Missing White Woman Syndrome is a term used to describe time periods where media coverage ratchets up to follow the murder, kidnapping, or disappearance of white females, often pretty and young, and often to the exclusion of male, non-White, and older missing persons.
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 in L.A. Confidential 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."
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.
Even fourteen years after her death, you'd be hard-pressed, especially in Colorado, to find an American who doesn't know who the wealthy, pretty white beauty queen Jon-Benet Ramsey was. However, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone outside the state of Colorado (or indeed, anyone in the state who is not a daily local news viewer) who has heard of Aarone Thompson (a six-year-old black girl who disappeared in 2005), or Neveah Gallegos (a two-year-old Hispanic girl who was raped and murdered by her mother's boyfriend in 2007). Indeed, one suspects that the latter case received the small amount of coverage that it did only because it was tied into an investigation of several (very tragically literal) fatal mistakes made by the Denver Child Services department.
Two weeks after Jon-Benet's death, Toya Currie ("Girl X") was raped, poisoned and left for dead in a stairwell of the infamous Cabrini Green housing project in Chicago. The case was only covered in black-owned news media, and efforts to get white media to notice were only partially successful.
"No one is surprised when an underclass kid is raped or killed," says Patrick Murphy, the Cook County Public Guardian. "I think we expect these kids to get killed. It's not that people don't care. It's that they yawn. Whereas if it's a blond-haired, blue-eyed kid, they all go crazy. I've seen it a million times."
On the subject of Colorado, the abduction and murder of Jessica Ridgeway in October of 2012 was on front pages for several weeks after the event happened.
The Natalee Holloway case. Not only did the disappearance of a pretty, blonde, white American girl set off a massive media storm, it spawned two made-for-TV movies (Natalee Holloway and Justice for Natalee Holloway) and gave her (equally blonde and attractive) mother, Beth Holloway, a television series (Vanished). Natalee Holloway's page on Wikipedia is even a Featured Article at times.
Several years later, Nancy Grace is still doing entire shows devoted to the Natalee Holloway case. Assuming that case ever gets solved (which it probably won't as they Never Found the Body), there's a good chance that Nancy's show will end or her head will implode, whichever comes first.
In one of the "Year in Review" recaps by Dave Barry, he had a running gag wherein various important news stories would hit the press, which prompted Greta Van Susteren to continue searching for Natalee Holloway.
A Dutch crime reporter got an Emmy for his Holloway episode in which he managed to record a confession from the main suspect with a hidden camera. The suspect only confessed to unappropriated disposal of a body and the suspect later clarified that he only made up a story to impress the guy he was talking to. The episode was watched by 7 milion people in the Netherlands (population 16 million). The highest rating in Dutch television history apart from sports events.
As detailed in No One Can Hurt Him Anymore, the murder of 10 year old AJ Schwarz may relied on this. AJ and his half-sister, Patsy, where sent to live with his father and stepmother after their mother was found unfit. While both were physically abused by said stepmother to an extent, AJ was treated like a slave, often locked in a cellar room, often denied food (and at one point, forced to eat a cockroach), and not allowed to have friends. Even though Patsy was treated much better in comparison, the physical abuse was enough to convince police to send Patsy back to her mother after two years, while AJ was still forced to live with them. Over a year later, the stepmother ended up beating AJ to death.
The Elizabeth Smart case had reason beyond this trope for its media attention - her house was broken into, she was abducted at knife-point in front of her sister and she was then "married" to her abductor and raped repeatedly, at age 14. Yet we can blame the case for the trope's further rise in prominence - it was so sensational that anyone who covered it noticed a massive spike in ratings, thus leading networks to actively keep an eye out for missing white teenage girls.
Not even the US Army is free of this trope. Compare the treatment of captured white Pfc. Jessica Lynch with black Spc. Shoshana Johnson. Both were captured in the same ambush, but Lynch received national media attention, a made-for-TV movie, a larger disability payment and was celebrated as a hero fighting to the last bullet.note Early reports just described a small blonde soldier who went down shooting. This was actually Pvt. Donald Walters. Even Lynch herself thinks she received too much exposure and accused the Army of fabricating her Hold the Line moment for good PR. Her real heroism was when she sat in front of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and, point by point, dissected the myths that had been created around her. Johnson did receive recognition and accolades, but only after this discrepancy was brought up.
SPC Lori Piestewa (Hopi) was at the same attack that Lynch and Johnson were in. She was wounded and taken prisoner, but died from wounds sustained during the attack. She was the first Native American woman to die in combat while serving in the U.S. military, and received the Purple Heart. Ever heard of her? Probably only because you read or saw an interview where Lynch brought Piestewa up. She credited Piestewa with saving her life and has repeatedly named her as the "true hero" of that battle. So it was semi-averted: Piestewa did get a mountain in Phoenix, Arizona named after her, though (formerly called Squaw Peak), and her parents and children received a new home courtesy of Extreme Makeover Home Edition. And Lynch named her daughter in honor of her. News stories, even a decade after the fact, continue to ignore every part of the story other than that Lynch was captured, however.
The problem of Missing White Woman Syndrome got some attention in Britain when two white teenagers, Amanda "Milly" Dowler and Danielle Jones, disappeared around the same time in 2001. Both made the national news and received a ton of press coverage. A body was found that was believed to be Jones, but was actually another missing white girl, Hannah Williams. Why had her case not been in the news? The police admitted that her being working class, from a single-parent family, and with a history of running away from home might have had something to do with it. Something similar happened in the (prolonged) search for Milly Dowler- a body found in a likely location was reported at first as probably Milly's- then on closer inspection turned out to be that of a much older woman. Obviously there are good reasons why a missing mature woman doesn't create a national alert, but there was a palpable sense to the reporting of 'Thank goodness, it's just a grown woman that's been killed, not a pretty young girl...' In fairness, no foul play was involved in the older woman's death; it was always suspected to just be a case of her dying in an odd place.
UK media also sometimes averts the trope if the missing woman is a white Eastern European, because of the popular prejudice against people from poorer Eastern European countries as scrounging immigrants. If the woman has a "respectable" occupation that wasn't minimum-wage (businesswoman, student), she might be in with a chance of making the press; otherwise, it's likely the case will be swept under the carpet.
The reason why it took longer for Jeffrey Dahmer to get caught was because he preyed exclusively on gay men from ethnic minorities. His ability to escape notice illustrates that this focus on missing white women above missing persons from any other social or ethnic groups is not limited to media coverage but is sadly a factor in actual missing persons investigations as well—when the relatives of his victims called the police to report their loved ones missing, they were frequently dismissed with blase comments such as, "Well, he's a grown man, he can run off if he wants." The only reason he was even caught was because one of his intended targets escaped and immediately flagged down a police car—several weeks after another victim, a young Asian boy, nearly escaped, but was returned to Dahmer's apartment after he smooth-talked the cops who completely ignored the African-American women who were insisting that the boy had been trying to get away from Dahmer. An article written several weeks after Dahmer's crimes—and this horrific error—were discovered stated that this would never have happened had the races been reversed.
This was the trope that Ted Bundy was Genre Savvy enough to invoke while on the run as a serial killer: his victims were the standard Missing White Woman — young, pretty college students, classic "good girls" whose families would notice them missing, who disappearances would get substantial attention from the media and the police. It's believed Bundy liked the ego boost and the attention he got from his crimes. Unfortunately for him, the first attacks of Bundy's crime spree occurred during an earlier media era and got no national attention because he targeted young women. At that point, young women were usually less likely, not more, to be covered as victims of crime, because people assumed missing young women to be promiscuous or drug addicts. One of Bundy's victims' families had to hound the police for two years to get their daughter's disappearance taken seriously — at one point, they were told right out that they were wasting police time bothering detectives about their "whore of a daughter."
We've all heard of Chandra Levy. But have you heard of Christine Mirzayan (Middle Eastern) or Joyce Chiang (Taiwanese)? Two years before Levy's disappearance, in separate instances, they disappeared and were later found murdered — circumstances virtually identical to the Levy case. They were young, pretty, well-educated "good girls", precisely the type of victim the media loves, yet neither case garnered anything beyond local attention despite one woman (Chiang) being a federal employee. Not until the Levy case broke nearly two-and-a-half years later after Chiang's murder did anyone on a national level even know about either woman, and even then it was only because of the similarities in their cases (there was concern that a serial killer might be at work in the area). The Joyce Chiang case was finally solved 12 years later, but prosecutors have declined to press charges against her killers, given that one is already in jail for another crime, while the other is in a non-extradition country.
An interesting bit of trivia about the media's obsession with Chandra Levy — Levy's mother, Susan, had the media camped out in her yard for months in mid-2001 because the case got so much attention. She had actually stopped watching television because she was tired of seeing herself and her daughter on TV. And then one day Susan noticed something strange - the news trucks were all inexplicably packing up and leaving. That was how she learned about the September 11th attacks. Oh, how irony works: it took terrorists flying planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon for them to focus on something other than Levy.
Serial killer Robert Pickton was able to get away with killing prostitutes and drug users in Vancouver for years (convicted of six, charged with another 20) because of his choice of victims. One American station in Seattle ran a story about six of Pickton's victims. Two of the victims mentioned in the story were white, three were First Nations, and one was black. They only showed five of the victims' pictures, and guess whose photo they left out? In the same vein, at least one Canadian TV station did a similar thing with respect to the possible victim who was a transsexual.
The infamous "Runaway Bride" — the woman claimed that she had been abducted when she failed to show up for her wedding. It turned out that she'd simply gotten cold feet and, rather than simply admit to the mistake, decided to allow the authorities to waste around $50,000 searching for her before making the call to let her family know that she was alive. She (thankfully) was made to pay back around $13,000 for the hoax, but earned far more than that by selling her story to a publisher. The lesson? Fake being kidnapped as a Missing White Woman, and you can make a lot of money!
In Living Color! did a skit on that exact thing about another woman, including that it won't work if you're not white.
The coverage of Sylvia Plath's first suicide attempt was an example of this. She hid in a crawlspace under the breezeway between her family's house and garage, where she took a bottle of sleeping pills and lay there for two days. Headlines from LA to Daytona covered the massive search for the "pretty Smith girl" and her subsequent discovery.
Elsie Paroubek's 1911 disappearance and death received a huge amount of press attention. (Subversion in that Elsie's parents were working-class immigrants.) This had political and social factors — anti-Gypsy hysteria, the Czech-American community rallying to support its own — but police also assumed Elsie was taken by Gypsies owing to their "natural love" for fair-skinned blue-eyed blondes.
Suicide due to school bullying is sadly nothing new. However, the suicide of Massachusetts high school student Phoebe Prince set off a nationwide outcry against bullying and prompted dozens of threatening letters to be sent to the six students accused of causing her suicide. The case of another boy in the same area who committed suicide due to bullying, Carl Walker Hoover, received much less coverage. Not only was Hoover black, but he had been heavily bullied by classmates who were, for whatever reason, convinced that he was gay. This has not gone unnoticed.
In the midst of the riots going on in Egypt, with civilians all over the nation in danger of looters and soldiers, what was NBC talking about during all this? How one Caucasian American old woman was in Egypt right now and needed to be brought home as soon as possible. Similarly, an attractive blonde news reporter, Lara Logan, made news when she was sexually assaulted. Washington Post reporter Alexandra Petri pointed out that we never would have heard about what Egyptian women and foreign women visitors to Egypt live with every day if the Lara Logan thing had not happened; Logan was "not a faceless statistic, but a known, blonde, white woman."
The Grim Sleeper murders are looking more and more like an example of this trope. The Grim Sleeper was a serial killer who raped and murdered at least 7 black women during the 1980's, took a 14-year "break" (although now it looks like he was still killing), then started up again in the early 2000s. The police, despite knowing that all the murders were connected, never informed the public. In fact, they didn't even admit to the presence of a serial killer until an "alternative newspaper" broke the story. There had been an active serial killer in LA for over 20 years and no one knew. Quite a few bloggers are asking if the response would have been the same if the victims were all white women.
There's a similar situation in Cleveland, in which a serial killer Anthony Sewell was found to have entombed his ten victims in and around his house. Despite the man's previous convictions for rape, he was never flagged as a suspect in the disappearance of these women, who had varying backgrounds (mostly checkered), but were all African-American.
The Caylee Anthony trial exploited this from both angles. The missing girl, of course, drew a lot of attention but the fact that her mother (and prime suspect) Casey was also a young and pretty white woman certainly doubled it.
This trope also showed itself to be in full swing in Québec, Canada, when Cédrika Provencher, a young white girl, went missing in 2007. Provincial news was rife with news of her kidnapping for years, an official song was composed to find her, and the search for her is still officially ongoing as of 2011. There have been several other missing persons since, but nobody seems to care since they're not woobie white girls.
In San Diego, at virtually the same time that seven-year-old Danielle Van Dam disappeared (and was later found murdered) in 2002, Jahi Turner, an African-American boy of about the same age disappeared while in the company of his mother's boyfriend. The boyfriend said that he left the boy outside a convenience store while he went inside to shop. When he came out, the boy was gone. The mother expressed her anger several times to the media when they covered the disappearance of the white, blond Danielle while her son's disappearance was virtually ignored. The San Diego news media does appear to be aware of the negative implications of this trope, however, and has periodically covered developments in the Turner case over the years.
The trope also applies to how the media handles disappeared people when they resurface. Near the end of 2011, two college girls went missing in the United States. One was white and the other was middle-eastern and Muslim. Thankfully both were found okay. ABC news received backlash when one of its web journalists wrote an article about the two cases, needlessly comparing the two. The article treated the white girl's case, where she became snowbound in her car after making some questionable navigational choices in a car ill-prepared for snow travel, as something that could happen to anyone. The author then scolded the middle-eastern girl for being recklessly inconsiderate by losing her cellphone on a class trip and even entertained notions she had run off on a romantic fling (she was engaged at the time). ABC News has since retracted the story and has stated it will no longer accredit stories by the author.
An American woman with an undefined "life-threatening condition" being held hostage by Somalian pirates for three months was rescued by the same US Navy SEAL team that killed bin Laden. That last fact got more coverage in the linked story than the second hostage (a 60-year-old man from Denmark named Poul Hagen Thisted, if you're curious).
Britanee Drexel was a 17-year-old from the Rochester, New York area that went missing in 2009, when she went to Myrtle Beach, SC after being told she couldn't by her parents. Coverage of her case tended to leave out the second part of that sentence, instead focusing on "She went missing on Spring Break!"
Both played straight and averted in the Stephen Lawrence (an 18-year-old promising black student) case. While the case received a lot of media attention, it took 19 years for the police to convict two of the killers and the case revealed institutional racism in the police system.
Social media has been trying to balance out the disparity of coverage of minorities through outlets like Tumblr, and Facebook
It's alive and well there, too... when model quality Kara Alongi tweeted "There is someone in my hou[se], call 911" the internet exploded with hash tags and Facebook "likes", although many people were just questioning why Alongi didn't call 911 by herself. Police resources were tied up looking for her for several days. Found traveling on her own, Kara had faked her own kidnapping to cover up that she had run away from home after a quarrel with friends over an underage drinking party. Well, "Like its boring old relative, cable news, there is nothing that gets social media more excited than an imperiled white teenage girl...."
A variation on and partial inversion of this trope can be seen in media coverage of LGBT victims of suicide and hate crimes. Overall, victims who are male, cisgender, and, especially, white tend to get the most coverage—compare how the deaths of Tyler Clementi and Matthew Shepard were covered with those of Sakia Gunn and Coko Williams. This has the unfortunate effect of making LGBT rights seem like a "white" issue and leaving out the struggles of lesbians and, to a much greater extent, trans people.
For Coko Williams, at least, the lack of coverage may be because she was murdered in Detroit. Due to the high crime rate, seeing murders daily on the Detroit news has unfortunately become almost routine, so specific cases are rarely given more attention than any others.
In South Louisiana; pretty, white, blonde haired, blue eyed Mickey Shunick goes missing. Lafayette is wall papered with posters featuring her face and ever rising rewards are offered. Businesses put up signs begging people to "Pray for Mickey". Local and national news can't get enough of this pretty blonde tragedy. Keiosha Felix (black girl) got one poster at a Circle K and no reward offered. Average looking male teen Dylan Boudreax is barely a blip on the radar.
It's been two years since college student Lauren Spierer vanished in Bloomington, Indiana on June 3, 2011, but there are still a lot of missing posters all over town, on street posts, on signs in front of City Hall, etc.
On a similar note, as noted in the Weekly Standard, the Columbine massacre has left its mark on our nation for decades. Yet you've probably never heard of the black teenager (name not given, by the way) who gunned down two of his classmates at Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn back in 1992. In addition to his skin color, the relative obscurity of this incident may have something to do with the fact that the shooting was in a well-known high-crime inner-city neighborhood. In other words, even if any his victims had been white, it probably wouldn't have gotten much more than a day's mention in the local news unless there had been a pretty high body count. But when two white kids go berserk and shoot up a high school in a wealthy and predominantly white suburban neighborhood, however, everybody and his pet cause has to be there to exploit it—because, you see, school shootings happen all the time in poverty-stricken minority neighborhoods; but surely not in wealthy, predominantly white neighborhoods.
Shootings really were common in predominantly black schools in larger cities in the early 1960s. In wealthier areas where schools had more of a white presence, authorities feared extreme violence as the civil rights movement escalated, and police patrolled the hallways. Meanwhile, the Klebolds and Harrises of those days didn't use guns, but matches.
The "Yorkshire Ripper" serial killer was initially not recognized as such, and attracted little police attention or press coverage, because the victims were largely prostitutes. It was only when a respectable student of middle-class origins and good family was murdered that the police stepped the investigation up a gear and the media took more notice. In fact, the term "Yorkshire Ripper" was invented by the media as a deliberate harking back to Jack the ripper, who also murdered street girls. The case of a similar mass killer in Norwich - the "Ringland Hills Murderer" - who also selected prostitutes - remains unsolved to this day. It has been noted that the British police appear to believe murder is an occupational hazard of working as a prostitute, and respond accordingly. Rumor has it the Norfolk police closed the Ringland Hills case because they believe the prime suspect was later sent to prison for other serious offenses - which begs the question of why they did not raise additional charges.
The tragic case of Avonte Oquendo, a 14-year-old autistic African-American child from New York City is being called a case of this by many. He went missing in October 2013 and his remains were found in January 2014. Almost all of the publicity was due to his family's perseverance in searching for him, from putting up posters to making posts on social media.
Jeremiah Oliver was a 5 year old Hispanic boy in Fitchburg Massachusetts who went missing in September of 2013 but was only reported so in December of that year. Several people from the Department of Children and Families wound up getting canned as a result of their mishandling of it, but in an aversion on the media side the case has gotten heavy coverage.
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!"
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.