What is Missing White Woman Syndrome?
Twenty-two-year-old Gabby Petito was reported missing on September 11th, 2021, while on a cross-country van trip with her fiancé, Brian Laundrie. Her remains were identified ten days later, on September 21st, 2021, with her cause of death being reported as strangulation. She was killed by her fiancé, who then later disappeared and was found with a self-inflicted gun wound around a month after Gabby was reported missing.
Stemming from this case were considerable public discussions on Missing White Woman Syndrome (MWWS). Let’s dive into MWWS and why Gabby’s case sparked such conversations.
What is MWWS?
Thousands of people go missing each year, but only a fraction receive media coverage. Missing White Woman Syndrome (MWWS) is the notion that white women disproportionately receive the most news coverage compared to all other cases. This term comes from intersectionality theory which is an analytical framework that considers how race and gender, as well as class and age, combine to impact privilege and modes of discrimination. To this end, there are two main disparities MWWS brings attention to:
Whether a missing person receives any news attention; and
The intensity of the attention given to that person.
One explanation for MWWS is that scholars have argued that white women tend to dominate media coverage because they are seen as ‘universal beings,’ meaning that people can seemingly more easily identify with them than women of colour. Other reasons are attributed, such as some scholars arguing that women are placed into a dichotomy of ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Women who can live up to societal norms are ‘good.’ As white women are placed at the top of the hierarchy and considered ‘universal,’ they are thus also portrayed as ‘good’ and ‘innocent’ and then overrepresented in the news. There are many contributing factors, but, ultimately, MWWS reinforces systemic racism that places white people at the top and all other racial/ethnic groups at the bottom, particularly Indigenous peoples, rendering them invisible and disposable.
How Does the Media Play into This?
Gabby’s race and age are said to be contributing factors to the significant public interest in her case. It was extensively covered by traditional news outlets and social media, taking over many media platforms, such as, for example, ‘true crime TikTok’ where individuals created TikTok videos reposting her story to come together to find clues and created hashtags like #findgabbypetito and #gabbypetitotheory. The massive amount of attention given to this case highlights the lack of similar visibility when other racial/ethnic groups are involved.
The media is a pervasive part of people’s lives and is extremely powerful due to its defining abilities. As a moral entrepreneur, the media defines boundaries between groups, creating an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality. It establishes social problems and debates, indicating which stories are essential to the public. Determining what is ‘newsworthy’ validates opinions, legitimizes behaviours, authenticates the factual nature of events, and informs public policy.
The nature of how women are portrayed is vastly different based on their race and ethnicity. Coverage on missing and murdered Indigenous women is shorter (e.g., 28,493 words vs. 135,249 words), less personal, and less likely to be on the front page. In Ontario, Indigenous peoples make up over 2.5% of the population but only received coverage on 0.15-0.5% of news stories between 2010-2016. In addition to this disparity, there are differences in the wording and portrayal of the stories that are broadcasted:
Innocent “girl next door”
Large, front-page images with family members included
Big groups of mourners, including police officers
High-risk, suggesting they are victims because of their poor life choices
Jewkes explains that when a woman goes missing, many considerations impact the amount of coverage she receives. She states that if the woman is “young, white, conventionally attractive, and from a respectable home, the news media are more likely to report her disappearance.”
Why Does It Exist and What Are Its Implications?
The history of colonization has placed white individuals at the top of the social hierarchy and has forced other racial/ethnic groups to assimilate and conform to white-European norms. Specifically, the colonization of Indigenous land attempted to eradicate Indigenous cultures and ways of life. The relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities has been characterized by broken relationships, trauma, and historical devaluation. As Indigenous cultures have been violently ripped away from them through practices like residential schooling, many negative aspects followed. For example, disproportionate levels of aboriginal incarceration, unemployment, alcohol abuse, poverty, and violence, all of which are structural issues. The trauma experienced has impacted a lack of housing, clothing, food, and safety, which can lead to dangerous environments where they are more likely to be murdered or go missing.
The current coverage of missing and murdered individuals is dangerous because it does not reflect the reality of real-life situations. Indigenous women aged 15-24 have a greater violent victimization rate than their non-Indigenous counterparts. Since the 80s, over 500 Indigenous women have been murdered or gone missing in Canada, yet over half of the cases remain cold. This sets a dangerous precedent for the victimization of Indigenous women with little accountability on behalf of the perpetrator, continuing the cycle of discrimination and trauma.
What Can We Do Moving Forward?
1. Equal policies:
To ensure that there is more equality in the process of finding missing and murdered individuals, equal policies must be put in place regardless of race and ethnicity. A good place to start is legal pluralism. This refers to the expectation of more than one set of legal practices operating at the same time. For example, in Canadian law, some Indigenous legal practices, like restorative justice, operate alongside the traditional law. It is important to have more than one law perspective to reflect the diverse populations, each with their own cultures, norms, and values. Another step forward is to ensure that policies are in place to ensure equal resources are delegated for investigations regardless of what the individual looks like, their background/history, their characteristics, life experiences, and so on.
Focusing on the Indigenous population, it is important to build trust and heal the relationships that have been broken with the non-Indigenous community. This includes breaking down existing barriers and acknowledging the trauma they have been put through. A step in the right direction once again includes legal pluralism.
3. Increased education and awareness:
Especially with the prevalence of white women in the media, it is vital that people are educated in much more depth about the different groups of people that are at high risk. If there is more awareness, people can become more effective advocates for those who are marginalized, and their voices can become amplified.
The Gabby Petito case provides further evidence for MWWS, which highlights how white women disproportionately receive media coverage and resources. This can be attributed to many factors, including colonization and the historical devaluation and ‘othering’ of minority groups. To create a world where everyone has access to basic rights and dignity, it is important to implement equal policies, heal broken relationships, and spread awareness of this issue.
Bio: Dani Friedman is currently in her third year of studies pursuing a BA in Sociology and Criminology at Western University. Being the child of two South African immigrants and hoping to go to law school, her interests are heavily influenced by social inequality and issues relating to equity.