The Hollywood Ripper: How Hollywood Promotes the "Perfect Victim" Archetype

The Hollywood Ripper's story will probably get made into a feature film. Here's why that's a problem.

Hollywood loves a beautiful dead girl.

The first truly famous serial killer, Jack the Ripper, became a public phenomenon after he brutally killed six women in London's East End. Since then, nearly all of the murder cases that have dominated tabloids since have involved the deaths of young women. Take the Black Dahlia, arguably the first murder case that captivated America. Or JonBenét Ramsey. Or Charles Manson, with his "Family" of young women who are best known for killing Sharon Tate. Or the female victims brutalized by Ted Bundy.

Now, another murderer has been convicted: the aptly named Hollywood Ripper, Michael Gargulio, who was found guilty of killing two women. The trial became even more notorious because a particularly famous Hollywood star—Ashton Kutcher—was involved

Image via the Chicago Sun Times

Kutcher was dating 22-year-old Ashley Ellerin at the time she was murdered, and on the night of her death, they had a date. He knocked on her door, peered in the window, noticed what he thought were red wine stains, and assumed she'd already gone out for the night because he was late. The next morning, Ellerin was found dead as the result of multiple stab wounds.

That was in 2001, and four years later, the killer struck again. In 2005 he murdered 32-year-old Maria Bruno, also with a knife. Recently, after a trial spanning months, the jury found him guilty of both murders on August 15.

Those murders were tragic, and their memories deserve to be honored. There is no doubt about that.

However, the media's obsessive coverage—and even its branding of this killer as the "Hollywood Ripper"—is indicative of a larger issue in terms of what kinds of murders get recognized and sensationalized by the media, and why.

The truth is that Hollywood's "perfect victim" is young, attractive, and white. She is never poor or a person of color. Nevermind that Tracy Single is the fifteenth trans woman of color killed this year, out of sixteen trans people murdered total in 2019. The investigation only sparked interest in activist communities. It did not spark interest among the mass media. There will be no movies made out of her death, no podcasts obsessively tracing her killer. Like many people—immigrants, people of color, inmates or felons, sex workers, and anyone not on the media's radar—these victims are seen as "less dead," less worthy of mass outrage or justice.

Hollywood's perfect murder mystery is intertwined with fame and wealth, charisma and power. Charles Manson has been obsessively covered by the media ever since he went on his killing spree in 1969, and he's become a fixture in music and popular culture. Hollywood loves isolated, powerful, dangerous men and their beautiful, feminine victims.

When will Hollywood stop mythologizing violence?Image via the Daily Express

Maybe it's time to change this narrative. This does not mean that we stop highlighting the deaths of white women and choose to fixate on the narratives of dead trans people instead. It does not mean we level the playing field by glorifying female killers, or promoting female rage, or demonizing all men.

Instead, we must address the source of our American fixation on wealthy, powerful, violent, toxic people whose actions embody a terrible kind of freedom. For too long, Hollywood has been glorifying cowboys and violent action heroes, offering sympathy and profound psychological inquiries into the backstories of flawed and sadistic men, and this is mirrored in the cases that true crime focuses on, and in the stories of the victims who the media revolves around.

Change may start with deconstructing some of the toxic masculinity that buoys the entitlement and selfishness that leads to murder and movements like the incel sect. By prioritizing guns and violence over safety, and making carnivalesque Hollywood spectacles out of certain killings, we will never see the end of this pattern.

If we continue to excuse and glorify powerful people and their murderous actions, if we continue to focus on the damaged psyches of killers while overlooking the lives they ruin and the systems that allow them to incur those damages in the first place, we will only see more of the same—more thoughts and prayers, more invisible bodies swept into obscurity, more dead white women's heavily made-up faces plastered on tabloids, and more Hollywood Rippers.