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Being “Polite” Often Gets Women Killed

True crime is having a moment — and podcasts like My Favorite Murder resonate with audiences because they reframe the narrative of female victimhood and provide tools for survival.

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In late January, Kristen, a member of the My Favorite Murder podcast Facebook page, wrote a post about a woman who “probably saved my life.” She had driven to a restaurant to get some food and iced tea for dinner late at night, alone since her boyfriend was sick. After getting her order, Kristen went back outside toward her car, but a woman stopped her. “It’s so good to see you!” she said. “How have you been?” Kristen assured her that she had the wrong person; they’d never met before. The woman whispered to her to pretend that they were friends. “There’s a man hiding behind your car,” she said.

They walked over to Kristen’s car together while the woman explained that she had a bad feeling about the man who was lurking and decided there would be power in numbers. “Sure enough,” she wrote, “we get to my car and a man in a hoodie stands up from behind my passenger rear side and nonchalantly walks into the dumpster alley.”

As Kristen said goodbye, the woman smiled and said, “Stay sexy and don’t get murdered.”

For the uninitiated, this is hardly a normal way to say “you’re welcome,” but it’s a calling card of sorts for fellow “Murderinos,” which is what fans of My Favorite Murder, a hugely popular true crime podcast based out of Los Angeles, call themselves.

MFM, the weekly show hosted and researched by Karen Kilgariff, a comedian, musician, and writer, and Georgia Hardstark, a TV host for the Cooking Channel and co-host of the Slumber Party podcast, has been up and running for just over a year now. Their Facebook page is currently creeping past 100,000, and though the duo started it, fans now run it. Their live shows across the country routinely sell out and they have an extensive merchandise line with tees, mugs, and beanies bearing their own quotes. (“Stay out of the forest.”) As of writing, their iTunes rating is four and a half out of five and they’re ranked 6th under Top Comedy Podcasts, and 49th overall. (One of the very few one-star reviews suggests that the show is, “for chicks only. They may as well be talking make up [sic] and pumpkin spice.”) Intentionally or not, the show speaks to women.

Sometimes they focus on serial killers, sometimes one-off killers, or even mass murderers. Other times they'll just discuss a guy who killed his grandparents when he was a child.

The first 30 to 45, maybe even 60 minutes of every episode is dedicated entirely to digressions. As if they were chatting with friends over brunch (or whiskey), Karen and Georgia weave in and out of talking about their own lives — and then casually tell a story about two maids who plucked their masters’ eyes out. Georgia, the more squeamish host, winces her way through stories, while Karen, more of a hard-ass, is quick to make a joke and cut the tension. (They also sometimes correct themselves on mistakes from previous episodes, because MFM is nothing if not entirely homespun.)

After more crosstalk and weird jokes, the two women take turns talking about whatever murder interests them that week, maybe sharing a story about hometown murder someone emailed them or posted to the Facebook group. Sometimes they focus on serial killers, sometimes one-off killers, or even mass murderers. Other times they’ll just discuss a guy who killed his grandparents when he was a child. (Neither Karen nor Georgia responded to interview requests.)

The stories can be as recent as the Lululemon murder of 2011, or as far back as serial killer Jane Toppan who confessed to 33 murders in 1901. They go off on tangents, sometimes getting facts wrong or expressing uncertainty over details. Sometimes, they just read from a Wikipedia entry.

MFM is undoubtedly female-centric: The voices, with exception of audio engineer Steven Ray Morris, are female; judging by the Facebook group and the many women who write into the show, the listenership seems to skew, like a lot of true crime, significantly female as well. (Comparable to MFM, the podcast Sword & Scale has a 70% female fan base.) But, unlike other true crime podcasts like Sword & Scale or Serial or Criminal, Karen and Georgia — everyone refers to them by their first names, like they’re all friends with one key similar interest — are neither trying to solve a crime nor offering an unbiased look at an atrocity and its grisly details. Most of the crimes they recount have been solved — or at least, someone was sent to prison (or hell) — and they’re always resolutely on the side of the victims and survivors.

True crime is so often about women — women as victims, women as weak, women as objects of desire or rage — but rarely do women control the narratives, and allow female victims to be more than just bodies. Yet My Favorite Murder does just that and further sets itself apart by helping female listeners gain a sense of protection, control, or at least reassurance, as they attempt to reframe the narrative of female trauma.

True crime has always had a hold on the popular imagination, but there's no question that right now it’s having a moment: There’s an overflow of television shows, Netflix specials, docu-series, podcasts, and even fictionalized crime podcasts. If you want to hear about a brutal crime, a detailed murder, an unsolved rape or assault, there are plenty of places to find it.

Few places use those stories to bring comfort to women, to give suggestions for how to take care of yourself (if you can), and prove that victimhood isn’t a woman’s sole option. “Obsessed with true crime, both of us. Bad things happening. We love it. We want to know all about it so it’ll never happen to us,” Georgia says in Episode 4 ("Go Forth And Murder"). “And it turns out,” Karen adds, “so do a lot of other people.”

Murder is scary and gruesome, but also inherently fascinating and salacious. Women, though, are forever at a higher risk: At higher risk to be raped, killed, or abused by a male partner, and to be harassed merely by walking down the street. The show’s taglines speak directly to women — namely women who are searching for a more assertive voice: “Here’s the thing: Fuck everyone,” and “Don’t be a fucking lunatic,” and “Fuck Politeness” and “Pepper spray first, ask questions later,” and “You’re in a cult; call your dad,” and, of course, “stay sexy, don’t get murdered” all act as a unifying rally cry for the women who listen to MFM every week to gain a sense of agency.

This shouldn’t be funny; this shouldn’t be entertaining. And yet, My Favorite Murder fans are making cross-stitches for purchase on Etsy with the words “LOCK YOUR FUCKING DOOR.” Women on the Facebook group are posting photos of wine glasses they’ve etched with “Murderino” in curlicue writing, while others post about postcards they’ve made which feature an illustration that says, “It’s Going To Be Okay,” on one side and multiple crisis hotlines on the other.

While it’s never fair to put the onus on women to not be raped or murdered, regardless of circumstance, MFM focuses on tapping into female intuition and not letting something as simple as gendered politeness get in the way of one’s safety. Though most of the shows are about, predictably, murder, they also cover the stories of survivors.

Like Episode 18, which features a story about Mary Vincent. In 1978, while 15-year-old Vincent was hitchhiking, she was picked up by a 50-year-old man named Lawrence Singleton. He raped her, cut off both of her forearms, and threw her over a 30-foot cliff. With both her arms cut off, she nevertheless used mud to clot her wounds, and climbed back up to the highway. She waited for someone driving by to pick her up, and finally, someone did. Singleton served eight years of a 14-year sentence before being paroled for good behavior. Then, in Florida in 1997, he stabbed Roxanne Hayes multiple times and killed her. He was convicted, and Vincent traveled to Florida from California to appear at his sentencing. He received the death penalty.

Mary Vincent’s story is one of the most brutal ones on the show, easily remembered by most of its listeners not only because the details are unrelentingly grim, but because Vincent lived. She lived, even after being violated, and left for dead, and even after the court system failed her. Karen tells the story as if Vincent is (rightly) a superhero, and explains how the couple who finally stopped to get her some help did the exact right thing you do when you see a bloody 15-year-old on the highway. When Karen says that Lawrence Singleton died of cancer before his death penalty could be carried out, Georgia mutters, “I hope it hurt.”

The true crime gaze is subverted from being about who the perpetrators are and how they committed a crime, to being about how women can protect themselves, and how the system is often built against them.

For the women who don’t make it, like Episode 13’s Jennifer Levin — who was killed by Robert Chambers in 1986's infamous New York City Preppie Murder (which prompted widespread panic and was later turned into a TV movie with Lara Flynn Boyle) — the show focuses on giving the victim a sense of agency back. “Of course the media has to go with the grossest version of the story,” Karen said. “The New York Daily News had headlines like how Jennifer courted death and sex play got rough and her reputation was totally attacked while Chambers was portrayed as a Kennedy-esque preppy altar boy with a promising future.”

“Oh, why media, why?” Georgia groans. The story is presented not as a surprise that this handsome, wealthy, white male bit, cut, and strangled a young woman, but rather that the media reports at the time dared to suggest she somehow might have deserved it. (Plus, a generally useful warning away from cocaine: “Don’t snort shit.”)

The true crime gaze is subverted from being about who the perpetrators are and how they committed a crime, to being about how women can protect themselves, and how the system is often built against them. “As we discuss and find in all of these stories that we tell and cases that we talk about, things happen for a) a reason and b) the people that do them have histories of doing things. It’s so strange that still the legal system treats these things like they’re out of the blue,” Karen says in one episode. “If a man consistently beats the shit out of his wife, that will escalate.”

The “fuck politeness” credo that runs through My Favorite Murder also seems to be one of the greatest lightning rods for women who listen to the show. In Episode 45, Karen and Georgia cover Rodney Alcala, a convicted murderer and rapist who convinced women he was a fashion photographer in order to lure them to an abandoned building. Georgia recalled her own similar experience as a young woman in LA when a stranger asked to take her photo. “I feel so stupid but when I was 18, I was new to LA and I was so flattered that someone wanted to take my photo and it was the 90s, and I didn’t understand, and I thought I knew this person, he was so nice all the time,” she said. “When I say ‘fuck politeness’ it’s because I’ve done shit that would’ve probably been really unsafe. I just want to cry thinking about it.”

“Fuck that shit,” Karen adds.

A few weeks ago, I posted in the MFM Facebook group asking women how the show has made them feel stronger, how it’s helped them protect themselves, and if it’s taught them something about their own safety or their worth. The post racked up a few hundred replies, mostly from women. They’ve started locking their doors and putting their keys between their fingers when they walk to their cars at night (just in case). They’ve been afraid of being murdered but talking to other women with the same anxieties have calmed their nerves.

“I’ve accepted that it’s okay to say no to strangers or even people you know who ask you to do something that puts you in a risky situation,” a woman named Kellie wrote, “even if it means they think I’m not nice.” Kate said it’s made her more aware of her surroundings: “I’m able to discern the ‘gift of fear’ better.”

Another woman, Laurie, said she’s done apologizing for being rude if she’s uncomfortable. “I can’t apologize for a misunderstanding if I’m dead.”

In early February, a woman posted to the Facebook group on the anniversary of her friend’s murder, a woman she believed was killed by her abuser while her daughter was in the next room. “If YOU are being abused... reach out to someone... ANYONE you can trust... because you are important to someone and you are loved,” she wrote.

Taylor Mull, a 24-year-old waitress in Ohio, is one of many listeners who’s taken Karen and Georgia’s message to heart. She describes herself as anxious, and while a show about murder would typically heighten that already-present anxiety, it’s given her a sense of agency too. “I think women are normally seen as easy prey and easy targets,” she says. “Listening to the podcast has given me this whole sense of empowerment. Like, it’s okay to be anxious and unnerved at certain things, because, trust your gut.”

Mull says that listening to the show has also given her another level of awareness about what kind of danger lurks for women. Months ago, she visited a liquor store and handed her ID over to the clerk when he asked. “I noticed that he kind of stared at it a little too long. You start thinking how many times you give people your ID and how many times they see where you live and that anxiety creeps in,” she says. The man started asking her what she did, and where she worked, and what hours she usually worked. She answered him without thinking. “I got in my car and I was like, ‘Fuck. Fuck!’ He saw my name, he saw where I live, and I was just so nice to him,” she said. “It’s like every female, I’m sure, has been in that situation at a bar where a guy has gotten too close for comfort and you’re like, Well, I don’t want to be rude.”

For Mull, Georgia represents her anxiety: On the show, Georgia squirms more, squeals at details, and when a woman is killed or tortured, she usually purrs, “Ohh, sweetie.” She’s maternal and worried and sweet. Karen, conversely, though unnerved by the details of an assault or murder, is stronger, more aggressive, more resigned to everyday dangers. She is, through a prism of dark humor, the angrier half. While Georgia recounts the story behind the creation of Megan’s Law, Karen groans, “This is fucking rotten.”

“I feel like I would love to be as badass as Karen is but I also have my deep-seated anxiety like Georgia,” Mull says. “Where we are in America is terrifying. But, I almost feel like, okay, this could be the sort of thing where I could sit in a corner and be terrified of everything, or I can stand up, learn how to protect myself and learn how to say no.” Karen and Georgia pull women in, reminding them that the sense of danger they feel is well worth listening to.

Amanda Vicary, an assistant professor in the psychology department at Illinois Wesleyan University, co-wrote a study on female interest in true crime. She also grew up with a keen interest in true crime books: “My mom gave me a true crime book to read — I was 10 or 11. Totally inappropriate. It was one where a guy threw a body in a wood chipper. Thanks, Mom.”

In the study, Vicary gave male and female subjects a choice of two different free books. One was true crime, and the other was either on gang violence or war, in an attempt to keep the second book still violent in nature. “Women really wanted to read the true crime books,” Vicary says. Men more often chose to read about gang violence or war. (Vicary also found that the majority of true crime book reviews on Amazon are written by women.)

The second part of her study involved tweaking the descriptions of the true crime books to see which appealed to women more; one of those manipulations added psychological content to the descriptions of the books, including what might have set the killer off or what signs you can look for if someone is abusive or a serial killer. The psychological content, the study found, is always more interesting to women because it offers a kind of glimpse into survival. “We have evolved mental adaptations to pay attention to murder,” she says. “By knowing the signs of danger, we can prevent that from happening to us.”

Allison, a 47-year-old woman living in Brooklyn, is one of many women who listen to the show to regain control of their own survival narratives. (Her name was changed to protect her identity, as she requested.)

"We have evolved mental adaptations to pay attention to murder. By knowing the signs of danger, we can prevent that from happening to us."

“I was molested as a child, but I don’t have very many clear memories. I always knew something was wrong. It’s only in the last four or five years that I fully understand and recognize that, yes, something did happen to me and I can’t deny it.” Allison says her molestation occurred with multiple family members before the age of 5. She’s still in contact with her family, making it all the more complicated. Her interest in true crime, then, partly comes from simply not knowing her own narrative.

“I love these stories about people who survive,” she says, “but I still have that interest in these people who do the terrible thing, because I could also do terrible things.” While most women who consume true crime are doing so because the victims (or survivors) are relatable, Allison is listening because she knows that she could easily continue the very cycle of abuse she got caught in. “I always need to know the backstory. What happened to this person? Why are they this way? There’s always a reason,” she says.

“It makes me sad, of course, but also makes me feel okay about myself. Yes, bad things happened but I’m okay and I’m going to be okay. I’m not a killer and I’m not going to be a killer.”

MFM’s best quality really is its female narrators: Georgia and Karen are sympathetic to a story’s victims (or survivors), and have increasingly taken care to use the right language in their storytelling. (For example, “sex worker” over “hooker” or “prostitute.”) Allison says that shows like Last Podcast on the Left, run by men with a markedly different tone, don’t have the same deftness. “It was just so relentlessly male,” Allison says. “That feels more like, ‘We’re here to talk about these cool-ass murderers.’ I don’t get that.”

The tone of Last Podcast, and male-centric shows like it, differ from MFM because there seems to be no built-in empathy, no understanding of what safety women risk. “[My Favorite Murder] was born of this desire to share this little weird obsession but also, in their own way, to empower women,” Allison says. “There’s so much chaos in the world. They’re trying to organize this and control it a little bit so we can feel safer.”

It is, however, worth pointing out that MFM doesn’t cover many stories of women of color, trans women, queer women, or women otherwise in a minority position. Most media doesn’t either. “You always hear if a pretty white girl goes missing. That always makes the news more if a poor black girl goes missing,” Vicary says. “If part of the interest in crime is about relevance, people applying it to their own lives, then it makes sense to me that white women would be fans of this podcast more than women or men of color.”

Personal application and real-world relevance are major factors in why and how women engage in true crime; white women will, naturally, gravitate to their own stories. Besides, true crime involving women of color follow very different conventions. For instance, an indigenous woman’s murder is drastically different from a white woman’s, in terms of history and how the police and the government handle them. MFM also rarely broaches topics like, say, police shootings in any direct way that intersect with race or gender. Like a lot of true crime, MFM still struggles to broach stories that aren’t specifically about white women (like so many of the white women who make up their Facebook fanbase).

And MFM is still prone to the same uncomfortable serial-killer romanticism that other programs can fall into. Allison remembers someone on the Facebook page posting a large scarf with "Night Stalker" Richard Ramirez’s face on it. “Everyone was like, ‘Oh man, that’s so cool.’ And I was dumbfounded,” she says. “The people who responded to the post were in such contrast to the people who were talking about their emotions and how serious this is. That’s not where I’m coming from.”

Of the few hundred of women who replied to my Facebook posting on the My Favorite Murder page — most with details of how the show had made them be more cautious, more aware of ever-present danger — a handful of respondents were men.

They were men who previously didn’t realize what kind of behavior can be perceived by women as threatening, how even walking through a parking lot late at night near a woman, alone, can be eerie. It might be men who need to listen to My Favorite Murder the most — after all, most men have never really considered they had to“fuck politeness” and probably don’t have concerns about parking next to a “weird van” at an evening yoga class.

True crime often treats female trauma like the sideshow, the unfortunate byproduct of what is otherwise a fascinating examination of human — male — motivation. It’s ugly work thinking about the women left behind for dead, so instead we focus on the perpetrators, treating female victims like naives, or worse, as if they somehow deserved their treatment. My Favorite Murder, and shows like it that subvert the male-driven narrative, are important because they give a voice to the voiceless female victim.

Getting inside the mind of a killer is interesting enough insofar as pulpy entertainment goes, but the real innovation is in speaking to the women who need a cry of resistance. “Take good care of yourself and do whatever you need to do to survive. We don’t hear that enough,” says Allison. “We didn’t know we were desperate for this message of ‘fuck politeness’ until it came.”


CORRECTION

Jennifer Levin was killed by Robert Chambers in 1986. An earlier version of this post misidentified her.

Scaachi Koul is a senior writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in Toronto.

Contact Scaachi Koul at scaachi.koul@buzzfeed.com.

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