Missing White Woman Syndrome, what is it and why does it exist?


By: Hannah Lewis, BSc Criminology and Sociology student

Binge watching new shows on streaming sites has become a favourite past time for many and a large amount of the population excitedly tuned in recently for the return of Netflix’s hit show YOU. As the season kicked off with the main character’s odd behaviour and plot twists drawing in the audience the third episode touched upon a phrase centered around a theory which has sparked interest among many sociological studies. This phrase is ‘missing white woman syndrome’.

As a white middle class character from the show disappears the neighborhood is seen to pull together to ensure her safe return, with vigils and huge media presence surrounding her home and the town they live in. However, it is a comment made by the character Marienne (played by Tati Gabrielle) that caused even the main character himself to ask, “What is Missing White Woman Syndrome?” (Akinwumi,2021)

Photo by Pixabay: https://www.pexels.com/photo/abstract-bright-close-up-color-268460/

Missing White Woman Syndrome

So, what is this syndrome and where does it originate from? The phrase is often credited to Gwen Ifill who used the term at the Unity Journalists of Color conference in 2004. The media spectacle that more often circulates cases in which white middle class women are victims but is rarely seen in cases in which the victim is Black or Indigenous is the main basis of the theory this syndrome (List,2021). Under reporting issues aside in 2020 an estimated 100,000 Black women in the United States alone were reported missing alongside 5,590 Indigenous women. Could anyone recall these women or their names or even say they have heard of them? Many would find this difficult yet as recently as 2021 it would have been a challenge to find someone who had not heard of the Gabby Petito case, 22-year-old white woman whose disappearance and death dominated the headlines along with Sarah Everard here in the UK. Both deaths were equally as terrible and shocking as any other and should have never occurred yet are examples of the missing white woman syndrome trend.

Media coverage of Sarah’s shocking murder at the hands of a police officer was almost instant and she had become a household name overnight yet another murder, that of Sabina Nessa a young woman of Bangladeshi descent, needed a social media movement to bring her case to attention before it appeared on the front pages of newspapers instead of in the back (Sanghani,2021). Had Sabina and other women like her been white would they have been deemed more newsworthy a question Professor of Criminology Yvonne Jewkes has been studying, with emphasis on the issues surrounding the underlying problem of racism that clouds the attentions some victims receive from the public and law enforcement (Sanghani,2021)

However, even with these studies and presence of the syndrome amongst online discussions there is still sparse amounts of research into the theory, displaying even more evidence of these women’s plights being cast aside. Some empirical research, however, has been conducted using data provided by The Federal Bureau of Investigation did show that there was a significant difference between coverage of missing women (Sommers,2017). However, some will argue that focusing on the misrepresentation of Black women can distract attention from the larger issue of sexism and overall violence against women (Day,2021).

Intersectionality

When researching these facts there is most certainly an issue with sexism and class status which can cause women’s issues to be overlooked. However, the concept of intersectionality needs to be included in the discussion to understand the issue of missing white women syndrome more. Kimberle Crenshaw (1989) introduced intersectionality as a way of identifying the inequalities Black women experience as their life is not just affected by sexism or classism but more often a combination both with the deep-rooted issue of racism included.

Photo by Duané Viljoen: https://www.pexels.com/photo/black-and-white-protest-10572780/

Intersectionality as a concept recognises the need for feminist theory yet critiques it as well as the theory does tend to be a white perspective with the experiences studied to be that of white females when experiences by all kinds of women are never the same more so those of other races and so focusing on one viewpoint will result in exclusion (Romero, 2018). The struggles of exclusion of those pf different races and how people respond towards violence against them was protested very recently in the form of the Black Lives Matter movement, however, even this movement only initially focused upon Black males meaning more still needed to be done to highlight the plight of Black females, including violence they also have experienced from police.

Even then this movement and its ideals have been critiqued by the counter slogan all lives matter showing more evidence of Black people lives including that of women continue to be cast aside and deemed as unimportant compared to others. This counter movement was chastised by Romero (2018) as helping to continue to enable colour blind racism to exist.

Many may ask why this is important, aside from the obvious injustices, inequalities, and exclusion these attitudes have caused ignorance in the regard of the value of one woman’s life over another which can have dire consequences. In cases such as that of Gary Ridgeway (The Green River Killer) and Lonnie Franklin Jr (The Grim Sleeper) whose victims were made up of Black women often prostitutes, a group historically ignored when missing or murdered but even more when the victim has been black (Johnson,2016) During these cases the police where not as quick to ensure the perpetrator of the crime was brought to justice as these women where seen as disposable victims meaning that in these cases it could be felt that black lives did indeed not matter (Johnson,2016).

The violent and premature death of any woman is a tragedy that should never happen but the media and its tendency to ignore so many of these tragic cases continues to build these feelings of exclusion and injustice. Unfortunately, many women will continue to mistrust those who are meant to protect and stand behind them leaving ever growing gaps in society. Although the character may be fictional the statement made by Marienne has been praised by many women as shedding light on how the phenomenon of Missing White Women Syndrome leaves them feeling.

‘When white women receive a disproportionately high level of public attention, a very clear message is being sent. White ladies deserve to be rescued. The rest of us can fend for ourselves.’

Marienne, Character in Netflix show YOU

References

  • Akinwumi, S., (2021). You season 3: What is missing white woman syndrome? Metro, [online] Available at: <https://metro.co.uk/2021/10/15/you-season-3-what-is-missing-white-woman-syndrome-15427313/> [Accessed 13 January 2022].
  • Crenshaw, K., (1989). ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,’ University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1(8), pp.139-167.
  • Day, A., (2021). We Must Stop Comparing Sabina Nessa’s Murder with Sarah Everard’s The politics of representation is getting us nowhere except into Twitter arguments. [online] Novara Media. Available at: <https://novaramedia.com/2021/09/23/we-must-stop-comparing-sabina-nessas-murder-with-sarah-everards/> [Accessed 13 January 2022].
  • Johnson, P., (2016). ‘Grim Sleeper’ Killer Convicted, But Black Women Are Still Vulnerable. NBC News, [online] Available at: <https://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/grim-sleeper-killer-convicted-black-women-are-still-vulnerable-n584856> [Accessed 14 January 2022].
  • List, M., (2021). Counting Women of Color: Being angry about “missing white woman syndrome” is not enough. [Blog] MSU Bioethics, Available at: <https://msubioethics.com/2021/10/25/counting-women-of-color-missing-white-woman-syndrome-list/> [Accessed 13 January 2022].
  • Sanghani, R., (2021). Why did it take so long for us to hear about Sabina Nessa’s tragic killing? Cosmopolitan, [online] Available at: <https://www.cosmopolitan.com/uk/reports/a37753081/missing-white-woman-syndrome/> [Accessed 14 January 2022].
  • Sommers, Z., (2017). Missing White Woman Syndrome: An Empirical Analysis of Race and Gender Disparities in Online News Coverage of Missing Persons. The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, [online] 106(2), p.275. Available at: <https://heinonline.org/HOL/LandingPage?handle=hein.journals/jclc106&div=15&id=&page=> [Accessed 15 January 2022].

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