The recent controversies surrounding the new Ted Bundy movie, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile and Netflix’s original series, You, have forced us to ask this question. There’s been a lot of backlash concerning the way these media chose to portray criminals and psychopaths. But are these criticisms fair?
When the trailer for Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile came out, people were quick to call it out for romanticizing serial killers. There were complaints that Zac Efron was too charming, too handsome to play Ted Bundy. They questioned if the movie was trying to make Bundy appealing, so his crimes wouldn’t seem ‘so bad’.
The grievances against You were in the same vein, with Penn Badgley’s portrayal of Joe Goldberg as sweet and unassuming. Viewers were skeptical if a character who is mentally unwell and holds tendencies of violence should really be depicted as so sympathetic. What was worse was that some audiences did end up rooting for the ‘bad guy’.
But here’s the thing: people don’t spend nearly enough time analyzing the intention of media. Zac Efron as Ted Bundy? Researchers, biographers, and the actual documents from the court at the time all paint Bundy as that handsome, charismatic guy that no one could believe was a murderer. What the film (or at least the trailer) gives us is a true-to-life depiction. It’s not trying to ‘trick’ the audience into believing anything other than reality.
As for You, the defense lies in the writing. It deliberately uses a narrator that it explicitly paints as unreliable while still fighting to get the audience to buy his story. There is a complex back and forth but ultimately, if you can’t understand that murdering people is bad then that’s on you as a person.
Which is the very reason romanticizing dangerous characters has become a trope in the first place. The point is to show people that anyone can be dangerous. Typecasting for villains doesn’t exist in real life, the most seemingly normal person can be a rapist or a murderer. Sure, maybe not all the viewers will catch on to the point. Maybe some people will fall for that romanticization. But why is that media’s fault?
Media is supposed to challenge its audience. It’s supposed to create critical viewers. That’s what narratives like this are at least trying to do. Rather than saying “serial killers are anti-social losers!”, they ask “can a serial killer also be popular and outgoing?”. Instead of serving you unfeeling criminals on a silver platter, they show that evil actions with good intentions still end up as evil. No one has ever said media’s role is to show morality in black and white.
At most, we can say that media has a social responsibility not to spread morally reprehensible ideas. But that’s not what these media are overtly doing. If your takeaway from a film that explicitly states Bundy’s guilt is that “well he was hot so maybe we can forgive him” — whose fault is that?
What do you think?