Examining the morality of Netflix’s ‘Dahmer’

Netflix’s decision to keep making shows and movies about serial killers is about money, not ethics

Courtesy+of+IMDB.

Courtesy of IMDB.

By Olivia Cushman, Collegian Correspondent

With classes slowing down just before Thanksgiving break, I was finally able to finish the Netflix show “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story.” Many people were outraged by a big company like Netflix releasing a show about the life, death and legacy of one of the most infamous serial killers to live in America, but its popularity speaks for itself. A lot of people, including myself, are obsessed with true crime as a genre of film or other media. After finishing the series, however, I have to wonder whether making this series and releasing it on one of the world’s biggest streaming platforms was ethical on Netflix’s part.

After just 12 days of “Dahmer” being available to the public, the show became Netflix’s ninth most-watched English language television series of all time. On Nov. 7, Netflix announced that “Dahmer” would be renewed for two new installments of the series. The immense success that this show had makes me wonder if this show, which is based on real events, is ethical in its sources of information and portrayal of characters based on the victims and their families. The real Jeffrey Dahmer killed 17 victims between 1978 and 1991, all of which were male. Dahmer, who was confirmed to be gay, said in a 1993 interview with Inside Edition that he wanted “complete control and dominance” over the men that he killed. Upon its release, “Dahmer” had “LGBTQ” listed in its tags on Netflix. This rightfully caused controversy, and Netflix has since removed the tag.

This 1993 interview with Dahmer had many wondering why there was a need to get the killer’s side of the story. Why give publicity to such an evil man? This is something I’ve wondered about myself. Oftentimes, when we hear about serial killers, we hear about their lives, crimes and legacies — it’s almost never made to be about the victims. What’s most important is that these victims are remembered for the people that they were, people who lived just like you and me. Dahmer’s victims left behind families and big plans. Rita Isbell, the real-life sister of Errol Lindsey, one of Dahmer’s victims, spoke to Insider about her portrayal in the Netflix show. She gave an emotional victim impact statement in court in 1992 and said that she wasn’t asked permission by Netflix to be portrayed in this way. “When I saw some of the show, it bothered me, especially when I saw myself — when I saw my name come across the screen and this lady saying verbatim exactly what I said,” she said.

Dahmer’s crimes had Black residents of Milwaukee in an uproar after his crimes were covered by the media. They had every reason to believe that the police and the justice system were failing them — an issue that the Back Lives Matter movement has brought to light nationally. This is one thing the show did right. I believe it showed how evil the real Jeffrey Dahmer was and how sick and twisted his mind really was. I am not a racial minority, however, so I know that people of color might view this issue differently. The Black community of Milwaukee in the early 1990s felt betrayed and failed because the police ignored Dahmer as being an imminent threat to the community, which allowed him to get away with so many murders.

Glenda Cleveland, portrayed in the series by actress Niecy Nash, was a witness to 14-year-old Konernak Sinthasomphone’s escort by the police back into Dahmer’s apartment after an attempt to escape. She was portrayed in the series as Dahmer’s neighbor who couldn’t stand the smell of decomposing bodies coming from his apartment. She called the police on Dahmer on multiple different occasions, including when she found the 14-year-old Laotian boy on the street, naked, bleeding and unable to speak. It had later been revealed to the public’s horror that this boy had been crudely lobotomized by Dahmer.

One more point of criticism on Netflix’s part is that this is not the first time a serial killer has been dramatized by a stereotypically attractive actor. Ted Bundy was another American serial killer portrayed by Zac Efron in the 2019 Netflix movie “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.” Netflix cast Evan Peters as Jeffrey Dahmer in “Dahmer,” who is regarded by many to be a “Hollywood heartthrob.” The fact that Netflix repeatedly casts attractive, young Hollywood actors to play these sick and evil individuals we call serial killers leads many to become obsessed with the real killers’ crimes. This glorification or romanticization of crimes and the obsession with serial killers in particular is something Netflix as a company profits off of. They release these shows and movies portraying these serial killers and their victims, sometimes horribly graphic in nature, to the delight of people who are obsessed with these killers’ lives and crimes.

Netflix profits from its shows and movies and will continue to do so. This show about the life of Jeffrey Dahmer as a serial killer is certainly an interesting one to watch, but at the end of the day, the crimes that he committed, as evil and heinous as they were, will continue to be some of the most infamous in American history.

This place in the public consciousness they hold is partially due to the fact that Netflix portrayed the murder, drugging, killing and cannibalization of these 17 individuals. Netflix should’ve, at the very least, gotten permission from these victim’s families to have them portrayed in the show. I think the main reason Netflix makes shows like this one is greed and a thirst for money.  It doesn’t matter if they have to be irresponsible about asking for victims’ families’ permission to be dramatized or their inaccuracy while doing so, what matters for Netflix is growing its business and the company as a whole.

 

Olivia Cushman can be reached at [email protected]