Missing White Woman Syndrome is a term used to describe times wherein media coverage focuses on the murder, kidnapping, or disappearance of ethnic-European females —usually pretty and young—to the exclusion of non-European, plain-looking, older, disabled, or male people.
The origin of the term is unclear. Although Professor Sheri Parks of the University of Maryland claims to have coined it circa 2005, it apparently has been in use among journalists (and FARK.com) for years before that. It's also been referred to as "missing pretty girl syndrome" and "damsel in distress syndrome". In particular, the United States has the AMBER Alert, which is a special alert code for child abductions and was named for the young white daughter of influential parents.
The most likely ignored missing person is the Disposable Sex Worker and/or the Disposable Vagrant. Presumably the inspiration for the Trope is the White Knighting mind-set. For more information, including a detailed breakdown of the coverage cycle and links to dozens of cases, see this article at Wikipedia. This column at CNN.com has some thoughts on it, and in the years since this trope entry was first written many more writers have weighed in on the topic.
In fiction, writers tend to be more savvy and aware of the use of this trope.
Compare If It Bleeds, It Leads, Local Angle, Men Are the Expendable Gender (the news certainly thinks so), Worst News Judgment Ever
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Briefly referenced in the Confessor arc of Kurt Busiek's Astro City, when a series of ritualistic killings becomes worthy of a public panic only after an archetypal blonde school sweetheart type becomes one of the victims.
Prickly City: Winslow comments that Kevin's disappearance is getting a lot of attention considering he's not blond. (Mind you, he's a Senator.)
Parodied in Scary Movie when Cindy Campbell sends a message to the police saying "White woman in trouble!" The next shot is of the house surrounded by police crews.
In the third movie:
Brenda: Oh come on. Cindy, the news is on! Another little white girl fell down a well! Fifty black people got their ass beat by the police today, but the whole world gotta stop for one little whitey down a hole!
Of course, said "white girl" is actually the film's version of Samara coming out of the TV.
Used in Gone Baby Gone. The kidnapping of an adorable little blonde girl gets huge media coverage. When a little Hispanic boy is kidnapped by a pedophile two months later and brutally raped to death, nobody really cares until it's all over.
Lampshaded when Inez Soto ties the men who kidnapped, brutalized, and raped her to the murders of white people at the Nite Owl diner, because otherwise nobody in 1950s Los Angeles would care about getting justice for a Mexican immigrant.
Lampshaded again when Jack Vincennes needs to call in favors to investigate the murder of a man that Jack led into a homosexual tryst in order to catch the DA for blackmail material. The other cops ignore it because the victim was supposedly gay.
Helen Lyle: "Yeah, but y'know what bugs me about the whole thing? Two people get brutally murdered and the cops do nothing, whereas a white woman goes in there and gets attacked and they lock the place down."
Invoked in Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay when a corrupt, racist federal agent motivates his team by showing them a picture of a young white girl, saying that she could be captured and raped by terrorists.
An example from Primeval, when Orlando Jones points out that the Crocodile is just like OJ: eating up bunch of Africans, no one gives a fuck, kills one white lady, and they send the news crew.
In Gridlock'd, Spoon calls an ambulance to help is friend who has overdosed and gets hung up upon when they hear his voice. When he calls again, he says something along the lines of "there's a white woman hurt and a bunch of black guys smashing cars and yelling about the revolution!"
It's really easy to miss, but it gets lampshaded in Megan is Missing. The movie features a fake news coverage of Megan disappearance that dedicates several minutes to tell the audience how popular and beautiful Megan is while showing pictures of her. At the end of the segment, the reporter quickly mentions another missing child named Turcell Jackson, and goes to comercials.
Lampshaded, in a way, in A Time to Kill. A black man shoots two white creeps who raped and battered his little girl and left her for dead. At his murder trial, the attorney defending him bluntly describes to the jury what happened to the child, in no-holds-barred, graphic, sickening terms. And concludes: "Now imagine that she's white."
In the 2012 movie of 21 Jump Street, Jenko and Schmidt are sent undercover into a high school to find out about a new synthetic drug being sold. Their captain (played by Ice Cube) says that since it's white people dying, the police care.
This Trope may have its roots in the 17th Century captivity narratives written by Mary Rowlandson.
In the novel Reliquary, the string of kidnappings in New York garners media attention only after a pretty young blonde woman vanishes.
A central theme of the novel The Black Dahlia and the real-life unsolved murder case on which it is partly based.
In Pop Goes the Weasel, one of the Alex Cross series of detective novels, a Dangerously Genre SavvySerial Killer is estimated to have possibly killed more than 100 people throughout Washington, D.C. A big part of his winning strategy was to only kill women who were black, poor, prostitutes, or otherwise people the media and police wouldn't care about.
America (The Book) gives us this handy little formula: "y = Family Income * (Abductee Cuteness/Skin Color)^2 + Length of Abduction * Media Savvy of Grieving Parents^3 (Where y = minutes of coverage)".
The absence of this trope is probably what makes the Janie series (1990-2000) an Unintentional Period Piece (among other things). If Janie's kidnapping had happened now, no doubt there would have been a huge media sensation about the disappearance of a pretty white girl from the suburbs.
In Native Son, the presumed kidnapping of Mary Dalton is this trope, with extra emphasis on "white."
In Asta's Book by Barbara Vine, the central mystery of the Victorian part of the story is the disappearance of golden-haired toddler Edith Roper after her mother is murdered. Asta's grandniece Anna, writing in the present period, assists with a Masterpiece Theater production about the (still unsolved) murder. She notes that journalists covering the show are obsessed with Edith: "Children are always of interest, girl children for some reason more so, and missing girl children consumingly so."
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn follows the huge media coverage following the disappearance of Amy Dunne, an upper middle class blonde woman. However, there are other reasons for the coverage, such as Amy being a minor celebrity for inspiring a famous book series called Amazing Amy and Amy's husband, Nick, behaving very suspiciously during the investigation.
Dark Places, also by Gillian Flynn, has a subplot about a Missing Pretty White Woman named Lisette Stephens. The trope is lampshaded heavily as everyone believes she is probably dead and comments that the only reason she keeps getting attention is because people only care about disappearances when it's pretty women like her that disappear.
Live Action TV
Averted entirely in season 1 episode of Lincoln Heights, "Abduction" where Lizzie is kidnapped. The local media and police give their full support to the black family. While it could be due to Lizzie's father being a respected police officer that the police are so supportive, the issue of race never becomes a factor.
Addressed in the Without a Trace episode "White Balance", in which the agents investigated two cases — that of a white slacker party-loving teenage girl, and that of a black hard working kind teenage boy. They must cope with the white girl's case getting constant attention and the black boy's getting none, in one instant the news interviewer left just after finishing up with the father of the white girl, completely ignoring the black boy's mother. This episode concludes with a No Ending — we're told one lives and one dies, but not who.
In another Without A Trace episode, Jack confronts his new boss for focusing on a child kidnapping case at the expense of the disappearance of a lesbian case worker...which is Fridge Logic in itself, as there is a chance the case worker just walked away while the kid is definitively in danger.
Another episode had Jack insist on taking the case of a missing black foster child, telling his foster father that despite the lack of evidence of foul play, his case would grow cold in the hands of the local authorities.
Brought up in Veronica Mars when Weevil mentions that shortly after the murder of Lilly Kane, a little girl from his neighborhood named Marisol Reyes disappeared, but she didn't warrant the same amount of media coverage or therapy sessions for the students. (Weevil was fogging the issue, not wanting to bring up his own affair with Lilly. At the same time, Lilly was the daughter of a minor celebrity. Also, Reyes simply disappeared, whereas Lilly was brutally murdered.)
Notable because due to the nature of the show, the point of Weevil's tirade was ignored on the fanbase, who thought that the introduction of the Reyes case was going to be an important part of the Kane case. It wasn't. Also, there were Unfortunate Implications since Keith would've been sheriff at that point.
Horatio Caine moaned about it in an episode of CSI: Miami, telling a reporter to cover the missing (non-white) girl they're looking for that week.
Also the page quote, in an episode in which a young, blonde white girl and a dark Hispanic girl are kidnapped by the same man in a very short space of time; the former, of course, gets loads of coverage. The episode ends with Horatio giving a reporter a list of names of recently missing people whose disappearance didn't gain media attention and suggesting he follow those up instead.
Discussed (specifically the Natalee Holloway case) in Season 4 of The Wire when McNulty and Freamon suggest that the lack of support from their bosses in solving more than twenty murders is due to the victims being poor and black, leading to the episode's epitaph — "This ain't Aruba, bitch."
Bunk: You can go a long way in this country killing black folk. Young males especially. "Misdemeanor homicides."
McNulty: If Marlo was killing white women...[..] One white...ex-cheerleader tourist missing in Aruba.
Bunk: Trouble is, this ain't Aruba, bitch.
Lester: You think if three-hundred white people were killed in this city, every year, they wouldn't send the 82nd Airborne? Negro, please.
McNulty then partially invokes this trope by staging dead white homeless mennote They died of natural or OD-related causes to suggest a serial killer is targeting them. Then double-invoked when Scott Templeton starts capitalizing on this to win himself a Pulitzer Prize.
Reporter Alma Gutierrez's report on a triple homicide in West Baltimore is pushed back to the metro section, below the fold because, as her fellow reporter put it, "they're dead where it doesn't count".
In an episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, the disappearance of a white girl on a school trip becomes the subject of a media frenzy and is eventually tied to the disappearance of a local black girl. The mother of the black girl excoriates a Nancy Grace knock-off for coming to her only when her daughter's disappearance was tied up with the white girl's.
She also calls out the cops for blowing off her daughter's disappearance, but sending in the Major Case Squad to investigate the white girl's and points out the bitter irony that had the cops and media paid more attention to her daughter's case, the white girl might still be alive because the young man who (it was assumed at the time) killed both of them would have been arrested for the first crime.
Similarly, the black cop Fin Tutuola in Law & Order: SVU dispelled a crowd of nearly-violent protesters arguing just this by saying that he knew exactly how it was...and that he was going to make sure the black girl victim would get the justice she deserved.
In another episode, a young man decides that the only way to get the police to actually work on solving his little brother's kidnapping is to have a pretty blonde girl kidnapped. The only way he'll help them locate the girl is if they find out what happened to his brother. This episode hits particularly hard once you know that the blonde (supposed) kidnapped girl was a friend of his that willingly pretended to be kidnapped because she was aware of this trope.
In a season 2 or 3 episode, about a serial rapist who targets young black girls, Fin goes into the captain's office to vent his utter disgust that even though the rapist has started killing his victims, the core four detectives are the only ones working the case even though a few episodes previous there had been a missing white woman who had thirty officers looking for her.
Brought up in Boston Legal when after Denise's Hispanic housekeeper's son is abducted, she goes to Brad for help and points out that since the child is Hispanic, it's not like the media will be all over the case.
In Homicide: Life on the Street, the murder of Adena Watson, a black girl, is subject to a major police "redball" investigation and creates a media frenzy and was based on a Real Life case which resulted in the same, so it may be an aversion. Of course, Baltimore (where both fictional and real-life murders took place) is notable for having a particularly large majority African-American population, which may explain it.
An episode of Criminal Minds featured two serial killers in the same city, one targeting middle-class white women, the other shooting hookers. The police don't even realize the second exists until he gets annoyed and contacts a reporter.
Another episode featured a serial killer taking out homeless people, prostitutes, and other such generally-ignored people. Like the real-life Robert Pickton case, most of the authorities are convinced there's really nothing happening. Alluding to real life criticism of the Pickton investigation, Derek Morgan called out the authorities on their apathy, insinuating that because the victims were vagrants was the main reason why the authorities took so long to take action.
Yet another episode had a number of black teenage girls being killed, with all the murders looking like hate crimes. The authorities are accused of being apathetic towards the murders, due to a bit of unfortunate timing — the BAU were called after the third girl was killed...alongside her white, seemingly well-off ex-boyfriend.
The Suspect Behavior spin-off has this happen in the first episode, complete with the hysterical mother of a black little girl whose kidnapping was ignored. It turns out that the kidnapper has taken a lot of children without being caught because he's really fixated on eight year old black girls, and the only way they get both girls back safely is by bucking the media and local cops, and working the black girl's case.
Everybody Hates Chris played with this, with a joke in the episode revolving around how if you wanted the police to make an active effort to find your missing children, you couldn't say they were black.
Rochelle (on the phone): "Yes, hello! I'd like to report two missing boys."
Police: "Can you describe them, please?"
Rochelle (quickly): "They're white."
(knock at the door)
Rochelle: "Hold on." (opens door)
Policeman At Door: "Ma'am, you reported two missing white boys?"
Lie to Me had the case of a missing white girl eventually connected with a black girl whose case didn't receive much attention on account of this trope.
Vanished hung a lampshade on it: an FBI agent investigating a missing senator's wife tells a reporter that they don't want the same thing: while he wants the victim found safe and sound, she wants her missing for as long as possible to drum up her ratings.
On Cold Case, the squad reopens the cases of two teenagers (a white female and black male) who were murdered miles apart at the same time. The black teen's uncle asks if the coincidence is why they're giving his case so much attention; Detective Miller explains she had them reopen it because she was the one who found his nephew's body.
Another episode had the detectives realizing that a serial killer was at work when the body of his fourth victim—a young African-American boy, like the others—was discovered. His enraged grandmother suggests that had the cops handled the other cases properly, her grandson might still be alive, while the parents of one boy angrily describes the other cops as insinuating that their son had run off with a gang. Race is never mentioned, but it's obvious that the relatives feel it played a factor.
In AMC's The Killing, the police investigating the murder of a pretty young white girl follow a lead to a Seattle mosque. The imam hands them a MISSING flier and notes that the Seattle Police Department is putting a lot more effort into the Rosie Larsen case than it is for a missing Muslim girl.
The television series Find Our Missing hopes to avert this in at least one media outlet by running stories on missing African Americans throughout the US.
Referenced in Key And Peele, a sketch comedy show. One of the segments was about a missing White infant, and the new anchor getting mad because they found the baby before they could talk about it. A few days later the same man tries to give a story about a missing Black infant only for the news to tell him not to as no one cares, and than it cuts to them referring to the formerly missing White baby saying she's doing just fine and hasn't been missing in some time.
Broadchurch has an example that focuses on the "woman" part of the syndrome rather than the "white." When the Lattimer family wants to know why their son Danny's murder has received almost no media attention, a reporter tells them that it's because Danny was a boy—if he had been a girl, there would be reporters swarming all over the town. The reporter suggests that they could get around this by making Danny's mother Beth the "white woman victim" who would be the focus of media sympathy.
A truly chilling example in The Tunnel in which a terrorist kidnaps a group of children and promises to release them only if the public riots against stores that exploit child labour. Once his hostages are whittled down to two, the terrorist holds an on-line vote to decide which child shall be set free and which shall be executed. One is a black boy, the other a white girl. No prizes for guessing which one the public votes in favour of.
The Dukes of Hazzard: Inverted fully in the Season 6 opener, "Lulu's Gone Away." Lulu Hogg, husband of "Boss" J.D. Hogg is homely and grossly overweight, yet the Duke boys show no hesitation to come to her rescue. Not to mention, the script writers made every effort to portray Lulu in a sympathetic light, as they had since the third season, when she became a regular, and that her ugliness was no issue in saving her from a potentially brutal fate. (Her captors threaten to have her killed if Boss fails to meet their $1 million ransom demand or if the Dukes are even sighted trying to pull off a rescue.)
The "missing pretty girl syndrome" variation was brutally parodied in The Onion with the article "Ugly Girl Killed". A little girl is brutally murdered, but there's no outpouring of sympathy and horror simply because she was homely...a deliberate Take That at the frenzy surrounding the then-recent killing of Jon-Benet Ramsey, who was a perfect little princess type.
Patrice O'Neal has a bit where he mentions that black people judge the beauty of a white woman by estimating how long her name would be in the media if she went missing. He mentions a serial killer of women, who was suspected of killing that white woman who went missing in Aruba, what was her name—
Audience Member: Natalee Holloway!
Yeah, and then there was that Peruvian girl just the other month, what was her name...?
Later, he talks about the (black) NFL players lost at sea, who were declared dead much faster than the average lost white victims would be. He goes on to say that he won't go out to sea without "a white baby on a keychain".
UK comedian Diane Morgan asking why whenever a pretty girl gets killed, people say "look how pretty she was" as though it's somehow more of a loss, but whenever an ugly girl gets killed, no one says "fortunately she was an absolute moose!"
Parade centers around the trial of a Jewish man accused of raping and murdering a young white girl in 1913 Georgia. As a black character observes:
"The local hotels wouldn't be so packed / If a little black girl had gotten attacked!"
There is a Fantastic Racism version in Dragon Age II with a serial killer who targets elf girls. Law enforcement is not interested - even Lawful Good city-guard Aveline is prepared to look the other way if you just kill him. Another factor in this case is that the quest-giver, a city magistrate, is the killer's father. Even the killer tells you his father is just going to help cover up his crimes.
Averted in the case of the game's prominent serial killer Quentin. Even though he's exclusively targeting human women to use their body parts to re-build a simulacrum of his dead wife, no one save one old templar believes that he exists and that these women are simply running off.
In Saints Row: The Third, STAG's leader blows off a question as to how their occupation of Steelport will affect its citizens by bringing up the Boss' killing of Jessica Parish in the previous game. The way he tells it, she's just your average girl who fell in with a bad crowd and got killed because of gang violence - conveniently leaving out the part where she was the one who sent her gang to kidnap and torture Carlos by dragging him behind a truck, and that her own death was the Boss getting revenge for that. Not to mention that she's just one of a million other deaths the Boss is responsible for.
Spoofed in thisMuertitos comic — when the media finds out the lost girl isn't thin, blonde, and leggy (but is instead chubby, blue, and has no legs), they instantly lose interest.
Whatever the precise figure of the disappeared, however, we can safely assume that it included hundred of thousands, if not millions of young, attractive white women. Buck is watching CNN. Think of it: Millions of missing white women, all at the same time. What would CNN do? Would they cover them all? Or maybe just the blonde ones?
Parodied in Family Guy, where a crowd of reporters swarm the site of a school bus crash that claimed the life of a young girl. They make zero effort to conceal their disappointment when it is announced that the victim's surname is Gutierrez.
Irritated Reporter: "That's not news!"
Parodied in the simulation episode, when Stewie kills Cleveland and declares that he has to move quickly. "Black man gone missing? My god, the media will be all over that."
And again in "And I'm Joyce Kinney", where one news segment ends with Tom remembering "Oh also, that little girl's still missing" almost as an afterthought; naturally, he mentions that said little girl is Puerto Rican.
And in "Bigfat", Peter has gone missing in Canada for two months, one of the rangers asks Lois if he's black. When she says no, they reveal they haven't been searching at all.