True Crime: The Documentary Aesthetics of Maggie Nelson and Taryn Simon
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“True Crime” as a genre traffics in gendered tropes—the murderous husband, the young woman under the spell of a charismatic killer, the manipulative wife, and the alienated male adolescent, to name a few. Indeed, in The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm found in Joe McGinniss’s relationship with the convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald evidence that journalists often rely on genre tropes to fabricate compelling true crime narratives when none may exist. In this talk, I will explore how a contemporary writer, Maggie Nelson, and a contemporary photographer, Taryn Simon, have sought to represent crime in a way that avoids the genre tropes ubiquitous in “true crime” stories. Instead, Nelson’s Jane, A Murder and Simon’s The Innocents develop modes of interrogating the often gendered and racial types that have both become concretized in “true crime” and had real effects in the criminal justice system. In so doing, Nelson and Simon both build on the history of documentary experimentation since the 1960s, and refine their documentary styles to emphasize not the closure we usually expect from “true crime” (the final sentencing or execution of the criminal), but the uncertainty and open-endedness that often results both from crime and the uneven, often unjust processes of the justice system. In their documentary works, victims, criminals, and innocents are represented not as types to be grounded in the rhetoric of journalistic truth, but as lives rewritten, overwritten, and exploited by crime.