facts to get in the way of a good story.
But the trouble is we’ve all got those images of dead women piled up in our subconscious and most of us — even the ones who know the 79 percent statistic — feel like women are at greater risk of being murdered than men.
After all, conventional wisdom goes, men can take care of themselves. Of course, there are plenty of men who actually don’t know the first thing about defending themselves or anyone else, but I bet even they think they’re supposed to be able to do it.
So we end up with women scared of dangers that don’t exist. And men who aren’t scared enough.
I don’t think there’s a conspiracy out there among TV producers and thriller writers to scare women. They probably think women are more likely to be victims, just like the rest of us do. They probably think men can protect themselves, even if they’re men who couldn’t land a punch to save their lives — literally.
It’s not just fiction that distorts the facts. The death of an attractive young woman (especially an attractive white young woman) is front page news everywhere in the U.S. This is due in part to the “man bites dog” theory of journalism — it’s news because it’s rare. But it distorts our view of crime.
There’s a wonderful example of this in season five of The Wire. A character viewers have followed for several seasons — a young black man — is murdered on the same day that something dreadful happens to a white tourist in Baltimore. The news budget for the Baltimore Sun is tight; no room for both stories. So the city editor — the African American city editor — goes with the tourist. After all, the death of a young black man in Baltimore is dog bites man.
It’s shocking to viewers because we’ve come to love the character. That’s the added element that fiction brings in: We like people we’d despise if all we knew about them were the bare facts of their lives as reported in the papers.
The Wire is an example of a show that got its facts right — most of the people who died on that show were young black men, which is sadly all too true of the murder victims in Baltimore — and still managed to tell compelling stories and draw an audience. It would be nice to see others follow their lead.
Nancy Jane’s flash fiction for this week is “No Such Thing.” Her collection Conscientious Inconsistencies is available from PS Publishing and her novella Changeling can be ordered from Aqueduct Press.
Check out The Nancy Jane Moore Bookshelf for more stories.