Last month’s shiny new phenomenon on Netflix was the series You, about a stalker and his victims. This month, it’s Dirty John (now streaming on Netflix Canada). It’s an adaptation of the popular true-crime podcast, in turn based on a lengthy Los Angeles Times investigation, about an abusive relationship between a rich woman and a devious, dangerous male con artist.
Both shows are cautionary tales. You, based on a novel, had a lurid, near-satiric quality as it simultaneously mocks the milieu in which it is set and warns against women putting personal information on social media. The stalker guy went on to prey on other women in the coming second season.
Dirty John feels like fiction, but isn’t. Debra Newell (Connie Britton), a well-off, successful Los Angeles-based interior designer, begins dating again at the age of 50. She been married and divorced several times and you’d expect her to be cautious. But she feels she clicks with John Meehan (Eric Bana) in special way. He presents himself to her as an anesthesiologist who’s been to war zones for Doctors Without Borders. He seems a successful nice guy, even if he’s socially awkward, and he’s very handsome. Before long, they’re married. John is in fact a very dangerous man and Debra is delusional.
Both series feature female victims. And right now that’s an issue. A columnist in The Guardian has called out Netflix for “the dead girl trope.” A writer in Time magazine condemned Dirty John because it “fails the women whose lives have been affected by predatory men.”
The combined popularity of You (originally made for Lifetime) and Dirty John (originally made for Bravo in the United States), along with Netflix’s Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, has created a heightened awareness of the sheer amount of content that focuses on the abuse, rape and murder of female victims. There is considerable unease in some quarters.
At the core of this new awareness is a series of questions. First, is this a cultural trend and is it merely misogynist? Thus, is it all about catering to a perverse male taste for seeing the male stalker or con artist as admirable, an anti-hero who cannily takes advantage of women who are easily fooled? And then, well, does the male viewer enjoy the abuse, rape or murder?
On the other side of the issue is the matter of the popularity of the cited shows with women viewers. Both You and Dirty John had limited impact in their original run on conventional TV. But on Netflix, they are enormously popular with female viewers who discuss the shows, in depth, on social media.
The use of women victims has long been a popular plot device on mainstream U.S. TV. On Criminal Minds, CSI and the Law & Order shows, a fetish was made of the kidnap, subjugation and torture of female characters. Often the audience was invited, via the camera’s very male gaze, to linger on the female corpse. What is disturbing some people right now is that the emblematic “dead female” plot has carried over to much more substantial, prestige TV storytelling. True Detective has been guilty of over-sharing the dead bodies of female victims as trophies for killers. The acclaimed Netflix original Mindhunter, about understanding and finding serial killers, also paid a tad too much attention to the bloodied corpses of female victims.
Is all of this the imposition of a misogynist view of women? I don’t know, to be honest. It would be easy to write an outright condemnation of Netflix for acquiring and promoting a surfeit of shows that dwell on women in danger, in anguish and in misery. It would also be superficial, I think.
Netflix, being algorithm based, invests in and streams variations on what is already popular. Lifetime was reluctant to commit to another season of You, and more of the charming stalker’s murderous obsession. Netflix committed quickly. It’s what millions of subscribers lapped up in January. And there’s the crux – the “dead girl trope” is a powerful lure, especial for female viewers. That’s enlightening. Exactly why the trope is powerful is the hard question to answer.
I can tell you this: Dirty John is not an authentic true-crime drama, in that it presents a soap-opera dramatization of a real case. It clings to one central device – the appalling naiveté of Debra (Britton is excellent) as she hears what she needs to hear from this creepy, dangerous man. But the series really pivots on the scorching skepticism of her two twentysomething daughters, Veronica (Juno Temple) and Terra (Julia Garner). They spot John as a liar and creep from the start. That they are more aware than their mother is also enlightening and punctures some of the condemnation of the series, and its alleged ilk.