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Gabby Petito: A Case of ‘Missing White Woman Syndrome’

by Madison McCormick //

The case of Gabby Petito’s disappearance continues to be a key point in new media and pop culture as society collectively united to solve the mystery of her disappearance. Potential witnesses posted critical videos on media outlets like TikTok in an effort to add another piece to the puzzle. This in-depth coverage of Gabby’s case across the internet provided resources to help in the investigation, including a Go Fund Me, and brought new evidence and perspectives that pushed the case forward at an accelerated rate. This likely resulted in both the discovery of Gabby’s body and a potential suspect, Gabby’s husband. 

This grand gesture of unity and cooperation across the United States was an awe-inspiring phenomenon that brought peace of mind to Gabby’s friends and family–likely quicker than the case would have progressed on its own due to increased media coverage, awareness, and resources. However, this recent cooperation has caused many to question why cases of women disappearing, specifically women of color, do not receive the same media coverage. Social scientists and news commentators describe the phenomenon in which white women’s disappearances receive significantly more media coverage and attention than women of color as “missing white woman syndrome.”

This recent cooperation has caused many to question why cases of disappearance of women, specifically women of color, do not receive the same media coverage.

Missing White Woman Syndrome 

In a society that disproportionately endows privilege onto white individuals based on systemic racism & the oppression of people of color (POC), POC are often forgotten and receive less media coverage. This phenomenon is referred to as “missing white woman syndrome,” or “missing white girl syndrome.” It refers to the tendency that “white women tend to disproportionately receive the most amount of news coverage,” as written in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology. Additionally, in the case of missing women, white women tend to receive the most media coverage. This pattern is likely because white women fit the societal standards of beauty, which disproportionately impacts women of color by providing unequal media coverage. 

Similarly, cases involving white women receive more media coverage because of the stereotypes of white women and women of color prominent in society today. When a crime is committed against a white woman, she is often inherently positioned as the victim. However, women of color that are the victims of crimes are oftentimes not viewed as a victim. Instead, they are blamed for the crimes committed against them. In this way, “white women’s tears” are used to garner more sympathy for white women when a crime is committed. Studies have further explained this phenomenon’s implications by stating that,

 “White woman’s reality is visible, acknowledged, and legitimized because of her tears, while a woman of color’s reality, like her struggle, is invisible, overlooked, and pathologized based on the operating “standard of humanity.” 

This societal phenomenon contributes to the injustice that women of color face and often leads to women of color not being able to get proper justice from the justice system. 

Societal Beauty Standards

The beauty standards that persist today are Eurocentric–Eurocentric features are typical of white individuals. According to a Harvard study, standards for women today are based on the Westernized beauty standards, such as being tall, thin, having a small nose and high cheekbones. Additional beauty standards, including having blond hair, blue eyes, and long eyelashes, arose in the United States in the 1900s due to mass production, consumerism and advertising culture, and the emergence of Hollywood.

These Eurocentric Westernized beauty standards persist in American culture today. Consequently, those who fit these beauty standards are often viewed as more attractive, like the women below, which affords them more benefits from society. 

This societal view of female beauty standards influences media searches and what stories make headlines. Women viewed by society as more attractive catch the attention of readers more as their face is the centerpiece of an article. Thus, when the face of an ‘attractive’, white woman is used as a cover photo, the article gains traction more quickly, which causes other media outlets to cover the story. When Gabby Petito—a white, blonde, skinny, blue-eyed woman—disappeared, her story quickly became a hot topic. 

Women viewed by society as more attractive catch the attention of readers more as their face is the centerpiece of an article.

Women of Color Deserve Equal Media Coverage

While media coverage does aid in spreading awareness and potentially solving criminal investigations, like Gabby’s, cases involving women of color should not be excluded. Gabby Petito deserves justice and her family deserves the peace found when her case is solved; however, women of color deserve the same justice. Cases like Gabby’s are a reflection of the systemic racism prevalent in American society that disfavors people of color. 

This is not to say that white women do not deserve the justice and media coverage that they currently receive; women of color simply should be equally included in this coverage. Indigenous women face murder rates that are ten times higher than the national average and homicide is the 3rd leading cause of death for indigenous women between the ages of ten and twenty-four. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, four out of five black women were murdered each day in 2020. So, why are these women not talked about in the news as well? The injustice that women of color face, especially regarding homicide, occurs significantly more than it does to white women. As a society, we need to recognize that there needs to be a change. Women of color face staggering marginalization and the violence they face is not talked about enough. Women of color deserve the same amount of media coverage.