A school photo of Hae Min Lee alongside the news of her ex-boyfriend’s conviction.
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Serial reveals how much more we care about justice for a man than the life of a woman

As the podcast tries to investigate whether Adnan Syed killed Hae Min Lee, a discrepancy emerges – it’s so much easier to spot the cultural misogyny when it is applied to race rather than gender.

Serial is the story of who killed Hae Min Lee, a Baltimore High School student murdered in 1999. Except, Hae Min Lee is dead and so unable to speak, and her family declined to participate in Sarah Koenig’s investigative podcast, so instead Serial is the story of Adnan Syed – Lee’s ex-boyfriend, and the man convicted of her murder. In every episode, the first human voice we hear after the recap is Syed himself, saying his own name. Whether by default or design, he’s the star. The question Serial asks most insistently is not “Who killed Lee?” but “Did Syed do it?” The answer to that, with one episode still to come, is a big fat maybe, with more than enough reasonable doubt to make Sayed’s conviction look shaky.

At the very least, he had a phenomenal amount of bad luck, and part of his bad luck was race. After playing a clip of Syed’s attorney cross-examining the state’s star witness (an acquaintance of Syed’s only known as Jay in the podcast), Koenig wonders how this played to the mostly black jury: a well-spoken black boy being harangued by an angry white lady probably didn’t do much to get the courtroom on Syed’s side, suggests the reporter. And then there’s Syed himself. 1999 is, obviously, pre-2001. A Muslim teenager in America then didn’t have the burden of suspicion then that came after 9/11, when his race and his faith would have marked him as an enemy of the state to many. But he was still marked – not as a terrorist, but as a dangerous alien with “dark” (the prosecution’s word) passions.

During jury selection, one male member of the pool approaches the bench to say he doesn’t think he can be impartial because “a friend of mine’s a Muslim, and I’ve seen him mistreat his family, his wife and everything.” Among the police documents, there’s a specialist consultant’s report into the cultural backdrop of the case, which explicitly suggests “honour” as a motive. And at pre-trial, the prosecutor sketched a picture of Syed as the archetypal honour killer as she requested that bail be denied, citing “a pattern in the United States of America where young Pakistani males have been jilted, have committed murder, have fled to Pakistan and we have been unable to extradite them back.”

The prosecutor’s claim was later retracted in full, although Koenig notes that even in the correction, one striking error stood: Syed is not Pakistani, he’s American with Pakistani heritage. If he has any connections to the terrible patterns of femicide and male authority in his parents’ homeland, they’re very hard to make out in his own biography. He’s a high-achieving student. A football player. A track athlete. Prom prince. He smokes weed and has sex with girls. He’s the pattern of a normal US teenager in every regard.  Throughout the state’s case, Syed’s guiltiness and foreignness go hand in hand: when one is emphasised, the other gets exaggerated too. His defence responds in kind and stresses Syed’s Americanness as often as possible – but if it’s a fallacy to suggest that “Pakistani” equals “guilty”, it makes no more sense to say that “American” equals “innocent”.

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one in four American women will be a victim of domestic violence, one in six have suffered rape or attempted rape, and one in 12 have been stalked. In American homicides, 90.3 per cent of offenders and 77.4 per cent of victims are men. The gap between those two figures is America’s femicide problem: violence is overwhelmingly male, and women are disproportionately likely to be victims. Serial constantly emphasises that everything in Syed and Lee’s relationship appeared to be normal by teenage standards, and it’s true that none of their friends saw any cause for alarm at the time. It’s also true that normal doesn’t necessarily mean benign when sexual violence and control is embedded in the cultural texture.

None of the things that Serial reveals about Syed and Lee’s relationship means that he killed her. What’s striking is that the controlling, possessive tendency you can track through the various accounts isn’t actually all that striking: Syed’s behaviour sounds sometimes chauvinistic and unpleasant, but always within the bounds of how you might expect a male American teenager to behave. So, he originally asked her out because he had a competition with his best friend to get the prettiest date for prom – at the very earliest point of their relationship, she’s more a trophy to him than a person. He showed up uninvited when she was out with her friends or at their houses, and there are mentions in her diary of him getting angry with her for not answering messages quickly enough.

Religion comes into it after all, as well – not as a motive for the murder (which is the prosecution’s contention), but as something Syed might have used to exert emotional control over Lee. Certainly there’s a mismatch between his version of himself as a not-particularly-observant Muslim, and her distraught diary entries recording him calling her a “devil” for drawing him from his faith. “I may have said it as a joke,” Syed concedes to Koenig in a phone interview. Some punchline, if it left Lee feeling responsible for his soul. He doesn’t seem to have accepted the breakup easily either, though he was dating other girls. A letter from Lee to Syed sounds tetchy and exasperated: “I’m really getting annoyed that this situation is going the way it is. You know people break up all the time. You’re life is not going to end. You’ll move on and I’ll move on. But apparently you don’t respect me enough to accept my decision.”

If these things are evidence of anything, at worst they’re evidence of Syed being a crappy, controlling boyfriend. They don’t mean he was abusive to Lee, and even if he was abusive to her, that doesn’t mean he was her murderer: there are many steps between that need to be filled with physical evidence and witness statements, which may not even be possible to obtain 15 years after the fact. But the complexion we put on the available facts is strongly influenced by how much we think about skin colour. When it comes to identifying cultural misogyny, it’s so much easier to spot when it comes infused with melanin. The kind of sexism that means we talk more about justice for a man than the life of a woman? Well that, after all, is just normal.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump