Where Did Our Empathy Go? The Problem With Biopics

Biopics have long played fast and loose with the facts, but not to the detriment of society as recent treatments have.

Referencing Blonde (2022) and Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story (2022) in the same text might sound weird. And trust me, I never thought I would write “Marilyn Monroe” and “Jeffrey Dahmer” in the same sentence. It is undoubtedly peculiar to the time we are living in today, where people are getting increasingly critical of the role of biopics as forms of entertainment. And the release of the Netflix movie and limited series of both these figures has brought much public discussion surrounding biopics. The reflections I have witnessed online are a good sign (if I try to be positive here): it means that (some) people are not mindlessly consuming this type of content. Instead, they actively engage with it and question its usefulness and morality in our public sphere. On the other hand, such debates also indicate that the problem with biopics is becoming unbearably noticeable. But what is this problem?

When I talk about biopics (biographical + picture), I am focused on both films and TV series (and, to some extent, books. But in that aspect, I am not so knowledgeable). Therefore, even though Blonde and Dahmer portray different stories, they intersect through the fact they are referencing, with significant artistic liberties, the life trajectories of factual individuals. Their subject matters are immensely distinct: Blonde is a fictional reinterpretation of the inner struggles of the actress, singer, and producer Marilyn Monroe; Dahmer follows the “making of a killer” formula, attempting to explain how and why he became what he became – a cannibalistic, necrophiliac serial killer who terrorized young black and brown gay men (and boys) in the 1980s.

The legality and even ethicality of these pieces of media will not be discussed in detail here. Despite their highly controversial nature, Blonde and Dahmer were produced and released, and there is nothing we can do about that. Marilyn Monroe is not here anymore to defend herself, her character, and her work. Furthermore, Monroe’s estate has been notable for its multiple questionable decisions, basically opening the door for the continuous disrespectful treatment of her legacy. Jeffrey Dahmer’s victims’ families have been ardently against releasing another project dedicated to the killer’s depravity. Their suffering and trauma are being displayed again, and they were not involved in making the series. Although the producers and writers of Dahmer claim this series is dedicated to the victims, that isn’t likely their true intentions. Dozens of documentaries, mini-series, and films have been made about Dahmer’s crimes. There is no end to the number of podcasts and “true-crime” Youtubers that have talked about the case. Was the production of another Dahmer-related portrayal necessary? Regardless of how victims’ families feel about the perpetual popularized display of their trauma, it is probable that more media will be developed about this topic.

When it comes to the ethics of producing this type of content, the debate becomes murkier: trying to establish the limits of artistic expression is an impossible task. What might be ethical for some might not be for others. I will not explore arguments to defend limitations (or lack thereof) in art. Still, one thing is certain: when producers, writers, directors, actors, and studios find a source for immeasurable profit and egotistical glory, they will go after it. It is, sadly, the nature of the business.

I want to focus, however, on the other side of media consumption: the consumers themselves. I do not expect responsibly-produced content from multi-billion filmmaking studios and TV corporations. This is, after all, their job: produce media that will likely reach millions of people worldwide. Expecting any semblance of dignity from an exploitative profit-oriented class is ridiculous. Nevertheless, this does not mean that viewers and consumers should not be more aware of the content we are purchasing and investing in. Do not interpret me wrong: I am not defending the exclusive development of “unproblematic” media. For instance, I (and many others) love horror and gory films. However, in fictionalized horror narratives, viewers do not find joy, fun, and voyeuristic interest in dramatized real-life suffering. The content might be deeply disturbing and even disgusting, but there is a robust wall that separates art from reality. That wall does not exist in biopics, even the most loosely-adapted ones. The characters we see on screen are based on the real-life experiences of people we most likely never met. But these “characters” were someone’s son, daughter, mother, father, or trusted friend. Their ups and downs, their tragic ends, do not affect us. They are consumable content for us to delight in. But what about their surviving loved ones? What about these real-life characters’ legacies? Don’t they deserve to be respected?

Respect towards these factual figures depends on how we, as consumers, interact with content made about them. It seems pretty unusual to ask for responsibility while consuming entertainment products. However, the reality we live in is subjected to political undertones that we cannot escape: in an era of neo-liberal, capitalist exploitation, empathy becomes our most potent weapon. I emphasize the importance of empathy here because it is the feeling that is getting increasingly destroyed with the continuous consumption of deeply exploitative content. In the shadow of celebrity culture, the fans, the media, and the consumers turn into vultures, waiting for the next star to fall, the next victim to suffer, and the next killer to achieve glory. These types of biopics are merely an extension of a rotten core: Marilyn Monroe’s life and art were constantly twisted and cannibalized by the public of her time. Her mind, body, and autonomy were all for sale. Monroe’s commodification did not stop with her death; it reached new and almost never-before-seen heights. We did not have empathy for her then, and we surely do not seem to have compassion for her now.

Similarly, the lack of institutionalized empathy towards Jeffrey Dahmer’s victims existed in real time – Dahmer was not a particularly skillful or intelligent individual. He got away with it for so long because he knew society did not care about these marginalized men and boys. And the systemic failure that ultimately led to their tragic deaths has continued in 2022, now with all the glamour of a Netflix series.

The commodification of real human suffering and its corrosion on our ability to feel empathy for others has shown disturbing effects: the online spectacle of Amber Heard and Meghan Thee Stallion‘s gender-based violence cases, the “Instagrammification” of human rights activism, the rise in popularity of figures such as Jordan Peterson and Andrew Tate… Of course, all of these things happen for many complex reasons. But losing empathy and our basic sense of human communion leads our society to dangerous, emotionless paths where only profit, at all costs, is the only goal.

So are all our societal problems based on the proliferation of biopics? Surely that is not the case. There are countless examples of biographical pieces of media that have focused on incorporating the thoughts of the families of the individuals portrayed (or even the individuals themselves). Two cases that come to mind are Rocketman (2019), Elton John‘s biopic, produced by the singer himself, and Till (2022)filmed with the support of Emmet Till’s surviving relatives. Exploitative biopics is not the problem, merely one of the many consequences of it. Responsibly consuming this type of content will not be the ultimate solution. Not watching the Dahmer series will not change absolutely anything about the structural issues our world faces: systemic racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, poverty, climate change…It would be insanely naïve for me to think so. Nevertheless, the world we live in is very much commanded by how we invest our money and time. Without such investment, film and TV studios cannot survive. It is time to detach ourselves from this mass-consuming visual culture that sustains itself in reproducing traumatic real-life stories. It is time to listen to the surviving victims and their families and let them lead the way in how we should engage with such content. On a more subjective note, it is also time to stop telling the same stories repeatedly. How many films and TV series do we need about the mental anguish of Marilyn Monroe? How many media pieces do we need about the horrible last moments of murdered black and brown gay men and boys? Aren’t there more stories waiting to be unveiled and shared? Is our entertainment more important than the privacy of human experiences and tragedies? Perhaps the answer we are all looking for is already in our need to ask these questions.



About the author

Beatriz Alves

Academic researcher in Material Culture and Museum Studies. Also that annoying friend that likes to put politics in everything because our very existence is a political matter, after all!

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