- Alisha Grech
Why Are We Going Nowhere Fast? Missing White Woman Syndrome and Zero Feminist Progress
On Wednesday, October 13th, I was scrolling through Twitter. I was waiting for my yoga class to start and needed to idle instead of weird pre-workout small talk. No one needs to talk to the sleep-deprived grad student in the back corner wobbling to a high-plank position anyways.
I swiped my thumb across the screen to see what was trending. There was, of course, the usual chaos surrounding COVID-19 (funny, isn't it? how mundane panic seems to get) and fuzzy sports information. Among the other trending hashtags was one that I've seen everywhere.
Seeing this hashtag everywhere is not an exaggeration. When I say everywhere, I mean everywhere. This hashtag appeared on personal social media; my partner was sending me updates, my family brought it up over Thanksgiving, TikTok is recommending me videos about it and colleagues of mine are asking me about Gabrielle Petito. After all, I am studying feminism, am I not? I should know all about the shocking and horrifying case of Gabrielle Petito, should I not?
Art by Benedetto Cristofani
In case you need to catch up quickly on the case of Gabrielle Petito, you can find information here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and of course also here (there were about three hundred other "here's" to include, but I thought that would be repetitive.)
It felt like everywhere I looked, someone was talking about Gabrielle Petito. And they should be. When Gabrielle Petito went missing, it felt like the entire world was unified, looking for this one missing girl. That fact alone made me feel hopeful. People from Australia to Canada and everywhere in between were caring about this 22-year-old-girl. But as quickly as that hope came, it disappeared, leaving me deflated.
Of course, Gabrielle Petito deserves to be remembered.
Her family deserves justice.
Her story deserves to be told.
But, the frenzy surrounding her story needs to be questioned. It felt as if I was attending a feast where major news outlets gorged themselves on the pain of a family over the disappearance and later death of their daughter. Gabrielle Petito's story transcended activism into actual crime mythos and dangerously into an obvious example of missing white woman syndrome.
In the state of Wyoming, where Gabby went missing, over 700 Indigenous people have also been reported missing between the years 2011 to 2020. However, unlike Gabrielle's case, these stories have not been widely shared or solved.
To illustrate what I'm talking about, I trended the use of two hashtags, surrounding two cases of missing women in the same area: Gabrielle Petito (22 years old, white, missing in Wyoming) and Mary Johnson (40 years old, Indigenous, missing in Wyoming). The results came back startling:
For Gabrielle Petito, over 10,900,000 recorded social media engagements and over ten million social media likes of posts containing #gabbypetito on Twitter (as of Wednesday, October 13th 2021).
#gabbypetito usage, Oct 2021
For Mary Johnson, there were only 722 recorded social media engagements and 516 social media likes of posts containing #maryjohnson on Twitter (as of Wednesday, October 13th 2021).
These results were recorded using Brand24, showcasing what author Ruby Hammad writes (White Tears / Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color) as: "a binary between white women and all other women."
Before she disappeared, Mary Johnson had been living in the home of her sister Gerry Davis in Sedro-Woolley, Washington. However, during her stay, she left and moved to Marysville. During this move with her husband, Mary rarely answered the phone, slowing communication down with her sister. Then, one day, Gerry Davis received a phone call from Mary's husband saying that Mary was missing.
#maryjohnson usage, Oct 2021
Mary Johnson (also known as Mary Davis) was last seen on November 25th, 2020. In an interview with CNN, Mary's older sister was quoted as saying: "If that was a little White girl out there or a White woman, I'm sure they would have had helicopters, airplanes and dogs and searches -- a lot of manpower out there -- scouring where that person was lost. None of that has happened for our sister."
As of October 2021, Mary's case is still unsolved.
I used to see feminism as a vast, even field. But now, it seems like privilege and whiteness has eroded it so deeply that it has become this deep chasm where women fall into a never-ending pit of femicide. In this chasm, transgender women, disabled women, women of low economic status, queer women and women of colour are left clinging onto thin branches and vines while white, privileged women are pulled into the light.
So, why does this happen?
Who decides what women are worth saving and protecting from harm?
In White Supremacy in Heels: White Feminism, White Supremacy and Discursive Violence, authors Dreama Moon and Michelle Halling explains that feminism today is a movement that liberates only the women who are deemed worthy by the privileged, white and male. Women are treated differently, dependent on the category that they are slotted into. Why? There are different (often nonsensical and impossible) standards of performing womanhood to the white-privileged status quo. White "good" women are soft, demure, worth protecting, believable, desired and pure. Suppose you happen to not fall into those vague categories by being a person of colour, in a career that negates purity, disabled, queer or transgender. In that case, you are exposed to further oppressions. You are viewed as exotified, sexualized and perhaps even aggressive. It is why we have an idea of what happened to Gabrielle Petito and know what happened to Sarah Everard last year. It is also why we still don't know what happened to the hundreds of Murdered and Missing Indigenous women in Canada.
There is a culture of supremacy that surrounds the purity of white women. This is, of course, seen with, as Dreama and Halling explain: "the whitening of #MeToo and #TimesUp, evident in their popularization and visibility extended to white women's victimage" and exclusion of the traumas experienced by women of colour. Why? Because in western society, only certain women matter—the Gabrielle Petito's matter. The Mary Johnson's do not.
In writing this week, I kept thinking about the movie Gone Girl. If you haven't seen the film or read the book that it is based on, be warned - there are SPOILERS ahead.
The film's plot (and book) centres around the bizarre disappearance of a character often dubbed "Amazing Amy." This character Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike), is a thin, white woman who lives in a nice suburb with her Ben Affleck husband.
In the movie, their house looks like a Pottery Barn advertisement.
Anyways, moving on.
Amy goes missing, sparking a media frenzy surrounding her possible kidnapping. Why? Because she is white, she is beautiful, and she holds a level of fame from her parent's (also white) publishing career.
The world cares so much about Amy that the media flocks to her family. They wait in clusters at the foot of Amy's driveway to get a glimpse at her (also pretty, also white) suspected murderer husband.
There's a lot more that goes on with the plot. A lot of deeper, twisted, psychological shit, but you get the gist.
I kept thinking about how the plot of this film and book would change if Amy were BIPOC, or queer, a sex worker, or transgender.
Would the media still crowd the foot of the Dunne house? If they did, what would they say? Would they still call her Amazing Amy? Would they still flock to her story so reverently? Or, would they report on her in derogatory ways, calling her a "party girl" or someone who "led a dangerous lifestyle." Would they forget about her completely?
If you had asked me five years ago, I would have said that no—people would care. People would care just as much. That's an answer given by a white, young person who hasn't had to struggle as others might have—an answer that undoubtedly is limited by my limited experience and profound privilege.
Ask me today, and I would say that yes, the world would probably forget about her. Yes, those news stations turned up to report on her case would disappear. Yes, the media would slander her in headlines to print an obligatory article or two. And yes, the police would move on.