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Missing White Woman Syndrome

Writer: Gabrielle Poole

Editor: Pat Sevikul

Graphic Designer & Artist: Hannah Bugeja

Before delving into the subject, it’s important that we have a basic understanding of what “Missing white woman syndrome” is. The term is used to refer to the media coverage of missing-person cases. These cases involve young, white, upper class women who receive more coverage compared to Black, Indigenous, and people of color. (BIPOC).

On September 11th, twenty-two year old Gabby Petito went missing, and her disappearance became a sensation that spread on social media like wildfire. The national fascination with Ms. Petitos' case sparked heavy debate about the nature of its appeal. Photos of Gabby Petito flooded screens, and many saw an “attractive, blonde, white woman who radiated the curated happiness of a social media native” (Helen Rosner). According to journalist Gwen Ifill, her case is another instance of “missing white woman syndrome.” There’s a hunger for stories about victims who resemble Petito, at the expense of others.

Furthermore, MSNBC host Joy Reid recently interviewed two women on her show, “The ReidOut.” During the interview, the women discussed the issues surrounding the Gabby Petito case. More specifically, how Ms. Petito went missing after a cross country road trip, and later on, was found strangled to death. The two guests, Lynette Grey Bull and Derrika Wilson are both advocates for missing Indigenous and Black women and children. They argue that Gabby’s disappearance was getting far too much attention and the media coverage was severely lacking when it came to the hundreds of other cases that didn’t involve white women. “The Petito family certainly deserve answers and justice,” said Ms Reid. “But the way this story has captivated the nation has many wondering, why not the same media attention is received when people of color go missing?”

Everyone’s lives are equally important, and the media creates an imbalance in the priority of human lives when it puts the spotlight on white women, while other women of color are in the dark. According to the Guardian, only about ⅕ of missing persons cases involving people of color receive coverage. Gender and women’s studies scholars express that the media mirrors a society with deep-seated racist and patriarchal beliefs about femininity. While the media supports these white women and goes through extreme lengths to find them, women of color have little to no one to advocate for them.

Who will say their names?

  • Melissa Page, 23: Last seen outside a bar in Chicago in 1990

  • Jessica Guillot 21: 5 people kidnapped her in 2013, she is still missing.

  • Asia Wilbon 16: Last seen going to bed in 2020

  • Jasmaine Smith 22: Disappeared after her sister's graduation party in 2015.

  • Paula Daniels 19: Last seen at home in LA 1981.

All of these women deserve someone to fight for them, like those who fought for Gabby Petito. The underlying issue is the systematic racism that puts white women on a pedestal, while other cases are dismissed, and those who aren’t white will never receive the justice they deserve. Seeing as this is a problem, there are certain ways that media outlets can take the step to combat this syndrome.

It is imperative that people continue to raise awareness about the disparities between white women and women of color, and to engage in conversations about the existence of the issue. Media companies must also be inclusive with their coverage of cases, always keeping in mind the need to ensure that the victims and their families are heard. Cases should not be treated not just for headlines or trends, but should display the truth behind cases surrounding people of color, just as much as white women. Media outlets should employ diverse minded people with various backgrounds and experiences to eliminate any bias that may linger in any future news reports.

It is not to say that Petitos' case is unimportant in any way shape or form. Her story is worthy of its coverage and has helped the police investigate further. However, other missing persons who may not look like Ms. Petito (women/men of other races), should also receive and benefit from the same type of spotlight.




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