Women Aren’t Allowed to be Annoying: How Misogyny Excused Chris Watts’ Crimes

Last Saturday my boyfriend and I sat down to watch the new Netflix documentary American Murder: The Family Next Door. About a quarter of the way into the film, I remarked, “Wow, that’s so mean,” in reference to a clip of Shannan Watts publicly insulting her husband Chris Watts on what appeared to be Facebook Live. “That’s so mean! I can’t believe she’d say that about her husband on her public profile.” Shannan had just sarcastically referred to her husband as “a genius” because he’d left his phone in their garage, which she wanted to use to take Christmas photos of their family. I paused the playback for a moment to continue my train of thought. My boyfriend agreed, saying something along the lines of, “Yeah, she’s kind of bitchy.” I then had to stop myself and remind myself, “But to kill her? She didn’t deserve to die because she was sometimes mean to her husband.” My boyfriend nodded. We continued watching.

What can we say about Shannan after watching 82 minutes of her life, bits and pieces quilted together by the filmmakers in an attempt to make sense of her murder? She was high-strung, ambitious, a bit domineering. Above all else, she valued her family and her success, in that order. She had a very close and intimate relationship with her best friend. She was gregarious and excelled in her field . We watched clips of Shannan proudly promoting her business, generally talking about her personal journey through life, and seemingly not leaving out a single stone unturned in her fastidious documentation of her family’s life. We learned she suffered from lupus in the past and that she survived a previous marriage, which in her words, “broke down everything in me.”

In addition, we also saw various text exchanges displayed on the screen between Shannan and her husband, including a conversation wherein Shannan appeared to accuse Chris’ mother of trying to kill one of her children because her mother-in-law brought ice cream containing ingredients which their child was allergic to. Chris never answered Shannan with anything resembling anger in any of their exchanges. He always deferred to her, apologized to her, and seemed to “roll over” at every one of her accusations and demands. Without knowing how this story ended, it’d be easy to speculate that Shannan was emotionally abusive. And without knowing their relationship inside and out, it’s entirely possible that she was, to some extent. What I observed seemed more like both parties were lashing out at each other in their own ways due to their dysfunctional relationship, which was not satisfying the needs of either party. Shannan lashed out by berating him incessantly over text, and belittling him in public. Chris lashed out by withholding intimacy from Shannan and eventually having an affair.

What was more striking to me than their toxic dynamic itself was the public reaction to the murders, which was also shown in detail in the documentary. There were news segments shown which were dedicated to various online presences, including Facebook groups which clung to the conspiracy theory that Chris Watts had been innocent, or that his crimes had been justified. There were audio clips of two women arguing, one saying, “She drove him to it! She was the narcissist if you ask me!” and the other angrily exclaiming, “This is victim blaming!” These speculations were apparently focused on the various clips Shannan had posted of herself and her family over the years, especially those clips which showed her interactions with Chris. The question that kept going through my mind over and over was, “So what?! She didn’t deserve to die for that!” Maybe she was a narcissist. Maybe she was sometimes cruel to her husband. Maybe she was demanding. Maybe she was “bitchy”. Are these crimes worthy of death? Chris Watts’ anonymous, self-appointed defenders thought so. As, apparently, did Chris Watts.

Autumn Smith is a Houston local writer, artist, and performer. Her work generally centers on topics of art, feminism, and social justice.