Tonight at eleven, more of the same


Nov. 10, 2005, midnight | By Jody Pollock | 15 years, 2 months ago

Media obsession with missing white women exposes an unsettling social undercurrent


Only white women go missing. Or at least that's what the media seem to think.

Thousands of missing persons cases are officially reported every year, but only a few are covered by the national news media. It's no coincidence that the majority of those cases involve missing white women.

Fifty-three percent of the over 47,600 active files of missing persons in the Federal Bureau of Investigation database are men, and 29 percent are black. And yet images of white women like Natalee Holloway and, locally, Taylor Behl continue to inundate television screens and newspaper front pages across the U.S.

This phenomenon has many names - damsel-in-distress syndrome, missing-pretty-girl syndrome, missing-white-woman syndrome - but the subtext is the same: The media's fascination with white women who have gone missing is a reflection of social currents that have been indelibly woven into the fabric of American culture.

Alicia Zumbrum, a spokesperson for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), laments the trend of spotlighting damsels, explaining that the focus on missing white women overshadows the thousands of other missing persons who don't pass muster for media attention. "It's obvious that the big cases recently have been the Elizabeth Smarts and the Danielle van Dams," she said.

Essentially, explained Marsha Gilmer-Tullis, director of the Family Advocacy Division of NCMEC, whatever makes the best story gets the most airtime. It follows, then, that if the media choose to focus on white women, there must be some reason that white women are more compelling.

Subconsciously, these damsels are attractive because of the implications of their distress. The disappearance of a white woman is the realization of one of our society's greatest fears: It is the destruction of a symbol of purity and the defilement of the sacrosanct. White women are idealized and idolized, a social current that extends all the way back to the birth of the nation - America itself was often depicted as a dainty white woman in early political
cartoons.

Even without explicitly recognizing these undercurrents, we have allowed them to become so ingrained in our social subconscious that cars, boats and countries, all of which are things to be claimed, protected and prized, are referred to as female. The damsel- in-distress syndrome is more than just a media phenomenon; it is part of our national identity. It has become so imbedded in our culture that is has simply become our culture.

A helpless Snow White gone missing - this is the stuff of fairy tales. And the media are all too eager to ride to the rescue.

Holloway has been heavily featured in the national news media since she went missing on a chaperoned trip to Aruba last May. A web site has been started in her name, and a $1 million reward has been offered for information leading to her safe return.

Meanwhile, Lee Jasper Fenner, who disappeared in July 2003 in Washington, D.C., has received almost no media attention. He has no web site and no privately funded reward. The difference: Fenner is an elderly black man.

Fenner is easy to ignore as a "normal" instance of black misfortune, a tendency Gilmer-Tullis calls "victim-blaming," or looking for reasons why a missing person has disappeared. In this case, the blameworthy factor is race. It's the idea that, as a black man, Fenner was probably doing something that put him at risk for going missing anyway, said Gilmer-Tullis. Because of the nature of our prejudices, Fenner cannot garner the same sympathy - or ratings - as an attractive, young, white female.

Furthermore, as a man, Fenner is expected to be strong enough to save himself - he is not a woman and therefore cannot play the role of the victim. "There's the stereotype that men can take care of themselves or that they even made the choice to go off on their own," explained Gilmer-Tullis. "It just goes with what we believe in society." Eve could not have existed without Adam, but Adam would have been fine without Eve.

But a white woman goes missing and it's major news. "It's just what sells," said Gilmer-Tullis.

Which is not to diminish the tragedy of any missing person. Rather, by giving this media phenomenon a name and allowing the public to recognize it for what it really is, damsels have become tools to reveal deep-seated prejudices that continue to plague the nation. In the U. S., white equals attractive and female equals helpless - an equation that results in damsels in distress. For a country obsessed with the concept of equality, this parade of attractive, young, white women reflects the racist and sexist subtext of our collective social subconscious.

It is unrealistic to think the whole of American society can take a leap as drastic as leaving these undercurrents behind. But change must begin somewhere, and balanced media coverage of missing persons may be the first step.




Jody Pollock. Jody is a CAP senior (finally!) who is looking forward to another great year in Silver Chips. When she's not driving herself crazy with her impossibly busy schedule, she's singing with InToneNation and going to City at Peace practically every day of the week. Somehow … More »

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