Up­end­ing true crime sta­tus quo on women

‘The Keep­ers’ on Net­flix digs deeper into the life of a homi­cide vic­tim.


Her body was dis­cov­ered in a va­cant lot, re­mote wooded area, dump­ster or car trunk. She was nude or par­tially clothed. There were signs of sex­ual as­sault.

As any arm­chair de­tec­tive or avid In­ves­ti­ga­tion Dis­cov­ery chan­nel viewer can tell you, such grim sce­nar­ios are stan­dard fare for true-crime tele­vi­sion, fod­der for an end­less stream of who­dunits now flood­ing the mar­ket.

Yet de­spite the re­al­ity that nearly 80% of the na­tion’s homi­cide vic­tims are men, ac­cord­ing to re­cent FBI stats, on crime TV it’s pre­dom­i­nantly women who end up on the wrong side of a gun, knife or blunt in­stru­ment.

The demise of sin­gle moms, teenage daugh­ters and beloved grand­moth­ers drive the ma­jor­ity of shows on the 24/7-crime ID chan­nel. Like­wise, high-pro­file killings of fe­males pro­vided the ground­work for ESPN’s “OJ: Made in Amer­ica” and a slew of JonBenet Ram­sey spe­cials.

“I don’t think view­ers have ever ex­pe­ri­enced such an ex­cit­ing ex­plo­sion fo­cused on a sin­gle genre like we are cur­rently see­ing with the suc­cess of true-crime sto­ries and mys­ter­ies on ev­ery pos­si­ble me­dia plat­form,” said ID Pres­i­dent Henry Sch­leiff in a re­cent state­ment about the suc­cess of the cable net­work.

It’s a tele­vi­sion boon built atop the bod­ies of women and girls, their memories of­ten ob­scured by na­tional ar­gu­ments over their con­victed killers’ ac­tual in­no­cence or guilt, the mis­steps of de­tec­tives work­ing their cases or the grue­some de­tails of the crimes that took them.

They’re vic­tim­ized again, and the sec­ond time around, it’s their mem­ory that’s aban­doned.

Do you know the names Su­san Ber­man and Teresa Hal­bach? Prob­a­bly not, but it’s likely you’ve heard of the hit shows chron­i­cling the cir­cum­stances of their mur­ders: HBO’s “The Jinx” and Net­flix’s “Mak­ing a Mur-


But the sta­tus quo of such non­fic­tion crime se­ries was up­ended a few weeks ago with Net­flix’s “The Keep­ers.”

The se­ries ex­plores the un­solved 1969 slay­ing of Sis­ter Cathy Ces­nik, a beloved 26-year-old nun and high school teacher in Mary­land.

The love and de­vo­tion she in­spired among her stu­dents, women now in their 60s, drives the story as they lead the charge to solve her decades-old homi­cide.

And rather than set­tle for true crime’s usual short­hand de­scrip­tion of the fe­male vic­tim as “young,” “at­trac­tive” and “all-Amer­i­can” (i.e. Cau­casian), Sis­ter Cathy is brought to life through the ac­counts of the women she once sought to pro­tect from preda­tory priests at the all-girl Arch­bishop Keough High School in Bal­ti­more. They now want to know if her at­tempt to shield them cost Sis­ter Cathy her life.

Is there in­trigue, hor­ror and sus­pense? Ab­so­lutely.

But it’s also mov­ing, and early in the seven-part se­ries, one can’t help but re­mem­ber Sis­ter Cathy’s name, her im­age, even some of her po­etry.

Sim­ply put, she had a life be­fore she was killed, and we be­come part of that.

It’s a notable de­par­ture from the usual de­tach­ment true crime tele­vi­sion has from its fe­male (and even male) vic­tims.

Since its re­lease “The Keep­ers” has in­spired a na­tional con­ver­sa­tion about the Catholic Church and the power it wields with law en­force­ment and the com­mu­nity.

It fol­lows in the foot­steps of “Mak­ing a Mur­derer,” an­other true-crime story that prompted a heated de­bate re­gard­ing the in­no­cence of con­victed mur­derer-rapist Steven Avery. Thou­sands signed a pe­ti­tion to have Avery ex­on­er­ated that was sent to Pres­i­dent Obama. His vic­tim, how­ever — Teresa Hal­bach — was too of­ten an af­ter­thought in con­ver­sa­tions about the se­ries.

In “The Keep­ers,” it’s the vic­tim, not the men sus­pected of mur­der, who gets the last word.

But just why true crime TV grav­i­tates to­ward cases in­volv­ing fe­male rather than male mur­der vic­tims is a mys­tery these shows have yet to solve. There’s a num­ber of the­o­ries among ex­perts, men­tal health prac­ti­tion­ers and women’s ad­vo­cacy groups: crimes against women spark more out­rage, and there­fore, a height­ened de­gree of at­ten­tion (and that equals higher rat­ings); women are con­sid­ered more dis­pens­able than men; sex crimes sell.

And rape is more of­ten than not a mo­tive in TV’s un­scripted crime fare, from nearly ev­ery in­stall­ment of ID’s “See No Evil” to episodes of A&E’s “The Killing Sea­son” to ABC’s long-run­ning “20/20.”

It makes it seem as if women are not only the No. 1 tar­gets of mur­der in the na­tion, but that most of those killings are sex­ual in na­ture.

It’s an­other dis­tor­tion given that the vast ma­jor­ity of homi­cides in the U.S. in­volv­ing a fe­male vic­tim in 2015 were not as­so­ci­ated with sex­ual as­sault (though his­tor­i­cally rape and sex­ual as­sault of mur­der vic­tims has ei­ther been over­looked or dif­fi­cult to de­ter­mine).

An­other dan­ger is that in low-bud­get true-crime pro­duc­tions, rape scenes of­ten come off as fetishized and ex­ploita­tive. And it’s of­ten pro­gram­ming that is … wait for it … pre­dom­i­nantly watched by women.

Yes, women are the No. 1 con­sumers of shows about mur­dered women: ID is the No. 1 ad-sup­ported cable net­work for fe­males 25 to 54.

Now Oxy­gen, a net­work that once fea­tured re­runs of “The Tyra Banks Show” and the yoga med­i­ta­tion pro­gram “In­hale,” is re­brand­ing it­self along sim­i­lar lines. It’ll soon morph into a full-time crime net­work driven by non­fic­tion who­dunits and un­scripted pro­ce­du­rals.

It’s ironic given that Oxy­gen was one of the early out­lets to dis­cover that true crime pays. Its most suc­cess­ful se­ries, “Snapped,” is now in its 14th year. It, how­ever, chron­i­cles mur­ders com­mit­ted by women — usu­ally against men.

Netf lix

NET­FLIX’S “The Keep­ers” tack­les the 1969 slay­ing of a nun and the women de­ter­mined to find jus­tice.

Amy Kaufman Los An­ge­les Times

A PLAQUE pays trib­ute to Sis­ter Cathy Ces­nik near where her body was found in 1970 in Lans­downe, Md.

Netf lix

SIS­TER Cathy is brought to life in “The Keep­ers” in a way not usu­ally seen of other vic­tims on such shows.

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