Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Young White Women Missing

This has been the major news item during the spring. Not the war, not the Downing Street Memo, not the economy, but young white women who have been murdered or who have disappeared, voluntarily or not. These stories are awful, of course, especially when they are about crimes but the way the media uses them to plaster over other important news items can't be explained by their national or global importance. Yes, they are important to report, but, no, they are not the only thing that should be reported, and that is pretty much what takes place.

The reasons for picking a particular story is in what people turn to in their media consumption choices. Because that is where the money for the media companies may be found. Thus, to understand the prevalence of the young-white-woman-missing stories requires a dive into the deep layers of the American consumer's mind.

The first thing we notice along this dive is that the victims portrayed are never black, are never older, and are almost always attractive. They correspond to the mythological ideas of a Desirable Woman in this society: pure, young and beautiful. Like the princesses that were captured by dragons in fairy tales, helplessly waiting for the valiant prince to come and set them free (or, rather, to marry them). Attractive young white women are not supposed to go missing, also, which makes these news stories interesting as rarities of a sort. In reality, many women go missing every day and many are murdered in terrible ways. But too many of these victims were black or older or otherwise not of interest in the myth-making sense.

As we dive deeper into the imaginary American consciousness we come across variations, and even these explain why the damsel-in-distress stories are so valuable for the media: They can be interpreted to reinforce almost any prejudice a person might hold. For example, for a conservative these stories are moral tales about what happens when women are given too much freedom, or proofs that the society is descending into a moral chaos, what with all those perverts being allowed to walk about, hunting for dainty young maidens. Never mind that the stories are rare; after the media has finished with them they appear to be commonplace occurrences.

For a progressive or a liberal these stories are a disgusting case of the media going haywire, chasing after cheap stunts and avoiding all serious debate. But even the liberal must read the story to find out how bad things truly are.

Then there are those who see these victims as getting their comeuppance, after years of being the Class Princess or whatever. And those who enjoy the thrill of fear and sympathy, as long as it's all vicarious. And of course those who really worry about the victims, who are drawn into deep empathy through the personification of fear and suffering that the media does so well. And those who wish for another runaway-bride story as further evidence of the treacherousness of all women. And so on.

But the truth still remains: That these sorts of events are rare and that when they occur they are more likely to have victims who are not white. When the media doesn't report this they are doing all of us a disservice, especially if they omit other news items which are crucial for us to learn.