Friday, April 15, 2016

On O.J., JonBenet, and Growing Up

By Renee Asher Pickup

The People Vs. O.J. Simpson got a lot of attention, for a lot of reasons, but what I found particularly interesting about it was that people around my age had a Kennedy moment. Facebook posts asking "Where were you when the verdict was read?" cropped up and the answers were incredible when you consider that this case took place long before everyone had the internet in their pocket (most of us didn't even have it at home).

We were mostly in school (I was in my sixth grade math class, the teacher put it on for us to watch), and we were mostly jubilant. It's odd to think that most of us recall a celebratory feeling in hearing that a man who was so obviously guilty was innocent. A lot of it had to do with tension in the air, the way we all felt it, even if we were much too young to understand it. I don't recall any case being as public as O.J.'s trial before that time, though now, that kind of coverage seems par for the course.

The other case that I've found fascinates and captivates my peers is the JonBenet Ramsey murder. This one never went to trial because the murder was never solved. The unsolved murder seems to crop up every so often with a new theory or just a reminder that the little girl we all became so familiar with is still dead. Much like the Zodiac Killer, people seem desperate to find the missing clue. So desperate, it appears we're getting a TV show based around the idea that there is a way to find answers twenty years after the fact.

When I think about what it is about JonBenet Ramsey that's stuck with the public over other child murders that seem to flash in the pan and dissipate, I wonder if the reason we're still so fascinated and upset by her murder is what her murder showed us. Before there was Toddlers in Tiaras, there were people postulating that Ramsey was over sexualized by pageants. There was the insinuation of possible sexual trauma, hyped by the media, and the zeroing in on her parents as the perpetrators. In 1996, I was twelve years old. Old enough to be watching the nightly news with my parents, old enough to understand the sexual elements, and old enough to be horrified by the strange details of this child's murder.

While sensational media coverage has always existed, JonBenet Ramsey seemed to get a particularly lurid and mean sort of coverage that I had not seen at that age. Again, this sort of thing seems relatively normal now, we've lived through so many media spectacles with pretty blonde little girls at the center. We've lived through so many parents being drug through the dirt only to be later exonerated, or, in worse cases, found guilty. But in 1996? I can't speak with full authority, as at age twelve I was only just starting to be aware of national news crime coverage, but it seemed new. It felt very personal and frightening.

Twenty years of escalating crime coverage in the media - twenty years of Lifetime Movie Originals and ID Discovery, and To Catch A Predator - have dulled the shock of the Ramsey case. Twenty years of debates about child beauty pageants and the over sexualization of young girls has made her made up face and big hair seem less shocking. But today, I have a daughter the same age as JonBenet was when she was murdered, and it seems surreal to think that the coverage that was so shocking then is old hat now.

Perhaps the TV series will show us something new, or give answers about the case that investigators were still looking for as recently as 2009, but I wonder if the show will take on the bigger question, which is why we're still so attached to this one particular murdered girl over so many others.

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