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Gypsy Rose Blanchard and the Big Shift in True Crime
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Gypsy Rose Blanchard and the Big Shift in True Crime

Gypsy Rose Blanchard and the Big Shift in True Crime

There’s a moment near the end of the 2017 documentary “Mommy Dead and Dearest” where Gypsy Rose Blanchard is filming her boyfriend at the time, Nicholas Godejohn, as he lies nude in a hotel room bed. A day earlier, Godejohn had stabbed to death Gypsy’s mother, Dee Dee Blanchard. The killing was part of a plot the couple hatched to free Gypsy, who was then 23, from her mother’s grip so they could be together. In the short video, we hear Gypsy make a playful sexual comment amid her copious, distinctive giggling.

Dee Dee Blanchard had abused and controlled her daughter, mentally and physically, for decades. It was believed by many to be a case of Munchausen syndrome by proxy — a form of child abuse in which a caregiver might induce illness to draw public sympathy, care, concern and material gifts — and the saga captured the collective interest.

The snippet is the first time we see it unfolding through Gypsy’s eyes, and the point of view serves as a glimmer of what would become one of the biggest shifts in true crime storytelling.

Stories like these were once conveyed through re-enactments, dramatizations and interviews with police officers, journalists, medical professionals, family and friends. If there were primary sources, those were typically scans of photos of happy families or of grisly crime scenes underpinned by voice-over narration, exemplified on shows like “20/20,” “Dateline,” “Snapped,” “Forensic Files” and “48 hours.” Home video cameras, which became popular in the 1980s, certainly changed the true crime landscape, but those recordings were generally sparse and supplemental. In rare instances, viewers might hear directly from the perpetrators or victims in interviews often conducted years after the fact.

Now we have reams of first-person digital footage, which means that viewers, more than ever, are privy to the perspectives of those directly involved, often during the period in which the crimes took place, closing the distance and making the intermediaries less essential. The case of Gypsy Rose Blanchard encapsulates the trajectory of this phenomenon. Her saga, for example, received the scripted treatment with “The Act,” a 2019 limited series on Hulu, for which Patricia Arquette won an Emmy. But those looking for a definitive, unvarnished, visceral take on the events now have options and direct channels, rendering that series as almost an afterthought.

The rise of social media has, of course, accelerated this dynamic. Blanchard and Godejohn’s relationship was almost exclusively online before the murder, and Facebook posts and text messages between them were used in court by prosecutors to incriminate them. Godejohn was sentenced to life in prison; Gypsy received 10 years, of which she served about seven.

She was released on Dec. 28, 2023, and the following day she posted a selfie to Instagram with the caption “First selfie of freedom,” which has gotten more than 6.5 million likes. Online, she’s been promoting her new Lifetime series, “The Prison Confessions of Gypsy Rose Blanchard.” “This docuseries chronicles my quest to expose the hidden parts of my life that have never been revealed until now,” we hear her say from prison.

She has quickly become a social media celebrity, with more than eight million Instagram followers and nearly 10 million on TikTok. Since her release, she has shared lighthearted videos like one with her husband, Ryan Anderson (they married in 2022 while she was in prison), at “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” on Broadway and more serious ones, like a video in which she explains Munchausen syndrome by proxy.

Technology’s influence on modern criminal investigations has become foundational in many documentaries from recent years.

In the two-part HBO documentary “I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter” (2019), the story is largely told through the thousands of text messages exchanged between two teenagers, Michelle Carter and Conrad Roy III, from 2012 to 2014. The text messages led up to the exact moment of Roy’s suicide. Selfie videos that Roy had posted online are also shown. Carter spent about a year in prison for her role in his death. The documentary (by Erin Lee Carr, who also directed “Mommy Dead and Dearest”) left me “spinning in circles, turning over thoughts about accountability, coercion and the nebulous boundaries of technology,” as I wrote last year.

One of the highest profile murder trials in the United States in recent years — that of the disgraced lawyer Alex Murdaugh, who shot and killed his wife, Maggie, and son Paul in 2021 — ultimately rested on a staggering recording captured moments before the murders. That video, on Paul’s phone, placed the patriarch at the scene of the crime, sealing his fate: two consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole.

The use of that footage, along with abundant smartphone video that brought viewers into the world of the Murdaughs, in documentaries like Netflix’s two-season “Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal,” would have been unimaginable not long ago.

But perhaps no recent offering illustrates this shift like HBO’s docuseries “Love Has Won: The Cult of Mother God.” Members of the group Love Has Won live-streamed their days and nights; they filmed and posted untold hours of preachments and online manifestoes to YouTube and Instagram Live. Much of the three-episode series comprises this footage, and in turn viewers watch Amy Carlson, who called herself “Mother God,” slowly deteriorate over the course of months from the perspective of the people who were worshiping her.

It’s a vantage point so unnerving and haunting, it dissolves the line between storytelling and voyeurism. When the group films her corpse, which they cart across numerous state lines, camping with it along the way, we see all that, too, through the eyes of the devotees. Several of the followers continue to promote her teachings online.

It was clear this month in the comments on Blanchard’s Instagram that many were uncomfortable with her re-emerging as a social media presence. Some found it odd that she would participate so heavily and publicly immediately after her release. Others thought it was in bad taste for her to celebrate her freedom while Godejohn serves a life sentence.

The greatest criticism of the true crime genre is that horrors are being repackaged as guilty-pleasure entertainment, allowing viewers to get close — but not too close — to terrible things. And perhaps the best defense of true crime is that it allows viewers to process the scary underbelly of our world safely. It is a strange dance between knowledge, observation and entertainment.

Either way, the fourth wall is cracking, and perhaps the discomfort this might cause has been a long time coming.