Every other Monday, the CSPH takes a look at a book or film focusing on an aspect of sexuality. This week we are featuring Errol Morris’ documentary, Tabloid.
Tabloid tells the torrid story of Joyce McKinney, the former Miss Wyoming, who was arrested for, but never convicted of, the abduction and repeated rape of a Mormon missionary in 1977. The missionary, Kirk Anderson, left a church with a gun-wielding associate of McKinney’s and was taken to a quaint English cottage, where he and McKinney engaged in sexual relations over the course of three days. Was this a voluntary series of actions undertaken by a man who had been brainwashed by a controlling and authoritarian Mormon cult, but was finally brought to his senses by his true love, as McKinney claims? Or was it a kidnapping orchestrated by an obsessed and possibly psychotic jilted girlfriend, as the missionary and the police charged?
Tabloid tackles this question through an extensive collection of interviews. The primary interview subject is McKinney herself, although they also track down one of her early associates who bailed on the plan prior to the alleged kidnapping, and two tabloid reporters for the Mirror and the Daily Express who investigated McKinney’s past with sex work after her arrest. Morris’ interview format increases the viewers’ engagement with the story, depicting McKinney as a sympathetic and charismatic character, though limits both the scope and the impact of the documentary.
Tabloid is little more than a series of interviews with individuals who had already made their stories public, Morris adds little to the public record of the event. While for some viewers, this may be their first exposure to the case, there is little information conveyed that could not be learned by someone with a few hours of free time and an Internet connection. After all, McKinney has been interviewed multiple times before, and the results of the reporters’ efforts had been published at the time.
The interview format also makes it difficult to determine whether the “facts” presented by the documentary are true. The viewer is presented with two sides to the story, but one is conveyed by the accused and the other is told by men who were paid to make McKinney look as sordid as possible. The viewer is not presented with any official findings, police reports, academic research, or neutral third parties that may have been related to the case. They are offered interesting stories, but no way to evaluate them for accuracy.
That said, it seems that the focus of the documentary was not the alleged kidnapping and rape, but instead McKinney herself and the effect becoming a minor celebrity had on her. After her arrest, the unique nature of her alleged crimes lead to a media frenzy that she seemed to welcome at times, and she was suddenly thrust into the spotlight and made a spectacle of. It is here that Morris’ method pays off, as the audience is offered detailed accounts of the practices the muckraking journalists engaged in, and a first-hand account of how it felt to be a sudden object of media attention. Additionally, the film successfully shows the remains of a life that just as quickly fell out of scrutiny as new scandals broke. While McKinney had her fifteen minutes of fame, she was left with nothing but a tainted name afterwards, and the latter third of the documentary deals with her travails after the media had forgotten about her. While these are all interesting issues, it is questionable whether or not there are already innumerable examples of the harmful effects that sudden fame and equally sudden invisibility can have on the already fragile.
The biggest failing of the movie was a lack of interest that Morris seemingly had for the legal/moral issues that were raised by the case, such as the case having a male victim and a female perpetrator, which he only touches on briefly. For instance, he suggests McKinney could not have committed rape, as her victim was a male. This misconception is very prevalent in our society, because of the expectation that the men in our society always want and demand sex, and will never turn it down. Essentially, it removes men’s ability to say “no.” This is problematic as it places the blame on the victim and makes that much more difficult for male victims to approach law enforcement. In the context of this case, one might ask whether the crime that McKinney was accused of was as severe as the forceful act that is normally associated with the word “rape.”
There were also a number of questions that were not sufficiently discussed, which Morris could have addressed. For example, would the coverage of the story been markedly different if the gender of the primary actors had been switched? Would the police have acted differently than they would have otherwise? Was McKinney’s past in the sex-trade a factor in the handling of the case? Was her ‘victim’ actually under a sort of compulsion by the Mormon church, and if so, did that impact the nature of her ‘crime’? These are significant issues that could have been addressed, rather than another investigation on the impact of a bank of flashing bulbs on an impressionable young woman.