What I'm Watching Now: HBO's 'Captivated' reveals why we love vilifying pretty girls

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If you’ve already binge-watched every critically acclaimed show out there and are wondering what to do next, TV critic Melissa Maerz has a few suggestions. Her column, “What I’m Watching Now,” is devoted to the best underhyped series on television (or Amazon, or Netflix, or whatever iDevice you’re using), whether they’re just premiering or have been lingering on your friends’ season pass queues for years.

Why do we love to watch pretty girls suffer?

I thought about that question a lot while watching Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart, a fascinating documentary that airs August 18 on HBO. Now, upon hearing the name “Pamela Smart,” your brain probably sorted through its file cabinet and plucked out this photo, recalling the 24-year-old blonde and her 1991 murder trial. I thought I knew all the details myself. Smart was a high school teacher who slept with her teenage student, Billy Flynn, right? She seduced Flynn with bikini- and lingerie-clad photos of herself, then told him she’d never sleep with him again unless he killed her husband, right? And Flynn and his friends did kill the husband, but Smart was the one who became infamous: Helen Hunt played her in a TV movie called Murder in New Hampshire, and then Nicole Kidman played her in Gus Van Sant’s 1995 film, To Die For. And now everyone knows the story by heart. Right?

Not so much. After watching Captivated, the only thing I knew for certain was that I didn’t know anything. And I’m not the only one: Even people involved in the case sometimes get the details wrong. As the first trial ever broadcast on television, Smart’s case sparked a media frenzy, making it difficult to separate the facts from the more salacious spin offered by the tabloid-driven talk shows whose popularity was peaking at the time. (Geraldo Rivera once asked, “Isn’t this trial by television?”) It turns out that Smart wasn’t Flynn’s teacher. He was a student at the same high school where she worked as an administrator. Those photos? They weren’t taken for Flynn’s benefit. Smart’s girlfriends snapped them, hoping to create a modeling portfolio for her. And the murder? Twenty-three years later, Smart still insists that Flynn acted on his own.

Of course, none of this proves her innocence. Director Jeremiah Zagar is less concerned with exonerating Smart than exploring how the media tainted the evidence, which may have prevented her from getting a fair trial. He does a masterful job of showing how the television broadcast of the Smart case helped pave the way for courtroom TV and so-called docu-soaps. The broadcast actually trumped the afternoon soap operas in ratings. Meanwhile, the line between reality and entertainment grew increasingly blurry. New Hampshire reporter Bill Spencer starred in a feature-length TV special bent on proving Smart’s guilt. (So much for journalistic objectivity.) During an interview in Captivated, the officer who arrested Smart flips through a true-crime book about the case to remind himself what happened, even though he was there. At one point, he turns to the camera and speaks the last words he told Smart before he hauled her into jail: “The good news is, we solved the murder of your husband. The bad news is, you’re under arrest.” Then he asks if he can have another take, and repeats the words more dramatically this time. He looks like he’s auditioning to play the hero in a Raymond Chandler movie.

The most fascinating thing about the Smart case is that while she was on trial for murder, she was also being judged for something else. People wanted her to be guilty, because she was exactly the kind of woman that other women—and many men—love to drag down. Joyce Maynard, who wrote the (heavily fictionalized) novel that To Die For was based on, describes Smart in the documentary as a “very pretty young blonde, former cheerleader—you know, the kind of girl that I would’ve really hated but secretly envied.” The inspiration for her book, Maynard says, was the idea that something inside Smart “was rotten, [there was] something very ugly behind it that that bore no relationship to the [pretty] image in front.”

The more the media praised Smart’s good looks, the more it implicitly echoed Maynard’s message: if a woman is pretty on the outside, she must be ugly on the inside. One newspaper ran a daily story dissecting the stylish outfits that Smart wore to the trial. Courtroom photographers often shot her from behind, capturing the bow she always wore in her hair. Spencer claims that when he first interviewed Smart for New Hampshire’s WMUR, her hair and makeup were too perfect—wanting to look nice apparently implied that she was a little too hungry for attention and fame. (This, from the man who later appeared on Geraldo, Hard Copy, and Inside Edition to talk about Smart.) If anything, wanting her make-up and hair to look perfect could just as easily suggest that Smart might be innocent. Imagine that your spouse has just been killed, and your day-to-day existence is quickly devolving in chaos. You might want to feel some semblance of control in your life. What’s easier to control than your hair and make-up?

Worse yet, it seems to me that Smart was mostly found guilty of grieving in the wrong way. It’s not enough to persecute pretty girls. We need to see them cry. One of the case’s private investigators admits that, when he saw Smart looking composed and dry-eyed on WMUR, he thought, “Boy, she’s cold”—and assumed that she was guilty. Her nickname in the media was “Ice Princess.”

But women whose loved ones are crime victims are often vilified for not being emotional enough. Back in 1980, Lindy Chamberlain went on Australian television to explain that her baby was dead. She blamed a dingo. Everyone else blamed her. There was a public uproar over her calm appearance—she certainly wasn’t acting like a woman who just lost her baby!—and she was eventually imprisoned for murder. Twenty-two years later, new evidence vindicated her. Then there was the 2005 case of a beautiful brunette named Cynthia Sommer, arrested for the murder of her husband, a Marine who’d dropped dead mysteriously. Much of the trial focused on her behavior after his death. She partied, slept with other Marines, and got breast implants. She said the implants were a tribute to her husband, who’d offered to buy them for her. Tacky? Maybe. Incriminating? No. After spending nearly three years in jail, her husband’s cause of death was revealed as a heart attack, and she was exonerated. Just further proof that a woman’s tears (or lack thereof) have no bearing on her guilt.

Anyone who thinks that looking and acting sexy makes you inherently “bad,” as the jurors in Sommer’s case seemed to, might assume that Smart was guilty. Those scantily-clad photos certainly seemed damning at the time. The implication: If Smart was capable of cheating on her husband with a 15-year-old boy, then surely she was capable of murder. The main idea was that she couldn’t control her impulses, sexually or otherwise. We often hear this ridiculous (and, if you ask me, sexist) line of reasoning in trials: just think of Amanda “Foxy Knoxy” Knox, who was billed as a “sex-crazed killer.” Or think of Jodi Arias, whose phone sex tapes were used in court. Now, Arias confessed to murder (though she pleaded self-defense). She might be crazy. But if so, she’s crazy because she killed her boyfriend, not because she had phone sex with him.

“For men, lust is a tripwire,” Frank Bruni wrote in a great New York Times piece about Knox and Arias. “For women, it’s a noose.” That double standard helps explain what makes me uneasy about Smart’s case, too. Flynn, who confessed to murdering Smart’s husband, made a tearful confession during the trial, claiming that Smart had seduced and manipulated him. Now Smart is serving life without parole in a New York correctional facility. Meanwhile, Flynn and his friends all got lesser sentences. Two of the boys involved with the case have already been released. Flynn is up for parole next year.

I still don’t know if Smart is innocent. No one outside the case ever will. But watching Captivated certainly made me reconsider why I assumed she was guilty in the first place. Recently, People ran an interview with Smart, where she pleaded her defense. She sounded intelligent. She brought new facts to light that people who hadn’t seen Captivated might not have known. Maybe now people will reconsider the evidence, I thought. Then I looked down into the comments, where I saw this:

“I can’t stop laughing—she looks like she’s posing for a high school pic (circa 1960) that’s what some of the girls wore—a drap-v-neck [sic] top like she has on—and she looks rough and tough—and that hairdo doesn’t help. I remember the case—the boys involved lived one town over—she’s right where she belongs.”

Some things have changed. But, really, nothing has changed.

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