The Ripper — a true-crime docuseries that almost did right by the victims

photographs of the victims of Peter Sutcliffe on a map
Victims of Peter Sutcliffe. Photograph: Netflix

Peter Sutcliffe, known as The Yorkshire Ripper, died in November 2020. A month later Netflix released The Ripper, a four-part docuseries on his crimes. What sets it apart from other true crime documentaries is its in-depth analysis of not the killer but the economy and society of the time. All factors that contributed to making the victims vulnerable to violence, prejudice and injustice.

From episode one, the series rejects the fantastical misconception that a witty serial killer and acute cops play a mental game of cat and mouse. Quite unfortunately, it was prejudice, sexism and stubbornness from the police’s part that rendered their investigation incompetent. They were so focused on labelling the victims ‘prostitutes’ that they ignored seeing them as what Sutcliffe saw them: women.

The same prejudice that turned Sutcliffe into a violent misogynist derailed the police investigation. They would exclude evidence and witnesses because they did not fit into their conjured narrative.

A random man interviewed in the 70s pegged Sutcliffe’s profile far more accurately than the police ever did by guessing that the killer “had an unhappy love experience maybe with a prostitute.” He saw what the police didn’t, that it wasn’t a righteous crusade but a misogynist one. Sex worker or not, every woman was untrustworthy and conniving. This was something he learned from his father.

This is how The Ripper stands out from the average serial killer documentary, making it a must-watch; instead of trying to speculate on the killer’s psyche, the show puts the victims and women front and centre. Their needs, their wants, and their fears are explored as feminism finds its footing in the UK’s 80s. This wasn’t to Sutcliffe’s credit, an important point to note, but to how society reacted.

But there’s a big problem with The Ripper and it’s Netflix’s stubbornness to attract through glorification. The victims’ family members agreed to participate because of the show’s intent to give context and respect to the victims. To their shock, as they expressed in a letter to The Sunday Times, the title was changed from Once Upon a Time in Yorkshire to The Ripper, a grotesque token of Sutcliffe’s infamy. Whoever pushed for the title change exposed the underlying truth that Netflix will put macabre fascination above due justice.

Netflix’s new serial killer inspired docuseries of 2021, Night Stalker, is fresh out of the laboratory, and by the looks of the trailer, you can probably expect cinematographic glorification. The wheel of true crime could have been reinvented, but it seems to be just getting a glossy makeover.

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Alex Kanda

Journalism student and human rights advocate. M.A. in International Relations and Security.