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Does Netflix’s ‘Dahmer’ drama trivialise real tragedy?

Ryan Murphy’s drama adaptation of the Jeffery Dahmer case is a huge hit for Netflix. Despite seemingly well-intentioned studies of racial tensions throughout, the show still glamourises Dahmer and reduces real tragedy to convenient social media one-liners.

Currently sitting at the top of Netflix’s home page, ‘Dahmer’ dramatizes and follows the story of prolific paedophile, cannibal, rapist, and serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, who murdered seventeen people over a thirteen year period.

The narrative is framed through the eyes of victims and their families, with recreations of court footage used to focus on the incompetency and racial biases of police forces at the time.

Jeffrey Dahmer is one of the most recognized serial killers ever. He has appeared in countless shows, podcasts, and documentaries in the decades since he was active.

True crime as a genre is enjoying a boom in popularity in the streaming age, with new podcasts and shows attracting huge audiences upon release. Serial brought in 19 million listeners in 2015, Zac Efron’s portrayal of Ted Bundy was a hit in 2019, and Netflix continues to pump out documentaries at a constant rate, including shows on Jimmy Saville, Chris Watts, Sharon Marshall, and many more.

Public appetite for serial killer stories is more insatiable than it ever has been, encouraging platforms to lean heavily into documentaries in order to retain paying subscribers. In the UK, John Wayne Gacy Tapes and Dahmer are both in the top ten trending shows on Netflix. Clicking on the ‘ominous’ tag offers pages and pages of similar content.

With such a high business incentive to keep churning out programmes of this nature, obvious questions regarding ethical responsibility and inappropriate romanticism surface.

At what point does a true crime investigation shift from informative journalism to exploitative entertainment? It is a line that has become blurry and provocative.

Dahmer is the latest case to face scrutiny, largely for its marketing, background research, and insensitive LGBTQ tags. Is it a genuine attempt to discuss racial and sexual discrimination, or is it a cash grab from a streaming service increasingly reliant on true crime to keep viewers engaged?

Before looking at the reactions online and in LGBTQ+ spaces, it’s important to note that the show is incredibly popular.

It has been the most streamed programme on Netflix consistently since it dropped. Whatever anyone’s feelings are toward Dahmer, it’s clear that the general public deem it interesting and engaging enough to spend time watching. However it is received, the show is profitable, which will in turn encourage even more shows of this nature.

Still, outcry has been bubbling online since the show began to gain traction. It originally was tagged as an ‘LGBTQ’ programme, apparently falling into the same lane as shows such as Queer Eye and Sex Education. This was a daft categorisation for a series that depicts the murders and torture of marginalised groups – the tag has since been removed, unsurprisingly.

The show being so clearly mislabelled is indicative of how many in the LGBTQ+ community feel.

Despite claiming to tell Dahmer’s story through the narrative lens of marginalised groups, the show fails to properly honour their perspective in a sensitive and genuine way without inevitably making the killer the central focus. It’s worth noting that the victims’ families and others affected were not contacted to contribute to the programme.

As Aja Romano from Vox said in a piece last week, ‘If you must tell a story without the victims’ perspective, then realize that it’s all the more important to put them at the centre of your story rather than at the edges.’

Ultimately, it comes down to a question of necessity. The Dahmer case has been examined every which way for decades and remains a cornerstone of true crime history. Must we repeatedly drag up the details of this story for the sake of entertainment?

Netflix keeps repurposing actual, tangible history for quick promotion, reducing it down to strategized marketing. This tweet, for example, starts with the phrase ‘can’t stop thinking about’, and ends with ‘now on Netflix.’ It feels insensitive and unfairly self-serving.

Both Netflix and audiences are to blame.

Of course, it is the responsibility of the platform to regulate its content and how it markets programmes but, by equal measure, Netflix requires a hungry viewership to produce them in the first place. If we didn’t care about them as much as we do, there would be far less true crime documentaries happening at all.

The only solution is simple. Stop watching every true crime documentary out there or, at the very least, demand more responsible storytelling and representation. The genre isn’t inherently problematic, but it’s soaring popularity opens doors to offensive and dismissive material as companies scramble to be atop the documentary food chain.