Reviews | What drives media addiction to Gabby Petito


The Girl at Risk has been an American staple – and has been for nearly two centuries. In our now mythical past, the prospect of white pioneer women being taken to an unknown hell by the indigenous peoples of the continent has aroused our fear. (The victims, for their part, were meant to resist and die rather than submit.) The formula, then as now, was to portray women as helpless victims always in need of rescue. And stories used to go viral long before that term existed.

In 1897, she was a wealthy young woman from Boston, Betsy Stevenson, whose unknown location shocked the press. Like many stories, his became national thanks to the press services of the time. (She was found a decade later performing in a New York theater production.) In 1909, New York newspapers were unleashed when a 13-year-old named Adele Boas disappeared during a shopping trip with her mother. (Turns out she ran away.) In 1910, a 25-year-old New York heiress Dorothy Arnold disappeared and triggered a nationwide search. The New York Times covered Arnold’s story day after day and returned there periodically over the years when unidentified bodies were found. False observations – Boston! Philadelphia cream! Muskogee! – poured in from wherever a newspaper picked up the mystery. When Arnold’s mother died in 1928, the unresolved disappearance was still relevant. “It was really the great research of the time”, United press reported, “one who has done a lot to develop the ‘police’ coverage of modern newspapers. “

The scandalous ‘yellow journalists’ of the 1890s devised the storytelling models that modern newspapers and cable networks still rely on, with the endangered girl trope being the main one that has driven entire campaigns. . Publications in New York and elsewhere have opposed prostitution by describing young prostitutes as victimized “white slaves”. William Randolph Hearst went beyond news coverage of the Girl in Danger to actually manufacturing it’s when it’s very yellow New York Newspaper broke up an 18 year old Cuban woman named Evangelina Cisneros in prison during the period preceding the Spanish-American War. Missing women were also big business outside of journalism: the 1914s serialized Pauline’s perils silent films (produced by Hearst), placed a young and attractive heiress in dangerous traffic jams, then extracted her.

These traffic-hungry tabloid barons were scratching at something that we can trace back to Greek myth. The drama of the young girl in danger awakens in us archetypal patterns sown for centuries by culture, history and literature. It’s a story we can’t stop listening to, reading or clicking. No matter Why Rapunzel has been locked up, it is simply enough for the purposes of the plot that she is being held against her will. The same goes for the evil fairy who sets Sleeping Beauty in a coma, for Darth Vader, who imprisons Princess Leia, and for the evildoers who kidnap Buttercup. Even when the Gone Girl pulls off in Missing girl, its kidnapping and its implicit peril are enough to shake up the plot. The kidnappings of Liam Neeson’s daughters (at the movies) were successful in sustaining his entire end of career.

So when reporters took their laptops and video cameras to report Gabby Petito’s missing story, they surely knew from experience that they would be reprimanded for telling the story. But they also knew from experience that the vast majority of their audience would benefit – and if they didn’t serve extra servings, other outlets would.

Should not it’s a story, you ask? Kidnappings (and, in this case, possible relationship violence) are real issues, of course, but it’s worth noting that neither the press nor its public really care about these issues per se. Missing men don’t breathlessly assess blanket, Petito style, unless they’re celebrities, or missing women who are past their reproductive years. (As one sociobiologist might argue, society invests more deeply in the fate of fertile women, as they are essential to the survival of the species.) When deciding which stories to tell, the press may not consciously choose women of the young and white variety. , but the list of stories in the decades before Petito fits a clear pattern: Laci Peterson, Elisabeth Smart, Chandra Levy, Polly klaas, Natalee Holloway, Lori Hack, Robyn gardner, Mollie Tibbetts, Michelle parker and others. These cases obviously deserved some cover, but at any time thousands of young adults are missing. It would take some sophisticated gymnastics to understand why so much journalistic firepower is focused on a few white women.

In addition to tapping into our psyche, the story of the missing woman lives on because it’s the kind of story that reliably attracts readers and viewers even when there is no news to report. Since Petito’s body was found, the story has continued as the media treated their competing timelines of her disappearance and murder and continued their coverage of the search for her runaway fiancé. We’re not yet in Natalee Holloway territory, but we’re getting there.

Will all of these reprimands force some self-examination? Don’t count on it. The chances are slim that the press will control its appetite for the genre, or even recognize the cultural origins of its desires. The next time the networks flood the area with a missing maiden story, console yourself with this: it’s just a fairy tale cable news likes to tell itself.


The Washington post‘s Paul farhi took its own impetus to the lady’s trope in 2018. Send fairy tales to [email protected]. My email alerts I love to tell myself Twitter feed nocturnal stories. My RSS feed would let you know that the original version of The Sleeping Beauty is darker than the darker Cormac McCarthy.