Blinded by the White: Race and the Exceptionalizing of Ted Bundy

Take care of yourself, young man. And I — I say that to you sincerely. Take care of yourself. It’s a tragedy for this court to see such a total waste, I think, of humanity that I have experienced in this court. You’re a bright young man. You’d have made a good lawyer. I would’ve loved to have you practice in front of me. But you went another way partner. Take care of yourself. I don’t have any animosity toward you. I want you to know that.
Judge Edward Cowart to Ted Bundy after reading the Dade County, FL jury’s 1979 decision to convict him on the murders on Margaret Bowman and Lisa Levy.

Ted Bundy just won’t quit. Or at least our cultural obsession with him won’t, long after he was executed in Florida by electric chair just over thirty years ago. Netflix’s Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, released in January, has reignited interest in Bundy once again and introduced him to a new generation of American viewers at a time when everything true crime is exploding with popularity. And with Netflix’s debut of its biopic Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, starring Zac Efron as Bundy, his popularity shows no sign of waning anytime soon, even though many critics have rightly pointed out – and have been rightly pointing out for years — the disturbing, pernicious nature of romanticizing this vicious killer of women.

Bundy is famous for his brutal rape, mutilation, and murder of what is suspected to be north of thirty women across several states between 1974 and 1978. He is also famous for his supposed good looks, charming personality, intelligence, and charisma — his all-American, boy scout persona. His lurid crimes shocked the nation because, as the media determined and Ted enthusiastically reinforced, he appeared so affable, so unassuming, so “well-spoken,” so “normal.”

In other words, Ted Bundy is famous for being white.

Close-up image of Ted Bundy looking into the camera. (Netflix)

In order to understand the cultural juggernaut that is Theodore Robert Bundy, I’m convinced we must reckon with this country’s uniquely ugly history of white supremacy. Bundy’s “fame” is only comprehensible within the racialized frameworks that have long dictated how we perceive masculinity and criminality in the United States. What I mean by this is that the cultural construction of Bundy’s whiteness only makes sense if we consider how white supremacy has built up whiteness as a foil to blackness.

The truth is Bundy is far from exceptional. In fact, he is exceptionally mundane. The vast majority of legal and extralegal violence in this country has been perpetrated by white people, specifically white men. The vast majority of serial killers have been white men, and though there are some exceptions, white men have received the lion’s share of media attention. The vast majority of mass shooters are and have been white men. They have mostly been seemingly normal, if “normal” has actually meant “white.”

Bundy only becomes “exceptional” if we ignore the mechanisms whereby that exceptionality has become legible through white supremacy. Whiteness — as an exclusive category created by white people — is constructed in this country not as what it is, but as what it is not: black. Whiteness and its systemic manifestation, white supremacy, are not possible or necessary without the negative construction of blackness as other. Whiteness, in order to sustain itself and its mythology, has always needed something to define itself firmly against. Thus, it’s not so much that Bundy is white; it’s that he’s not black.

Zac Efron as Ted Bundy and Jim Parsons as Larry Simpson, lead prosecutor in Bundy’s double-murder trial in Florida, in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile. (Netflix)

American cultural bogeymen have always been othered along racialized, gendered, sexually oriented, and religious lines. This history stretches back to the moment Europeans invaded indigenous American lands, and it has continued, transforming and mutating in accordance with social change, into our present moment. But blackness as other is most significant because it has been most persistent. Anti-blackness is one of the foundations of this country, but its history is complex, going beyond simple opposition or antagonism. At the same time as white Americans have systematically oppressed and murdered black people, they have maintained an interest in — even an obsession with – black culture, which infuses and is the basis of nearly every form of “culture” the United States lays claim to (scholar and cultural critic Eric Lott has called this phenomenon “love and theft”). The real American bogeyman has always been whiteness and white supremacy. White supremacy birthed its own grotesque bogeyman; the monster lurks within the very thing that is constructed to subsume and mask its existence within the default, the status quo, the “normal,” the white cis-heterosexual man. Even Bundy himself once said, “Murderers do not come out in the dark with long teeth and saliva dripping off their chin. People don’t realize that there are killers among them. People they liked, loved, lived with, worked with and admired could the next day turn out to be the most demonic people imaginable.”

If we look at how the media has insistently portrayed Bundy over the past three decades, the ways he has benefited from the privileges accorded those who inhabit a white body, even a white criminal body, become apparent. The media falls all over itself to criminalize black victims of violence, while it emphasizes the “positive” characteristics of white perpetrators of violence. This is nothing new. The simple, yet longstanding and devastating assumption underlying this dissonance is the cultural pathologization of black criminality in the United States.

When a black person, let alone a black perpetrator of violence, demonstrates qualities like charisma, intelligence, articulateness, or “normalcy,” they are regarded either with awe, suspicion, or a combination of both. White people marvel at how “well-spoken” a black athlete might be, yet this same “well-spokenness” is regarded as suspect when it comes from, for example, a black politician like Barack Obama. He must be after something, must be trying to pull one over on us — he must be an impostor, must be doing something criminal, like being president without having been born in the United States. Or he might be using that intelligence, charisma, and well-spokenness to, as a black athlete, dare to mix politics with sports by kneeling in protest of systemic racism and police violence against black people in the United States.

Ted Bundy’s known victims. (Netflix)

Part of Bundy’s allure is what we imagine must be his twisted and invariably complex psychology, for his behavior certainly cannot be explained by culturally pathologized forces. He must be a genius to have gotten away with so many murders in so many states and to have escaped police custody not once but twice. He must be rendered an enigma, a case study, a seeming outlier from “the norm.” Yet in reality he is none of these things. He fashioned himself smart, he fashioned himself charismatic, he fashioned himself special, and the media took the bait. But Bundy is not really any of these things. He is simply white – a white man whose victims were conventionally attractive young, white women.

Movie poster for Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile. (Netflix)

Bundy has long benefited from what we would now call white privilege. Over and over he is given the benefit of the doubt, even in 2019 when we have no reason to treat him and the media’s representations of him uncritically and ahistorically. This is why Netflix’s recent duo of Bundy offerings falls flat and have been dismissed as outright offensive by many. These programs would make Bundy very happy. They reinforce his own inflated sense of himself and the inflated, mesmerized sense by which American culture has come to regard him.

White mass murder has always needed to be spectacular, because whiteness is mundane. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold knew this when they plotted the Columbine shooting. They felt the mundanity of their white lives and devised a way to end them spectacularly, though the majority of their plan actually failed. If white criminality, specifically white men’s propensity for mass murder, may be said to have a pathology, it is rooted in a history of violence against women, a history of misogyny. Increasingly, we have come to see that these are the common threads between (white) mass murderers.

We can all imagine how different media coverage of Bundy would be if he were a black man. We need look no further than D.W. Griffiths’ The Birth of a Nation (1915), in which a black man (really a white man in blackface) is wrongly accused of raping a white woman, and the Ku Klux Klan arrives as the heroes of the film to lynch him for his supposed insatiable appetite for violating white women’s bodies, the sacred protection of which informs white supremacy and buttresses constructions of white masculinity.

Cover image for Netflix’s Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. (Netflix)

Continued surprise and fascination regarding Bundy and his crimes reveals white Americans’ refusal to reckon with the fact that the seemingly normal boy next door, middle class, aspiring white family man is and always has been the person who is a serial murderer of women, a mass murderer, a terrorist in the making. Being white in America requires a sensibility characterized by historical amnesia, of delusion, of projection, of othering blackness as a source of criminality. These are all signs of the tenuous fragility of whiteness, which had to be invented so that white America may always situate itself on the right side of history and feign surprise when white supremacy enacts spectacular violence.

Ted Bundy is exceptional only because he has been exceptionalized by a white-dominated media and a white-dominated audience for that media who is hungry to digest stories that lazily reinforce that fantasy of exceptionality. It is high time we treat Bundy with the disdain and disgust that he deserves. We must instead remember his victims rather than the man who turned those women into victims of his violent whiteness. If we refuse to acknowledge white supremacy as one of the main reasons Bundy continues to be portrayed as he is, we are reinforcing that white supremacy and the racist inequities it upholds.

Further Reading

Edwards, Ashley Alese. “Ted Bundy Wasn’t Special or Smart. He Was Just White,” Refinery29, January 28, 2019.

Jerkins, Morgan. “Ted Bundy, Billy McFarland, and the Weaponization of White Male Charm,” Esquire, February 8, 2019.

Kendall, Elizabeth. The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy. Madrona Press, 1981.

Koranne, Shailee. “We Don’t Need Any More Stories About Ted Bundy,” Vice, January 30, 2019.

Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. Harvard UP, 1993.

Lott, Eric. Black Mirror: The Cultural Contradictions of American Racism. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2018.

Mitchell, Koritha. “Identifying White Mediocrity and Know-Your-Place Aggression: A Form of Self-Care,” African American Review 51.4 (Winter 2018): 253-262.

Rule, Ann. The Stranger Beside Me. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1980.

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