Thrown into the mix of competitive content last week was Scout’s Honor, an hour-and-change true crime documentary from Brian Knappenberger, recounting the decades of abuse and long-overdue reckoning in the Boy Scouts of America.
It’s a massive story, and a recent one: I remember, when the story first broke around 2020, being stunned by the number of plaintiffs who came forward — 82,000 former Scouts — who reported experiencing some form of sexual abuse within the organization, most frequently from counselors and troop leaders. But the story coincided with a certain global pandemic, and I feel like for those not directly involved, it became one more horrific news story in a slew of apocalyptic reporting.
So to my mind, it’s very good that Scout’s Honor appeared when it did, as victims are still fighting to hold the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) accountable. Sure the documentary leans a bit on the sensational side (you can gather that much just from the subheading: “The Secret Files of the Boy Scouts of America”), but that can’t diminish the story at its heart: victims coming forward to speak about what happened to them and the voices of the people who are trying to get them some semblance of justice.
It’s not an easy watch. Numerous former Scouts describe the abuse they endured in varying levels of detail. The sheer, massive extent of the abuse is dizzying on its own. One man describes a New Orleans BSA troop that was nothing less than a sex ring for pedophiles. It all feels so blatant in hindsight, the stories piled one on top of another in an endless Jenga tower that feels like it should have crumbled eons before this.
At its heart, Scout’s Honor speaks to how the financial and religious entanglements of the Scouts, as well as a serious lack of oversight, created a hunting ground for predators that harmed tens of thousands of children. It’s a story of something quintessentially, “wholesomely” American that put all its effort into maintaining the fiction that America is a nation that protects its children while burying the harm it had done-even as the BSA took part in the kind of “save the children” rhetoric that is routinely used to demonize and diminish groups that don’t align with conservative ideology.
One of the simultaneous high and low points of the documentary is its interview with Steven McGowan, BSA General Counsel until just last year, who obviously, in the course of the interview, begins to understand that he absolutely should not have agreed to the interview. He denies facts and parrots canned PR lines with a plastered-on smile. His mission at the outset is clearly to save face, to portray the Boy Scouts as a somehow heroic character in all of this-an organization that course-corrected hard and worked diligently to make children safe. Essentially, to maintain a simplistic fiction that depends on nobody questioning him. In any other context, it would be a genuine pleasure to watch a liar crumble on screen under questioning, but in this case the damage is so great and the issue of ongoing harm so prominent that it simply becomes another level of grotesque, self-serving attempts at deniability.
The documentary took a necessary and explicit turn into discussing the rampant homophobia within the organization and the horrific scapegoating of gay men when stories of abuse were first publicly reported. (This is yet another point that McGowan flubs as he tries to paint the Scouts in a saintly light: he doesn’t, apparently, believe that persecuting gay men was either a distraction or even a bad thing. The interviewer is audibly shocked, but by that point in the interview McGowan has buried himself so thoroughly it’s hard to understand how he could hope to resurface.)
This specific point is incredibly important, especially in a cultural moment when it’s become somehow acceptable for right-wing bigots to talk about queer people as “groomers,” resurrecting this same dangerous prejudice that equates all queer folks with pedophiles.
All that said: the documentary was launched out into a glutted streaming platform, as the true crime genre entry following How To Become a Cult Leader, the strange, unserious, and popular miniseries that dictates various cults of the past and their tactics. Both programs trended in the Netflix top 10 after their release.
It seems incredible to me that both of these programs essentially serve the same purpose in the Netflix true-crime industry: attracting the eyeballs of true-crime followers. I think this just highlights the messy intersection of content-for-content’s-sake programs and true crime that is trying to do serious documentary-making. Scout’s Honor falls much closer to the documentary side of that spectrum, to be clear. That the two programs seem — to me, anyway — to be treated by Netflix as a similar brand of eye fodder is disconcerting, to say the least.