Who gets to be the “ideal victim”?
Centering victims and their stories when talking about crime isn’t a new phenomenon now that social media is a major part of our lives. The practice can be traced back to the rise of the victim rights movement of the 60s and 70s (NCJRS). As victims became a greater focus in solving crimes, more attention was paid to them in the media, criminal justice system, and society at large. Over time society began to sympathize more with some victims compared to others. The term “ideal victim” was created by sociologist Nils Christie in the 80s to describe a victim who would most likely garner sympathy and be understood. This person fits certain criteria including weakness, blamelessness, and respectability. It isn’t a coincidence that these characteristics are often associated with femineity. Everything from true crime TV to Disney Princess movies legitimizes the idea that femineity looks one way and is directly related to innocence. We are inundated with messages from the media that innocent people are typically young, white, and female in the media. This explains why the stories of missing White women tend to attract the most attention. Their positionality makes it so that they are most easily recognized as victims. It also points to the disturbing assumption that women who don’t fit into very limited standards set by society are at fault for the violence they experience.
How well a victim conforms to social roles has an impact as well on if they are seen as an “ideal victim”. It is depressing to think that how well a woman conforms to absurd standards of femininity relates to how she will be perceived as a victim. Unfortunately, this is the case for so many. The missing women and children prioritized in media coverage are not just white. They are typically thin, not disabled, conventionally attractive, and presumed to be cis-het and neurotypical. Missing and murdered women who are poor and undocumented are rarely the face of mass coverage. Federal officials at one point lost track of as many as 1,500 undocumented children and have inadvertently released undocumented children to human traffickers in the past. Not only are there stories rarely elevated on social media, but law enforcement and government agencies play a role in whether their cases are prioritized. This is important to note because Missing White Woman Syndrome is also connected to how the government responds to these issues.
Innocence is a huge part of who is deemed worthy of media coverage, empathy, and assistance. This is especially problematic when innocence becomes code for if someone is soft, feminine, and respectable. Racial caricatures such as the Jezebel and the Angry Black Woman are still common representations of Black women in the media and society. So, it can be difficult for Black women and femmes to be viewed as innocent when they are typically depicted as hypermasculine, loud, promiscuous, and aggressive. The idea that Black women are less deserving of protection doesn’t just stop at stereotypes. A Georgetown University study on the adultification of Black girls found that people were more likely to view Black girls as needing less protection, support, and nurturing compared to white girls. The implications of this are devastating. Our conceptions of innocence are deeply flawed if there are people who cannot recognize innocence in even the most vulnerable.
What can we do?
Missing White Women Syndrome bases who is deserving of protection off the same systems that the violence is stemming from: white supremacy and patriarchy. This is what makes it even more troubling. Because it only prioritizes the lives of White women after crime, this phenomenon doesn’t shield them from harm completely. The hyper-focus and sensationalizing of her disappearance obscures how Petito faced very real domestic abuse that unfortunately is an everyday reality for many. News outlets, social media algorithms, and the law-enforcement’s response may have been critical in finding Gabby, but they failed at protecting her from harm in the first place. Attention and visibility are not replacements for prevention and protection. We should not settle for them as replacements either. We know families and communities deserve more and we should fight for that.
But what can we do? First, we can demand better resources for domestic violence victims and survivors. We can also demand better responses from the media and government when resolving cases of missing people. Reaching out to elected officials, media publications, and social media platforms and calling on them to act is a way we can hold them accountable. Creating resources and investing in already existing programs addressing domestic violence, gender-based violence, and disappearances in your community is also important. Lastly, we can critically examine the media we consume and ask ourselves why these stories are elevated and what is missing. It’s necessary for us to push forward with an intersectional framework when thinking through issues that impact communities.
This is part two of a two-part series on the topic.
Thamara Aridou, PAC Intern