Gabby Petito’s disappearance and death have been all over the internet for weeks. We’ve seen timelines created, police body camera footage released and even the social media feds jumped in to find the missing influencer.
While hardly anyone would argue against showing support or care for any potential victim of violence, it’s fair to say there are quite a few who just want to make sure we keep that same energy next time the victim isn’t a cisgender white woman.
Petito’s harrowing case has generated mystery and suspense fueled by the media’s response to her disappearance, but it led many to call out disparities with how missing young white women are portrayed in the media versus their POC or LGBTQ counterparts and are demanding the same attentiveness across the board.
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Now as authorities continue to search for missing people like 19-year-old Miya Marcano, who recently vanished in Central Florida after failing to board her flight home, those activists' eyes are on the media to see if her story will be covered with the same fervor.
People like MSNBC’s Joy Reid referred to the disparity as “missing white woman syndrome,” a phrase coined by the late PBS anchor Gwen Ifill that speaks to the phenomenon of the widespread media interest around stories involving missing white women.
Similarly to the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” which argues for Black lives to be treated with the same respect and care as white lives, the sentiment of “missing white woman syndrome” doesn’t suggest that white female victims should be ignored — it simply seeks to point out that non-cisgender white women do not receive the same support when they’re victims of violence.
“Whether it is true or not, many media outlets do portray white women as the ‘perfect’ victim—the victim that they believe most of their viewers or readers will relate to or care about,” said Dr. Jonathan Cox, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Central Florida.
Negative media portrayals particularly harm Black women in missing persons cases according to Cox. Because “persistent negative stereotypes of Black women...often prevent these women from being seen as victims worthy of concern. They are often viewed as willful actors in their own demise, and blamed for their own circumstances and fates.”
And young Black girls who are often victims of “adultification” “are quick to be dismissed and categorized as adults, subject to those same stereotypes.”
But media depictions are different for white women. “[They] are the ‘American’ mothers, sisters, and daughters, which is why ‘the girl next door’ typically conjures up images of a white woman,” Cox explained.
He adds that “white people are widely considered to be more ‘worthy’ of care and concern than people of color, due to long-standing ideological formations that perpetuate white social dominance."
Two historical examples reflect this point:
Do you know the story of Charles Manson?
How about Samuel Little?
It wouldn’t be surprising if you quickly recognized the former as one of the most heinous serial killers in history. Manson ordered the killing of seven white women. The case shook the country and led to several documentaries.
Samuel Little, on the other hand, confessed to killing 93 women, most of them Black, between 1970 and 2005. And he also drew creepy portraits of them. Yet, his name and story never got the same attention from either the general public or Hollywood.
Christie Palazzolo with the FBI’s Violent Criminal Apprehension Program said that “for many years, Samuel Little believed he would not be caught because he thought no one was accounting for his victims.”
What’s also interesting is that, according to a report by Wyoming’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous People Task Force, 710 mostly Indigenous women went missing from 2011 to 2020 (in the same state Petito’s body was found) and “one-fifth of the Indigenous people reported missing were missing for 30 or more days, which is a higher percentage than White people missing for 30 or more days (11%).” Yet none of those cases reached the fever pitch of Petito's, who was reported missing for just a few days before the whole country was talking about her disappearance.
Mary Johnson, a Native American woman who disappeared on Nov. 25, 2020, did not make national headlines until widespread criticism of unfair coverage sparked interest in missing POC. Johnson was walking to a friend's house on the Tulalip Reservation in Washington State when she vanished without a trace.
The FBI release a flyer seeking information in Johnson's case on Sept. 15 – 10, months after she was formally reported missing on Dec. 9, 2020. In Gabby Petito's case, the FBI released a flyer seeking information on Sept. 17 – six days after she was reported missing on Sept. 11.
When coming to why “white America” is more protective of white women at the expense of Black and brown bodies (as we’ve seen with the story of Emmitt Till and the Central Park 5), Cox believes “white women symbolically represent [white] ‘American’ virtue, and per the white patriarchal system, they must be protected.”
Perhaps you might think white women are simply more often victims of murder or domestic violence crimes and thus we hear about their cases more often.
You’d be wrong.
According to a 2017 report by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “Non-Hispanic black and American Indian/Alaska Native women experienced the highest rates of homicide” and research from the National Center for Biotechnology Information shows intimate partner violence actually disproportionately affects people of color.
What about the amount of coverage the LGBTQ community receives when a trans person is murdered or goes missing? Do their stories get the same attention as those of white women?
The answer that you’re looking for is: generally, no.
“Their stories are not equally covered, but many people go missing every year and it is never discussed. It is more the case that certain kinds of people—often white women whose appearances and life histories conform to certain norms—tend to be covered,” explains Professor Rebecca Wanzo, Chair of the Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Washington University in St. Louis.
The National Center for Transgender Equality and the Human Rights Campaign Foundation released separate and grim reports last year that came to the same conclusion: 2020 was the deadliest and most violent year for transgender and gender non-conforming people in the U.S.
However, did those disappearances and violent attacks against members of the LGBTQ make national headlines or spark nationwide search parties? Nope.
When it comes to the lack of “worthiness” deemed by American media, Wanzo says “trans people are particularly vulnerable because they can face discrimination in employment and housing and be targeted by law enforcement. This is particularly the case for trans youth of color.”
“Poverty, housing insecurity, being trans, being of color, being a sex worker [or an] indigenous women in certain locations... there are certain stories we could tell that call attention to structures we need to address, as opposed to what are seen as sensationalistic deviations from a norm.”
So while we seek justice and answers for Gabby Petito, let’s not forget to do the same for Daniel Robinson, Mary Johnson, May “Maya” Millete and Marciah Cates-Franklin or help prevent 2021 from becoming the deadliest year on record for the trans and gender-nonconforming community while the internet and media focus on the tragic story of one white woman.
Pictured above (from left) Mary Johnson, May “Maya” Millete, Daniel Robinson and Miya Marcano.