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The Long American History of “Missing White Woman Syndrome”

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The Long American History of “Missing White Woman Syndrome”

Last month, the disappearance of the twenty-two-year-old Gabby Petito became a sensation, attracting play-by-play coverage in the news and avid amateur sleuthing on social media. At the same time, the national fascination with Petito’s case sparked a debate about the nature of the fascination itself. The photos of Petito that filled our screens showed an attractive, blond, young white woman who radiated the curated happiness of a social-media native, and critics noted that coverage of her disappearance—and the subsequent identification, in Wyoming, of her remains—dwarfed the attention that both the media and law enforcement pay to other missing and murdered people, especially those who are Black and indigenous. (A report from earlier this year by the University of Wyoming showed that, in the past decade, seven hundred and ten indigenous people were reported missing in the state.) The Petito case, which is still unfolding (her fiancé, with whom she’d been travelling, is believed to be in hiding) seemed like another instance of what the late journalist Gwen Ifill famously described as “missing white woman syndrome”: a hunger for stories about victims who look like Petito, to the exclusion of all others.

The story of the Petito case—from the way it has gripped the country to the racial dynamics of how it’s been covered—is, of course, part of a larger cultural habit of turning disappearances and deaths into entertainment. Jean Murley, an English professor and scholar of true crime who teaches at Queensborough Community College, has written that creating and consuming these narratives “is a way of making sense of the senseless, but it has also become a worldview, an outlook, and a perspective on contemporary American life.” I recently spoke with Murley about the Petito case and its coverage, how news stories are narrativized even as they unfold, and whether a lurid obsession with true crime has any upside. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Early Newspaper

In cases like Gabby Petito’s, which are unfolding in real time, where is the line between consuming the news developments as news and consuming them as true crime?

This is one of the boundaries that always gets blurred with crime as entertainment—the boundary between objective reality and spinning a narrative. What we’re talking about with true crime is horrible pain and suffering and grief and anguish. It’s real people who are suffering. So the erasure of that by talking about this woman’s murder as just another fun, interesting, suspenseful story is very much a problem. We ignore the significant problems—for example, domestic violence—and then, when we turn a story like this into entertainment, what we’re doing is removing that meaningful element and just treating it like any other story.

That’s not to mention the harm that’s done to the survivors, the family, the friends, the people who knew her and loved her. I’ve been reading, and watching, and listening to, and talking about, and studying true crime as a genre for many, many years, and one of the things that I have discovered is that survivors—usually victims’ family members, if we’re talking about a murder case—have differing opinions about their case being picked up by the media. Many think that it’s great, because their loved one’s story is getting out there—it’s sort of a way of honoring the loved one that has been killed. Other folks have a different opinion of media attention. True crime, as a genre, has a rather sordid reputation of exploiting people’s very pain to gain readers or viewers.

Is that connected to who gets to be the protagonist in this sort of story? Cases that get this exponentially greater level of coverage tend to have, at their center, white women, and especially younger and conventionally attractive white women.

That’s an undeniable fact. There’s something about the missing young, beautiful white woman that has a lot of symbolic weight in America. It’s an aberration, and it becomes a container for things like the loss of innocence or the death of purity. This has a long historical trajectory, starting with the lost colony of Roanoke, Virginia. That was the birthplace of the first Englishwoman born in America, a little girl called Virginia Dare. That character of Baby Virginia has been mythologized and heavily inscribed with all sorts of meaning. No one ever knew what happened to the colony she was a member of, and so she has come to stand for the dangers of America, the dangers of the wilderness—that history starts with the missing white child, Virginia Dare.

Then we’ve got frontier captivity narratives, particularly in New England and the Northeast. When white settlers began to infringe upon Native lands and upon the people who were here, sometimes the Natives would take captives. Often, if the captive was a woman, the interest in and fears around that particular story became very great, very amplified. So we have these books that appear by the eighteenth century called captivity narratives—they would tell the story of a woman who was abducted by a group of Natives, and lived with a particular tribe, and then she comes back—sometimes, not always. You also see this trope of the missing white woman in the post-Reconstruction era, in films like “The Birth of a Nation,” which narrated the dangers posed to Southern white womanhood at the hands of Black male predators—formerly enslaved people who were positioned as a complete sexual and physical danger to, primarily, white women. So it’s not a surprise that we still have this symbol of the missing white woman. It has a deep history—it’s fraught with a lot of meaning for the American imaginary.

It seems, at least right now, with the rise of true-crime podcasts and their legions of white-women fans, that these stories are the realm of white women as consumers, not just subjects. Is that true?

It is. What’s also shifted around with true crime in terms of race is that, while we have the same missing-white-woman character as a symbol—recognizing, of course, that these are real people and real stories, but the way they pick up representational weight shifts—what we’ve got now are white victims and white perpetrators. It’s very rare, in the true-crime world, that a white woman is endangered by a Black man. The story that gets picked up and amplified is a white female victim and a white male. While we definitely have the captivity narratives and fears around Black men, in the South in particular, true crime is really interested in white victims and white perpetrators.

That’s part of the reason why people are justifiably very angry right now that this particular case, Gabby Petito, has got so much outsized media attention. There are so many missing people of color that are just completely ignored. True crime seems to want to tell itself, and us, stories about white people. White danger. In that way, I think, it narrates a version of America that is mostly white. Which is true in many parts of this country—enclaves of mostly white people, cities that are socially segregated. But this is white America telling itself a story about danger and violence and womanhood, when the fact is that most homicide victims in this country are young men of color, and those stories don’t get told, by and large. They just get ignored, they get trivialized: “Oh, it’s drugs, crime, gangs, urban violence.” But then a white woman goes missing, and that’s a big deal. I don’t want to give the impression that I think that these stories aren’t important. But when we’re looking at and talking about true crime it is undeniable that it is a white genre.

Does the volume of coverage that the Gabby Petito case is getting actually help? When people are expressing their anger and frustration that this attention is not being given to missing indigenous women or missing Black women—

Is that going to help shed light on this problem? My hope is that coverage and resources can be more equitably distributed. I know that, when a Black man goes missing, he wouldn’t get the same law-enforcement response that Gabby Petito gets, but the media can definitely help change that. I’m cautiously hopeful, because not only was there a huge media bombardment about the Gabby Petito case but I’ve never seen before so much chatter in the media about the unequal coverage and resources devoted to Black and white victims, or brown and white, indigenous and white. People are more aware of these issues.

It’s also pretty clear that all of the media coverage helped to find Gabby Petito’s remains. The people who saw the van—there was another couple who passed the parked white van that belonged to Gabby Petito and recorded it, inadvertently, on a video. And then they saw some media coverage about her case, and they were, like, “Oh, my God, we saw that van.” They went to law enforcement, and her body was found nearby. It’s definitely true that social media can play a role in solving these cases, and in ending them. But it’s also true that the media coverage is so out of balance that it’s just absurd.

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The Long American History of “Missing White Woman Syndrome”