Netflix’s ‘American Murder’ and Hot Felon Privilege
How a killer’s good looks can sway the court of public opinion.
From the first glimpse I caught of Chris Watts in the new Netflix documentary American Murder: The Family Next Door, like his neighbor, I knew something wasn’t quite right. It wasn’t his borderline-blasé attitude over the mysterious disappearance of his wife, Shan’ann Watts, and their two daughters, four-year-old Bella and three-year-old Celeste.
The thing that sent my antennae straight up was his six-pack — or rather, the one I assumed he was hiding underneath his gray sweatshirt in the early body-cam scenes. How did a married thirtysomething father of two young girls find the time to look that perfect and fit?
It’s not that you can’t be hot and virtuous (or at the very least, not homicidal), but my experiences with ridiculously handsome men has probably conditioned me not to expect the best from them. Chris started piquing my suspicion when the documentary flashbacked six years earlier to his and Shan’aan’s 2012 wedding, as a considerably flabbier Chris said “I do” and kissed the bride.
By August of 2018, the pounds were no longer adding up, and for me, neither was his story of how he and his missing spouse had had an emotional conversation before she and the girls had apparently vanished, but he had no idea where they could be. During one interrogation, the cop noted Chris’s metamorphosis from being not hot at 245 pounds to being hot at 180, in a way that was both complimentary and damning.
Like the policeman, I could see the extramarital affair coming from a mile away. By the time the admissions started rolling in, first to the affair, then to confessing it to his wife and telling her their marriage was over, and finally to smothering her, their two daughters, and their unborn 15-week-old son, Nico, on the morning of August 13, 2018, and hiding their bodies on an oil-storage site where he worked, I was certain he was capable of anything.
Chris’s initial interrogation-room confession to his father that Shan’aan had smothered the girls, causing him to snap and smother her in response, struck me as the spin of a man conceited enough to believe he could drive a woman scorned to murdering her own children. Slandering the dead wasn’t beneath him, I thought. But when people on social media joined in, calling Shan’aan a “b***h” and saying she drove him to murder, well, that caught me off-guard.
Yes, Shan’aan came across as high-maintenance in her text messages and Facebook posts, but nothing the documentary revealed about her pegged her as someone who deserved to be strangled in bed by her unfaithful husband hours after he’d made love to her. She certainly didn’t deserve the posthumous hate she received online. For me, that, not the murder reveal, was the documentary’s biggest twist, and to understand it, I only had to look at American Murder’s easy-on-the-eyes male lead.
What initially had aroused my suspicion had apparently aroused something else among the members of his fan club: sympathy. But would a less attractive murderer had gotten even sliver of it? As a society, we’ve been here before. During the ’70s when serial killer Ted Bundy was on trial for multiple murders, he actually received countless fan letters from women who’d fallen in love with him.
Six years ago, after committing a series of violent crimes, Jeremy Meeks became an Internet sensation and, eventually, a model, thanks to his sexy police mugshot. At the time, I was living in Cape Town, and just days before Meeks’s mugshot seduced the Internet, DStv’s Comedy Central in Cape Town aired an episode of Anger Management in which Jordan (Laura Bell Bundy — no relation to Ted) broke the cardinal rule for therapists by making out with a patient, a prison inmate with dreamy blue eyes and irresistible facial hair who looked amazing in orange.
Honestly, I got it. Scott Elrod (the actor who played the smooth criminal) was that attractive. So was Jeremy Meeks, a 30-year-old from Stockton, California, whose mugshot following his June 18, 2014 arrest for felony weapons possession sent millions of hearts — female and male — fluttering. The most popular of the many Facebook pages dedicated to the so-called “hot felon” had nearly 200,000 likes!
I’d be lying if I said I don’t have a soft spot for handsome bad boys myself. I suspect the mainstreaming of them is part of why so many guys — gay and straight — are now running around sporting scruffy beards and body art.
Sometimes it looks bad, but more importantly, it makes them look badder, especially tattoos, which have become nearly as de rigueur as bulging biceps in many big-city gyms. Tattoos are to the last decade what piercings were to the ’90s, but a tattoo requires a bigger commitment and thus offers more street cred. It screams, “Bad boy for life!”
Watts had multiple tattoos to match his newly sculpted body and chiseled face. While watching the documentary, I kept wondering if all those people who were so quick to bash Shan’ann would have done so if Watts had remained the pudgy guy he was at the wedding. Even though history tells us handsome men can commit incredibly heinous crimes (see Bundy, Robert Chambers, Andrew Cunanan, Jeffrey Dahmer, Aaron Hernandez, Lyle and Erik Menendez, Scott Peterson, Oscar Pistorius, O.J. Simpson, even Abraham Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth and at least half of his cast of co-conspirators), we are often more likely to give them the benefit of a doubt or romanticize them in a Hollywood biopic starring a good-looking star like Zac Efron (as Bundy), Darren Criss (as Cuanan), or Jeremy Renner (as Dahmer).
And if their crime doesn’t put them away for life, they might gain a lucrative new career. Look at hot felon-turned-model Jeremy Meeks (I know you want to). He was an undeniably attractive man, which may have made him seem less threatening to some (“He’s too pretty to be a criminal!”). All the “Free Jeremy!” campaigning didn’t focus on his actual case, only on how he looked. Had the same photo been circulated online without any back story, it would have inspired swooning but certainly not the near-hysteria that ensued.
Had Meeks been launched into public consciousness as a model, would anyone have noticed him more than we notice other mannequins with flawless skin and impossible cheekbones? When someone Photoshopped his face onto the neck of a Calvin Klein model wearing a suit and posted it on the aforementioned Facebook page, his mugshot, though still beautiful, didn’t have quite the same smoldering effect. It never would have gone viral that way. The tattoos gave him a boost, but the mugshot narrative sold him. They say crime doesn’t pay, but it made Meeks a star — all because he was hot.
Watts, thank God, wasn’t so lucky. After pleading guilty to avoid the death penalty, he was sentenced to five life terms without the possibility of parole. Although Shan’aan got the justice she deserved, the damage to her reputation had been done. #TeamKiller had turned her into the villain in her own murder. Her crime: marrying someone who decided he wanted more out of life than a wife and 2.5 kids, a guy who turned out to be another handsome devil.