Missing White Girl Syndrome

Stillman, Sarah. “‘The Missing White Girl Syndrome’: Disappeared Women and Media Activism.” Gender and Development 15, no. 3 (2007): 491-502. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20461232.

In this article Stillman explores the concept of “Missing White Girl Syndrome.” American media networks seem almost obsessed with portraying damsels in distress, women who have been victimized and brutally violated, and whose stories appear sensationally splashed across headlines. Various commentators have mentioned the media’s preoccupation with these women, discussing how it reflects the idea of women who need heroic others to save them. However, Stillman points out that the women who have the dubious honor of at least being recognized and remembered in the mainstream media tend to fit a very specific mold, and are usually middle class to wealthy, conventionally attractive, white women. As the stories of one missing university student appear on all the major media outlets, the stories of other missing women are pushed to the side and forgotten. Black women, Hispanic women, and sex workers are often either not mentioned in the news when they disappear or are found dead, or are given only a cursory mention before going back to the “main story” of the current missing white girl. Stillman argues that the point is not to forget the plight of pretty white women who suffer horrible violence, but rather to expand our capacity for empathy to include women who do not fit the conventional mold. She argues that in order for this to happen, we need to share the stories of marginalized women to humanize them in the public’s eye. However, simply running news stories of dead women is not enough to bring the full plight of society’s marginalized women to light. Instead, Stillman argues, we need to be more aware of marginalized groups at all times, especially in life, and work to change their situation so fewer women end up as victims of violence, with gory tabloid pictures garnering publicity.

One of the possible contributing factors of missing white girl syndrome is the fact that so many reporters are white middle class men, as mentioned by Jennie Ruby.

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4 thoughts on “Missing White Girl Syndrome

  1. I’ve noticed this while watching the news too and I think it definitely is troubling and terrible. It’s almost as if the media is promoting that only respectable white women are the one’s worth protecting and saving. For individuals of color, I can’t being to imagine how frustrating and isolating this must be. I think it also explains why Black Lives Matter advocates are as vocal as they are since the media definitely won’t be a voice for them.

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  2. I am often facinated to hear stories of other races being the protagonist of the story. So often, it is the generic white woman who needs rescuing or who needs the attention of a boy, or who cannot fight her own battles. In recent media (like Disney) it seems that the white woman is still helpless while the other races have become able to fight for themselves. (Think Tiana vs Rapunzel).

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  3. I didn’t even realize this pattern until I read this article…which probably shows how entrenched I am in the white culture of America that focuses on “damsels in distress.” It’s also a really popular notion to portray in TV and movies, which is really fascinating.

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  4. This trend is really troubling. It perpetuates negative self-perceptions of young girls, who are being taught not just in movies, but also real-life news, that attention is earned only by pretty girls who are helpless.

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