Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Mystery of Women and Crime Dramas

Television is filled with crime dramas, true crime dramas and stories ripped from the headlines, but there's a mystery that they have failed to solve: why do these shows score so hugely with female audiences?

Why are women so drawn to stories of rape, murder, assault, and horrible things happening to other women? This study by Amanda M. Vicary and R. Chris Fraley, "Captured by True Crime: Why Are Women Drawn to Tales of Rape, Murder, and Serial Killers?" finds that the answer is that women are unconsciously attempting to learn how to prevent the same crimes from happening to them.

Our findings that women were drawn to stories that contained fitness-relevant information make sense in light of research that shows that women fear becoming the victim of a crime more so than do men (Allen, 2006; Mirrlees-Black et al., 1996). This sex difference in fear is intriguing because, in actuality, men are more likely than women to be the victim of a crime (Chilton & Jarvis, 1999). Many reasons have been suggested for why women experience more fear, including the fact that certain crimes, such as rape, do occur more frequently for women (Riger, Gordon, & LeBailly, 1978). Other researchers have suggested that the media are to blame in that unusual and rare crimes (which usually focus on female victims) are reported more often than other crimes (Ditton & Duffy, 1983). Regardless of the reasons behind women’s heightened fear of crime, the characteristics that make these books appealing to women are all highly relevant in terms of preventing or surviving a crime. For example, by understanding why an individual decides to kill, a woman can learn the warning signs to watch for in a jealous lover or stranger. By learning escape tips, women learn survival strategies they can use if actually kidnapped or held captive. In addition, the finding that women consider true crime books more appealing when the victims are female supports the notion that women may be attracted to these books because of the potential life-saving knowledge gained from reading them. If a woman, rather than a man, is killed, the motives and tactics are simply more relevant to women reading the story.

Despite the fact that women may enjoy reading these books because they learn survival tips and strategies, it is possible that reading these books may actually increase the very fear that drives women toward them in the first place. In other words, a vicious cycle may be occurring: A woman fears becoming the victim of a crime, so, consciously or unconsciously, she turns to true crime books in a possible effort to learn strategies and techniques to prevent becoming murdered. However, with each true crime book she reads, this woman learns about another murderer and his victims, thereby increasing her awareness and fear of crime. It is not possible to state with certainty from these studies whether or not this vicious cycle occurs, but we do know that women, compared to men, have a heightened fear of crime despite the fact that they are less likely to become a victim (Allen, 2006; Chilton & Jarvis, 1999) and that women are drawn to true crime books that contain information on how to prevent themselves from becoming the victim of such a crime.

So, according to the study, women seek out this type of story to learn how to survive these attacks and as a byproduct, scare themselves more by exposing themselves to new scenarios, further driving them to seek out escape strategies from other narratives.

If the wild successes of franchises like Law & Order are buoyed by these female audiences, this sheds some light on why they continue to draw large audiences, even in syndication. Similarly, these findings speak to why women are such a large part of the horror movie audience.

The next question we need to ask ourselves might be, if women are seeking out these narratives to learn how to avoid crime, are they actually learning that from what they're seeing? Are these shows giving them what they really need from them psychologically or are they misinforming in ways that could be dangerous to their audience?

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