Missing women

Photo courtesy of NOHK from Pexels.

“Missing White Woman Syndrome” is a phenomenon so prevalent that even Netflix has decided to feature it in one of its most recent and anticipated releases. 

Season three of “You” premiered on the popular streaming service on Oct. 15, featuring a candid conversation about this. Spoiler alert: in the wake of Natalie Engler’s death, a Realtor and wife of a prominent businessman, the main character Joe Goldberg is discussing the news with two of his co-workers. His boss brings up “Missing White Woman Syndrome,” which Goldberg has not heard of. 

Marienne Bellamy, Goldberg’s boss — who is a woman of color — explains that she is talking about how when upper-class attractive white women go missing, the incident gets tons of publicity.  

“When white women receive disproportionately high attention, a message is being sent,” Bellamy said in the scene. “White ladies deserve to be rescued. The rest of us can fend for ourselves.”

Netflix couldn’t have more eerie timing as this season aired in the midst of the United States’ own Natalie Engler ­­— the tumultuous investigation of Gabby Petito’s disappearance.

Petito was a travel blogger who embarked on a cross-country trip with her fiance, Brian Laundrie, in her white ford van beginning in July, according to CBS news. On Sept. 19, remains were found in Wyoming matching Petito’s description, and a couple of days later, they were confirmed to be hers. Her death was ruled as a homicide, and all signs pointed to Laundrie as the person responsible. A month later on Oct. 20, Laundrie’s remains were discovered. 

Throughout the search and long after, Petito’s case was covered by every media outlet imaginable: traditional newspapers, news channels, magazines, blogs, creators on YouTube and TikTok, etc. Petito’s Instagram has been memorialized and the comments are filled with prayers and well wishes for the 22-year-old. 

Petito’s story is unquestionably a tragedy and warrants all the love and support on the internet. However, her case has also ignited an equally important conversation surrounding the missing persons cases of Indigenous women in America. In fact, for these communities, these disappearances aren’t news because it happens so often.  

According to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), Indigenous women, girls and two-spirits are killed at a rate 10 times higher than all other ethnicities. In fact, homicide is the third leading cause of death for Indigenous women who are in the age range of 10-24 years old (Centers for Disease Control). The National Crime Information Center has reported 5,712 cases of missing Indigenous women and children since 2016. Washington state is ranked second-highest in the nation for missing and murdered Indigenous women cases (Urban Indian Health Institute). 

On Nov. 25, 2020, Mary Johnson (Davis) was last seen walking on the Tulalip Reservation in Washington State, and has been missing since. According to CNN, a billboard on Interstate 5 and local media attention have generated not many credible tips and the tribal police have yet to make an arrest. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) just announced a reward of up to $10,000 for any information on her disappearance in September, nearly 10 months after she was reported missing. 

“If that was a little white girl out there or a white woman, I’m sure they would have had helicopters, airplanes and dogs and searches — a lot of manpower out there — scouring where that person was lost,” Nona Blouin, Johnson’s sister, said to CNN. “None of that has happened for our sister.” 

I find the prevalence of this issue to be incredibly disturbing. However, the correlation of media coverage to how widespread this issue is would lead me to believe I’m in the minority with that view. When you Google “Gabby Petito,” there are 52,700,000 results covering every aspect imaginable on her case. On the other hand, when you Google “Mary Johnson missing Washington,” there are 16,100,000 results. That is over three times the amount of coverage. 

Where are the dedicated police departments and multiple search teams for Johnson? Where is the 24/7 media coverage and updates for Indigenous women? To be clear, I’m not saying Petito doesn’t deserve the press. Her case also illuminates the horrifying realities of domestic abuse and abusive partners. But this should be the procedure for every woman that goes missing across all racial lines. 

These women’s families wait for years for answers, and more often than not, never get them. They live in fear that it will be their mother, sister or even their own self that will be the next to disappear, never heard from again. This way of life is unacceptable.

I am glad to see this conversation brought to the limelight in the aftermath of Petito’s death. This surge in press coverage, although welcome, is long overdue. 

To learn more and find ways to help, Zags can visit the websites of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women USA, Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women, Not Our Native Daughters and The Not Invisible Act Commission.

Marissa Conter is a staff writer.