By Patrick McTague and Jessica Sutton.
This article is dedicated to Lena Zhang Harrop, killed by a man on 22 September 2021.
In August 2021, Gabby Petito disappeared while on a road trip across the United States. This was one of the biggest news stories of the year and one of the biggest missing person’s cases in a very long time. All eyes were on Gabby’s story and all hands were on deck to find her, and then her murderer, allegedly her fiancé.
In September 2021, while authorities searched for Gabby’s murderer, Lena Zhang Harrap was raped and murdered in Aotearoa, New Zealand. And yet, there was very little media attention about Lena’s case, low levels of social media presence, and no anti-femicide protests. Not for Lena.
While there were many differences in the two cases, the disparity of media and social attention may be explained by reference to a distressing social phenomenon. Gabby was a white, conventionally attractive, middle-class young woman. Lena was of Chinese heritage, had Down syndrome and vision impairment, and stood just 130cm tall. This does not make either death more tragic than the other. Both are horrible femicides that should shock every reader. And yet, even in Aotearoa, we barely heard about Lena’s death, but Gabby’s was all over our social media feeds and news channels.
These tragic cases display the problem known as Missing White Woman Syndrome (MWWS), a term often attributed to American news anchor Gwen Ifill. This term describes the disproportionate media coverage and social outrage channeled towards the deaths of young, white, heterosexual, cisgender, middle-class women compared to women not falling into this privileged class. This disparity generally exists in western countries and has been studied and proven empirically in the United States.
But why does our society become fascinated with white female victims? Charton McIlwain, a New York University professor of media, culture, and communication, has said, “Our victims are colour-coded… Research shows that in terms of crime victims, they are people who we view as being like us – like those who are covering the events or reading about them… Our national ideal of who is vulnerable – and who holds victim status – are those who are white and female.”
Our society has perpetuated a view of white, female victimhood to contrast ‘powerful’ masculinity. The most supposedly sympathetic victims, the ones that get viewers to tune in and drive up views, are mostly white, heterosexual, cisgender, abled, and middle-class. Missing and murdered women that don’t fit into the paradigm are excluded from attention. This reflects not only a lack of attention to and reduced perceived value of the lives of non-white women, but a trend towards fetishizing the deaths of white women and turning them into entertainment. Media outlets fought to publish the CCTV pictures taken as Sarah Everard was abducted by her murderer. The media coverage of the Grace Millane murder trial emphasized her sexual history and demonized her alleged interest in BDSM. White women’s deaths are monetized and sexualised, while women of colour, indigenous women, disabled women, and queer women are abandoned.
The practical effect of MWWS is evident in a few ways. Social media campaigns and widespread public outrage are one example. Not only do our media outlets follow stories with morbid fascination, but members of the public also become involved in the cases too. Gabby Petito’s case is a perfect example of lay-people attempting to solve a ‘murder mystery’ – phoning in tips to police and outlining conspiracy theories about her disappearance on social media. Social media tribute posts and public mourning also abounded for Gabby. Whereas, the only widespread public outrage I can remember about a woman of colour’s death in a western country was Breonna Taylor’s. The horror inspired by her death was in combination with the Black Lives Matter movement, which has arguably foregrounded the deaths of black men. Before and since then, we have seen mass public mobilization from the deaths of Grace Millane in Aotearoa, Sarah Everard in the UK, and of course Gabby Petito in the US to name a few.
Successful petitions for law changes are another example of MWWS. In the United States especially, there are many laws named specifically after missing or murdered white women and girls who received extremely high amounts of media coverage. These include Laci and Connor’s Law (named after Laci Peterson), Amber alert laws (Amber Hagerman), Jessica’s Law (Jessica Lunsford), Caylee’s Law (Caylee Anthony), Megan’s Law (Megan Kanka), Dru’s Law (Dru Sjodin), Lori’s law (Lori Hacking), Kristen’s Act (Kristen Modafferi), and Sarah’s law in the United Kingdom. Similar law changes are rarely, if ever, seen for other missing or murdered people. The only one that comes to mind is the proposed Breonna’s Law to prevent no-knock warrants, among other restrictions on police, in Kentucky, which failed in state congress earlier this year. It seems that even when an entire global social movement is behind a law change based on a black woman’s murder, it still cannot get out of the committee stage.
From this we see the real consequences of missing white woman syndrome. It’s not about what is profitable for the media companies or scoring political points, it’s about whether other cases get solved. Whether non-white women are found. Whether the families of non-white victims see justice. High media attention drives public outrage and social movements. These in turn drive police to spend more resources on the cases to see a positive resolution, or at least, the image of one. If nobody is pressuring police, they won’t spend the same number of resources to find the non-white women and girls who go missing, to find their kidnappers, or their murderers. To find their justice. It is about whose safety, whose lives, we care about as a society.
Media organizations may argue that they have limited resources, and therefore limited time to spend on every story. So they have to “give the people what they want”, distancing themselves from any responsibility. In reality, they largely control what people pay attention to. If all media was flooded with the stories of indigenous girls who are missing, trans women who have been attacked, black women who are murdered, public outrage for these events might grow. Yes, media companies have limited resources, but it seems they would rather spend those resources on pieces about Dating in the Covid-19 pandemic, and Tom Cruise’s movie career.
Police departments may also argue that they have limited resources if questioned why they put so many resources only into solving certain cases. To this I might question their priorities. Police forces across the world have the resources to violently put down peaceful protests, add additional ineffective plainclothes patrols to pubs, purchase military-grade weapons and equipment to (unsuccessfully) fight a “war on drugs”, among many other unnecessary expenses. They could absolutely use those resources instead to fight a culture of sexual and physical assault within their own ranks, find more missing people, pursue justice for more victims of violent crime, and create real public safety. The difference is they wouldn’t have new toys to play with, the public would be safer in general, and our societies might move towards a semblance of real justice.
History shows us that institutions pay attention when people make them. Media will report on social movements. Police can be made to respond to public pressure. Governments can be moved by their people. None of these institutions will take the steps needed to spotlight every missing woman and child, or every femicide victim, on their own. They profit too much from the status quo. It’s up to the people to make them listen, to be the voice of every victim, to change the narratives. To change the profile of the perfect victim. To break the patriarchy’s hold over what we care about.
The loss of Lena and Gabby is tragic. They were both young women with their whole lives ahead of them, attacked in circumstances where they should have been safe. They both deserve our love and our action on their behalf.