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  • Archana Sathiyamoorthy

“Silenced”: Netflix’s Dahmer and the Spectacle of Victimhood

(Tony Anthony Hughes, credit: Getty - contributor)

Ryan Murphy’s Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story has generated masses of traction since its release on September 23, 2022. The series gained intense viewership, becoming the second biggest original Netflix debut following Hwang Dong-hyuk’s Squid Game. The show is a dramatization of the life, conviction, and death of notorious American serial killer, Jeffrey Dahmer, who, among other heinous crimes, murdered 17 people between 1978 and the 1991 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Needless to say, the series was widely criticized by a number of audiences. Many were upset with the idea of even dramatizing these events in the first place, with a majority of his victims being queer, Black men, who many believed he targeted because of their marginalized position in society. Not only was the show dehumanizing these victims by making entertainment with their tragedies, but it seemed to almost romanticize what he did to his victims through vivid visualizations and an almost morally complex portrayal of Dahmer himself.

Nevertheless, many did still watch the show in its entirety, and one of the main cases viewers make for the show is focused on the execution of Episode 6, titled “Silenced”. It is the first episode of the show that is almost entirely told from the perspective of a victim, Tony Hughes. Hughes was a gay, deaf, Black man aspiring to become a model, and the episode follows him as he seeks to find work and follow his dreams in Milwaukee. Viewers felt that the episode was able to portray the story in a way that does justice to the trauma of Hughes and his family.

But is this truly the case?

“Silenced” seems to fabricate an intimate relationship between Hughes and Dahmer (which did not exist in reality, though they allegedly knew each other prior to Hughes’ murder). The episode features the two meeting at a bar, directly after Hughes is rejected by another man for his deafness. Dahmer opts out of his original plan to drug and murder Hughes, and instead, the two engage in a romantic relationship that seems to last around a few weeks based on the show’s timeline. Dahmer is written to have stopped drinking and killing temporarily because of this relationship, but ultimately kills Hughes by the end of the episode.

(Both in the show (pictured) and in real life, Hughes and Dahmer communicated through written notes; bottom image is one from Dahmer to Hughes)

The episode serves as a troublingly fetishistic portrayal of Dahmer where he is a savior in this fictional tale, as he is the only man Hughes has encountered who has not either rejected or fetishized him. Meanwhile, Hughes is temporarily framed as a ‘solution’ to Dahmer’s issues, as we are told that Dahmer has stopped killing and drinking as a result of their relationship. The dynamics that are written into this relationship fuel a number of extremely melodramatic scenes between the two that seem to be intentionally framed as legitimate romantic development.

This approach to Hughes' story not only puts all of the real narrative focus on Dahmer, but completely falsifies a romantic relationship between Hughes and his murderer for the sake of extremely superficial, cliche melodrama. Is this what it took to evoke the emotion that this episode is so widely lauded for? Was romantic drama needed for this episode to tug at the heartstrings? Was the simple fact that Tony Hughes was a human, with a bright future, who was tragically and needlessly murdered not enough?

Sherry Hughes, Tony Hughes’ mother, was one of the victims who, after the show’s release, revealed that they had not approved of the show’s creation. “It didn’t happen like that,” she told The Guardian. “I don’t see how they can just use our names and put stuff out like that out there.”

Sherry Hughes’ words should be deeply unsettling to us. As true crime content gains a wave of popularity, we find ourselves having to make more and more excuses for our intense engagement in the suffering of others. No matter what ethos Dahmer’s creators may claim for the show, at its base it is an extreme example of this phenomenon, pushing the limits of how much exploitation we can tolerate in the name of macabre entertainment. The manner in which Tony Hughes’ story was morphed for the show’s purposes is a dark concept to contend with. Is this an honoration of Tony Hughes, sincerely relaying his life and experiences, if his story is merely stretched to the point of fiction, molded into a device used to assert the dynamism of his murderer? Are we truly honoring these victims, or are we simply making a spectacle of them?


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