Brow Beat

TV Shows Love Dead Women. The End of the F***ing World Actually Treats Them Like Human Beings.

The Netflix series gives its heroine a fighting chance.

Jessica Barden in The End of the F***ing World
Jessica Barden in The End of the F***ing World.

This article contains spoilers.

We’ve seen it many times, on The Night Of and Law & Order and Mindhunter and anything on Investigation Discovery. They’re usually troubled. They’re usually pretty. They’re usually white. They’re almost always female and they’re always dead.

Law & Order has long since settled into its place as a reliable guilty pleasure, but more recent crime narratives like Serial and Making a Murderer have been met with awards and serious-minded critical engagement. Stories about murder—whether true crime or procedural or good old-fashioned bloody fiction—have been enjoying newfound cultural cachet, but there’s a long-standing audience for the genre(s), and it’s largely female. These women’s love for crime fiction, however, is unrequited.

Female audiences fervently consume these narratives for understandable reasons: confirmation of the narrative of female victimhood learned from childhood, proof that their fears of male violence are not irrational, and the feeling that by hearing enough of these stories, one can learn how to survive similar scenarios. The draw is undeniable, even as, in many of these stories, women’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences are erased, leaving only images of lifeless female bodies.

In its first episode, the new Netflix series The End of the F***ing World seems primed to become another pretty-dead-girl story, more interested in the psychology of the man who commits a terrible crime than the woman lost to it. It begins with a slow zoom in on a flat-faced boy (Alex Lawther), as a dreamily retro music cue begins and his name flashes on the screen in red. His voice-over begins: “I’m James. I’m 17. And I’m pretty sure I’m a psychopath.”

The opening scenes trace his violent impulses (murdering animals, sticking his own hand in a deep fryer) and his resentment toward his father. It culminates in him, silent and alone in the lunchroom, watching the other students. “School was beneath me, but it was a good place for observation and selection. Because I had a plan. I was going to kill something bigger. Much bigger.” Cut to a pretty young girl approaching him. It seems this will be a familiar story: a deep dive into the inner life of a troubled man—one whom we like despite ourselves! He’s funny!—and his fixation on a young girl who’s nothing more than a plot device and collateral damage.

Instead, we’re immediately whisked into the life of the girl, Alyssa, played by the remarkable Jessica Barden. We learn about her neglectful mother, her leering stepfather, and her traumatic abandonment by her father, all couched in sardonic humor. While the first episode is dominated by broad jokes, the plot is set into motion by a quiet scene with Alyssa. After remarks from her stepfather that are both cruel and sexualizing (and ignored by her mother), Janis Ian’s plaintive “At Seventeen” begins to play. Alyssa looks at the new family unit that excludes and exploits her and declares: “Fuck. This. Shit.”

During the first several episodes, the possibility of Alyssa’s murder continues to hang over the series; James insists that he’s waiting for the right time, and scenes are periodically interrupted by flashes of fantasies in which Alyssa is butchered. Even if she were to meet the same fate as the girls on SVU, the audience has come to know her: her strength, her hopes, her vulnerability. Even if she were to die, it wouldn’t simply be bloody, prurient entertainment; it would carry the pain and sadness of senseless loss.

But that doesn’t happen. Alyssa isn’t killed (again, spoilers ahead). A man whose home Alyssa and James have broken into, who attempts to rape her, who we know has assaulted and possibly killed multiple other women, is. While Alyssa struggles with the trauma of witnessing James violently kill her attacker, and the ending implies that neither teen will escape legal justice, the show provides an odd sort of wish fulfillment for female viewers. It’s impossible at this moment in time to not be hyperaware of the vulnerability of living in a female body. We’re inundated with stories both grotesque (like news of the three women killed daily in America by intimate partner violence and the alleged rapes by Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein) and infuriatingly mundane instances of men ignoring women’s ownership of their own intimate experiences (see: Louis C.K., Aziz Ansari). In the universe of The End of the F***ing World, women don’t exist purely as props or plot points. They survive, and violence is meted out to the monstrous, not the innocent.

The popular podcast My Favorite Murder—in which comedians Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark recount not-very-thoroughly researched true crime stories—offers a similar sort of catharsis. Kilgariff and Hardstark embrace a genre of storytelling that often renders the victims invisible, but they upend conventions by centering these forgotten women and emphasizing women’s empowerment and self-preservation. During their live shows, Kilgariff and Hardstark regularly invite an audience member on stage to share a “hometown murder.” At a recent taping in San Diego, a woman named Laurie joined them. She was clearly shaken, and though it initially sounded as if she was simply recounting the story of a local serial killer, she eventually revealed that one of the victims was her best friend. The room, previously filled with women’s voices laughing and raucously shouting, fell silent. Laurie told her story slowly, with Kilgariff and Hardstark only speaking to offer words of encouragement and praise.

After more than an hour of jokes and macabre fascination with gruesome crimes, it was a potent reminder of the real pain at the center of these stories. Women have been watching crime stories for a long time. With programs like The End of the F***ing World and My Favorite Murder, they’re also being seen.