If you’re on Netflix, then you’ve probably already binged the newest season of the psychological thriller “You” that follows Joe Goldberg, an obsessive stalker and serial killer played by Penn Badgley; if you’re on Twitter, then you might also be aware that in a recent interview, Badgley called out Netflix for glorifying serial killers.
The internet is divided. Some say that Badgley’s opinion is hypocritical because he personally benefits from playing the role of a white male serial killer. Others are refreshed by Badgley’s judgment and appreciate that he is displaying his role as part of a story rather than something for people to fawn over.
My takeaway? Yes, this statement feels half-hearted coming from Badgley, but the opinion is valid; although their motives are unclear, Netflix is actively replicating the stories of heinous murders. The repercussions are serious.
Whether depicting fictional stories like “You” or dramaticized portrayals of real-life killers, Netflix effectively gives murderers and those who aspire to be like their fictional counterparts exactly what they want: media attention. What’s more? Netflix’s monetization of these traumatic events desensitizes their brutality — and that’s a dangerous combination.
The plethora of shows centered around serial killers is endless on Netflix, especially those based on real-life events; people cannot get enough of the brains inside the handsome heads of cold killers such as Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer. Bundy was played by Zac Efron in “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” and Evan Peters played the role of Dahmer in the series “Dahmer.” Both have conventionally attractive male leads whose charming looks inspire sympathy in their audience.
Beyond looks, what dramaticized real-life killer series and fictional killer series have in common is that they both center the murderer and their journey. Many of them go into depth about the childhood, family and upbringing of the killers, which inappropriately humanizes them. The killer is also depicted in ordinary contexts, such as a flashback of the killer in school or as a partner in a romantic relationship, which makes them come across as relatable individuals.
But why is audience sympathy a bad thing? Isn’t connection between viewers and characters the sign of well-made television and carefully-crafted character arcs? Maybe. But in the case of “You” and related programs, making killers relatable means inadvertently shifting the focus away from their monstrous actions. Serial killers should not be commemorated in any way — and that is exactly what Netflix is doing.
Many believe that the creation of media about real serial killers is justified because allowing people a glimpse into the mind of a killer raises awareness of the danger they pose to society. But how important is it for a viewer to actually contemplate these things? The task of comprehending the way killers think does not fall on regular people — that should be reserved for psychologists and detectives.
Watching a show like “Dahmer” or “Extremely Wicked” does effectively raise awareness for serial killer victims, but it does so in the wrong way. The protagonists of these shows are the killers; as such, the victims are portrayed through the perspective of the killer.
After watching “Dahmer,” only 2 percent of viewers actually researched his victims, proving that audiences barely learn anything about who the victims are outside of the context of their murderer. Instead, serial killer shows create unethical and unhealthy fandoms for violent criminals that completely disregard any respect for the victims or their families and communities.
Netflix is giving serial killers exactly what they kill for: legacy. But perhaps, there is a way to highlight people who’ve committed heinous crimes without handing over too much power.
Media outlets tasked with covering mass real-life atrocities have managed to confront a similar conundrum. Following recent revelatory studies, anchors on news outlets have made an effort to not state the names of mass shooters to avoid giving in to their desire of bringing fame to their name. In addition, these efforts are aiming at combating the possibility of media attention inspiring others to commit similar violent acts.
This doesn’t mean documentaries and shows about serial killers should be banned. Rather, it means we’re letting Joe Goldberg control the narrative — and it’s time to take it back. Netflix and other producing entities need to ensure that they are devoting equal screen time to the stories of the communities that were preyed on. Netflix needs to portray serial killers in a sensitive way that prioritizes the victims over the killer. Until then, victims will continue to serve as props to another handsome, relatable killer’s heroic biopic.
Tess McHugh PO ’25 is from Denver, Colorado. She loves the fall season, painting her nails blue and playing lacrosse.