Here’s Why You Needed to Address Its Own Problem With Missing White Woman Syndrome

Image Source: Everett Collection

If you watch Netflix’s You for the stalking, love triangles, sex scandals, betrayals, and surprise murders, you’re not alone. Those are all qualities that make good TV drama, and we watch shows like You as an escape from our own worlds. But as I watched the third season, which dropped Oct. 15, one storyline had me crashing right back to reality. You addressed Missing White Woman Syndrome, a phenomenon that recently resurfaced in American mainstream news coverage after the August 2021 murder of Gabby Petito.

In season three, episode three of You, after Joe’s (Penn Badgley) and Love’s (Victoria Pedretti) “friendly” neighbor Natalie Engler (Michaela McManus) “mysteriously” goes missing, librarians Marienne (Tati Gabrielle) and Dante (Ben Mehl) briefly educate Joe on Missing White Woman Syndrome (MWWS). The term refers to the heightened media coverage surrounding missing-person cases involving young, white, upper or middle-class women or girls, and how it too often eclipses the coverage of missing women who are not white, of lower socioeconomic standing, or even men and boys. As Marienne laid out the phenomenon to Joe, I couldn’t help but think: Shouldn’t You — and you, and I, and everyone — be talking about this more? How had You‘s storylines and casting up until this point played into, or even capitalized on, MWWS?

YOU, Michaela McManus, (Season 3, ep. 301, aired Oct. 15, 2021). photo: John P. Fleenor / Netflix / Courtesy Everett CollectionImage Source: Everett Collection

As a journalist studying magazine, news, and digital journalism, it’s not lost on me that MWWS is fueled by mainstream news. If anyone goes missing, they’re a victim of a horrible crime, but that sentiment only seems to come across on major news networks when the victim in question is a beautiful, young, white woman. In these particular cases, you can expect regular primetime coverage of the case, which fascinates viewers. As the case goes viral, it galvanizes the public to get involved, which, in turn, puts pressure on the local authorities to find the victim. In the case of Gabby Petito, up to nine other bodies of missing people (some of whom were POC) were discovered through the September searches for Petito and her fiancé Brian Laundrie.

This phenomenon rarely occurs when the victim is a Black, brown, or Indigenous woman, however. There’s very little to no mainstream media attention paid to them — no photos on the major news networks, no reporters outside their house asking their families for comment, and no news helicopters flying overhead to follow search parties’ progress. Why aren’t those people covered in the media with the same vigor?

According to Jean Murley, an English professor at Queensboro Community College and scholar of true crime, the disproportionate response is rooted in the country’s history of racism. “There’s something about the missing young, beautiful white woman that has a lot of symbolic weight in America. It’s an aberration, and it becomes a container for things like the loss of innocence or the death of purity,” Murley told The New Yorker. “True crime seems to want to tell itself, and us, stories about white people. White danger … This is white America telling itself a story about danger and violence and womanhood, when the fact is that most homicide victims in this country are young men of color, and those stories don’t get told, by and large. They just get ignored, they get trivialized.”

So how does this relate to You? Well, for starters, You can be interpreted as a fictionalized account of what leads up to the true crime stories we obsess over. While we may never know a perpetrator’s true motives for their crimes in real life, You gives us all the answers we seek, but often don’t get, in real-life true crime scenarios.

YOU, from left: Elizabeth Lail, Penn Badgley, (Season 1, premiered Sept. 9, 2018). photo: Lifetime TV / Courtesy: Everett CollectionImage Source: Everett Collection

Reflecting on Missing White Woman Syndrome, it’s doesn’t feel like a coincidence that, up until this season, all of Joe’s obsessions — Candace, Beck, Love, and Natalie — have been white women. Whether those casting decisions were conscious or unconscious, they ultimately reinforced the biases white Americans holds about what type of person can become the obsession of a criminal like Joe Goldberg.

While You won’t fix the nation’s MWWS problem, the casting of Tati Gabrielle, a Black woman, as Joe’s central obsession in season three felt like a step in the right direction. Only casting white women as Joe’s obsessions did the show and its audience a disservice by playing into our country’s obsession with true crime that centers white women. Centering a Black woman as the subject of Joe’s dangerous machinations is a much-needed reminder that women of color can and do fall victim to the same crimes as the white women we most often see centered in true crime stories. Hopefully, with more conversation, the mainstream news media will follow suit.

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