Missing White Woman Syndrome

Instructor: David White
Missing white woman syndrome is a modern take on an old and very complicated concept in Western literature. Through this lesson, you will learn what defines the syndrome and explore the origins of the various pieces that have made it what it is today.

Sensational News

In our era of modern convenience, cable television offers us an endless stream of channels from which to choose. For the news junkie, there are a number of cable channels that are devoted to reporting the news on a 24/7 basis. Yet there is rarely enough exciting or important news to fill a 24 hour cycle, and these channels often resort to extensively covering a single story, like the disappearance of Natalee Holloway in 2005.

Natalee Holloway was a young American who disappeared while on a graduation trip to Aruba with her high school class. The case became the focus of extensive news coverage that, over time, has resulted in numerous television specials, ongoing news coverage, and book deals. When a person goes missing, it is certainly worth covering on the news. What's interesting is that Natalee Holloway was far from the only person to go missing that year. In fact, in 2005 (the year Holloway disappeared) there were over 800,000 reports of missing persons in the United States - so why did Holloway capture so much attention?

Different stories catch on for different reasons, but in the case of Natalee Holloway, it might have a great deal to do with the fact that she was young, pretty, middle class, and - most importantly - white. In the social sciences, this phenomenon is referred to as missing white woman syndrome. According to recent studies, of the hundreds of thousands of people that go missing each year, young white women receive an overwhelming amount of news coverage as compared to those of other races, ages, and genders.

Damsels in Distress

As Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson has pointed out, these stories are never just 'stories'; rather, they are quickly elevated to 'sagas', a term that is most often applied to fictitious melodramas. This may sound cynical or crass, but if you took a look back at the coverage of these major stories, you'd likely begin to notice several familiar narrative tropes. In the case of the missing white women stories, that trope is the damsel in distress.

The damsel in distress upholds traditional gender roles.

Hardly a new concept, the damsel in distress is a story that goes back centuries: a young, pretty woman finds herself in the face of mortal danger, requiring a male hero to arrive and save the day. These narratives are exciting and entertaining and popular because they reinforce gender stereotypes. These stories easily serve as a metaphor for the battle between good and evil - within them, the woman is generally saved and the threat neutralized.

These stories are effective in large part because of gender roles, which are the social expectations of how each gender will behave. In the United States and other Western countries, young women and girls have long been considered the embodiment of innocence and purity. Given this norm, any threat to their safety provokes a very strong emotional response, enlisting viewers to continually monitor the situation until it is resolved and innocence is protected. In fiction, this is generally how the damsel scenario concludes. In reality, on the other hand, the outcome tends to be far less ideal.

Captivity and Race

The damsel in distress theory explains why a story of women being kidnapped or disappearing attracts so much attention, but the question still remains: Why are these stories disproportionately focused on white women and girls?

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