When I was 12 years old, I was obsessed with Twilight. Like many girls my age, I fawned over Edward and occasionally crushed on both Jasper and Alice. Edward was the perfect man: he followed Bella to make sure she was safe, he loved her so deeply that he watched her when she slept and he wanted so badly to kill her, but was strong enough to resist the urge. How romantic!
Now, over ten years later, the current obsession is Netflix’s “You.” “You” tells the story of Joe, a stalker who obsesses over a doe-eyed beauty named Beck. Joe, unable to hold his love longer, eventually kills Beck and anyone who gets in his way of her. “You” shows us the world through Joe’s eyes, a world in which women who do not love him deserve to die, especially those stupid enough to live in New York City without curtains. Penn Badgley, who plays Joe, said that the show is about “how far we are willing to go to forgive an evil white man.” Perhaps the show’s self-awareness means that we should reject Joe as a romantic but crazed man and instead condemn his behavior. But that does not seem to be the case with most representations of serial killers.
Zac Efron as Ted Bundy in “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile” is another example of the recent trend in the hot serial killer fantasy. The real Ted Bundy confessed to murdering at least 30 women, but the real number is unknown. While Ted Bundy is infamous and even gets his own biopic, the women he murdered are forgotten, buried in history. Instead, we memorialize him in our collective memory as a dangerously attractive man who was misunderstood and crazed.
Nearly 75 percent of True Crime podcast listeners are women. Many women on Twitter, especially young girls, have been asking Penn Badgley to kidnap them instead, with others saying that Joe is a heartbreaker. When we amplify the voices and perspectives of abusive and dangerous men, those narratives and images trickle down into our society and our values. The fantasy of the hot serial killer is real because we have mythologized it in our history and through the media we consume. By casting actors like Zac Efron, Penn Badgley, etc., let’s face it, very attractive men, Hollywood executives create a fantasy world of submissive, easily preyed upon women and strong, attractive, so-in-love-with-you-they’ll-kill-you men. In this world, the only good girl is a dead girl, as Bitch Media writer Jennifer Chesak explains.
If you Google the phrase “hot serial killer” right now, the first article is titled “9 Hot Serial Killers We Would Want to Slice Us Open.” While it may be fun to make jokes, the reality is that women are targeted by men for rejecting their advances and that nearly half of homicides against women are committed by intimate partners, usually men. In 2019, Sarah Butler, a 20-year-old woman, texted her date “You’re not a serial killer, right?” merely hours before he murdered her. He had killed three women prior.
What about the 30 or more women that Ted Bundy actually murdered? What about their lives? Does anyone even know their names? Where are the stories of the women who survive, the women who fight against misogyny and win? In a culture that imprisons women who fight back and praises serial killers for their good looks, where are those stories? It is time to forget the fantasy of the hot serial killer. Instead, let’s celebrate the women who live long enough to tell their stories.