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'American Murder: The Family Next Door': The Victim Blaming Around Shanann Watts' Murder Needs To Stop

'American Murder: The Family Next Door': The Victim Blaming Around Shanann Watts' Murder Needs To Stop

Netflix's harrowing documentary American Murder: The Family Next Door is the programme everyone's talking about right now.

The case of Chris Watts, who brutally murdered his wife Shanann and their two young daughters in 2018, has gripped viewers - but equally disturbing is the culture of victim blaming surrounding Shanann's murder.

Shanann was pregnant at the time of her death. Chris killed her by strangulation, causing the death of their unborn son Nico.

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Their daughters, Bella, four, and Celeste, three, died by asphyxiation due to smothering.

Chris initially maintained his innocence but later confessed his crimes in November 2018, after failing a lie detector test. He received three consecutive life sentences and is not eligible for parole.

Filmmaker Jenny Popplewell says that female victims of violent crimes like Shanann are often blamed for the actions of the perpetrators - and the mum-of-two's murder follows this pattern.

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Ronnie and Cindy Watts defended their son, saying he was in an "abusive" marriage with a manipulative woman and that they had a "very hard relationship" with Shanann, according to the New York Post.

More worryingly, almost every comments section relating to the Chris Watts case brings up questions concerning "what Shanann did" to "deserve" her tragic death, or how she "made [her husband] snap".

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Sadly, these are classic textbook examples of victim-blaming, reminding us that the dangerous phenomenon remains an ongoing issue.

The act of victim blaming is toxic for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it marginalises the victim - or, indeed, survivor - implying that they are in fact the guilty party.

Filmmaker Jenny Popplewell says that female victims of violent crimes like Shanann are often blamed for the actions of the perpetrators(Credit: Netflix)
Filmmaker Jenny Popplewell says that female victims of violent crimes like Shanann are often blamed for the actions of the perpetrators(Credit: Netflix)

Secondly, it minimises the abusive act itself, making victims less likely to come forward and report it.

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Overall, victim-blaming perpetuates the cycle of violence from which it stems. Given that in western countries an estimated 25% of women will experience intimate partner violence over their lifetimes, and that most domestic violence goes unreported, that's a huge problem.

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Talking about American Murder and the need to end the victim-blaming that Shanann has been subjected to, Ruth Mason, Head of Change That Lasts at Women's Aid told Tyla: "We welcome the filmmaker's intention to restore dignity to Shanann and her daughters by giving them voice. We know first-hand how deep-rooted victim blaming is in our communities, institutions and with professionals.

"Too many people still believe that in some way women are somehow to blame for men's violence against them. Victim blaming is endemic, ingrained and institutionalised."

Chris Watts initially maintained his innocence but went on to confess his crimes in November 2018 (Credit: Netflix)
Chris Watts initially maintained his innocence but went on to confess his crimes in November 2018 (Credit: Netflix)
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Ruth continued: "Victim blaming holds women responsible for their abuse. It creates a story where some women are more deserving of help and compassion than others, and provides space to hide the actions of the perpetrator.

Each of us has a role to play in building a society where survivors are believed and given the support they need. Listening to and valuing the voices of survivors are at the heart of this approach."

Film director Jenny avoids any form of victim blaming in American Murder. She doesn't attempt to delve into Chris' personality or sensationalise his possible motives.

Instead, Chris comes over as blandly emotionless. The focus is on his victims, with Jenny giving a voice to Shanann through social media posts, home video clips and phone camera footage.

From the title to the closing credits, the documentary delivers the powerful message that emotional abuse and lethal violence can - and does - occur in seemingly "ordinary" families everywhere.

Chris Watts was sentenced to three consecutive life terms in prison (Credit: Netflix)
Chris Watts was sentenced to three consecutive life terms in prison (Credit: Netflix)

On watching the documentary, Twitter users commented on the culture of victim blaming surrounding Chris' horrific crimes.

One wrote: "I watched American Murder: The Family Next Door last night and I'm really still not over how disgusting of a human being Chris Watts is. Or the woman on the news saying that she deserved it because she pushed him to his breaking point like HUH?"

While another commented: "This has been a running theme since the murders. *Defenders* of Watts pointing to Shanann's 'Thrive' videos as evidence that she was abusive towards him or something; made him snap. Completely ignoring all her efforts to save their marriage while HE was cheating."

To genuinely break the cycle of violence that has killed Shanann and so many others means working together to call out and eliminate victim-blaming, and ask ourselves: how would I feel in the victim's place?

Anyone who is experiencing, or has experienced, physical, mental, sexual or domestic violence or abuse can call the National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247.

Featured Image Credit: Netflix

Topics: True Crime, Life, Murder

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Mary-Jane Wiltsher

Mary-Jane Wiltsher is a freelance lifestyle and culture journalist. Elsewhere she writes for Stylist, Euronews, PHOENIX and What We Seee.