It’s hard to imagine a more horrific end to a life than the one Natalee Holloway most likely suffered. She has been missing since May 30, 2005, and no one has been charged with violence against her. The deluge of media coverage given to the individual case did not rescue her, or result in an effective investigation. She is apparently one more addition to the many thousands of women similiarly targeted last year because they were female, whose attackers continue to live free and unpunished.
Given the apparent outcome of the story, and the fact such violence against women is epidemic and identifiably political, it’s hard to imagine a more inappropriate critique of the mainstream media than the one promulgated by many liberal intellectuals, who complained and joked about the excessive coverage given to this one lucky, privileged white girl, and a handful of other white women who also met violent deaths before winning the lotto on getting a ton of media attention.
These liberal critics balked at the excessive coverage of these raped and murdered white women. It was unfair, they complained — when they weren’t making outright jokes — that minority women who were similarly victimized did not get media attention at all. Yet now that they shot down the “missing white woman” stories, as they derisively labelled them, where are these critics’ calls for news coverage of the many women of color who have been victimized? And why didn’t any of these critics mention the thousands of white women whose tragic stories are similarly ignored by the media?
The “missing white woman” satires, banefully sexist in that they are based on accounts of actual violence against women, were first posted on blogs, and soon endorsed by journalists in the mainstream media. Even two of the most admired liberal columnists in the country, Bob Herbert and Paul Krugman of the New York Times, callously complained about the excessive coverage of the Natalee Holloway tragedy, refering to it as “entertainment.” They offered no critical comment on the widely held perception (which they obviously shared) that such news coverage is entertaining, and no criticism of the news media for presenting it as such.
The equating of misogynistic violence with entertainment is common in our society, cultivated not only by the news media, but also by the film and television industries. The film and television industries have for years presented sexualized and “entertaining” images of women being tortured, violated, murdered. (Two articles offering excellent analyses of recent examples of this trend were written by Lisa de Moraes of the Washington Post and Maureen Ryan of the Chicago Tribune.)
When TV shows and movies present fictional depictions of violation and murder of women as sexy and exciting entertainment, viewers are more likely to perceive actual violence against women as trivial and sexually exciting. The news media, for its part, covers the real life victimization of women by casting as “characters” a few select victims who were, before their deaths, young, white, middle to upper class and physically beautiful. The news media is able to present such stories as a topic of intrigue and excitement, so long as the stories are free of “serious” political factors, such as race.
Such news coverage should be critiqued as outrageous and harmful, but the satires and “indignant” objections raucously reinforce the real problem. The liberal media critics cried foul at the very importance with which a few raped and murdered white women were treated. But these critics simultaneously copped to the fact that they and everyone else viewed the tragedies as entertainment. No one pressed the liberal critics to explain their contradiction: Are the victims’ stories being treated as if they are important, or as if they are entertainment? The answer can’t be both.
The problem with the media’s coverage is not that it fails to include obsessive, “entertaining” depictions of minority women’s tragedies. The real problem is that the coverage never draws connections between the individual incidents of violence and larger patterns of misogyny and violence against women. When police brutality or a hate crime against an individual man is covered by the news media, larger social implications, patterns, and causes are integral to the coverage. If the news media covered stories of violence against individual women in this way, the coverage would not be obsessive, because it would not be “entertaining.” Hollywood’s romanticized depiction (and thus promotion) of violence against women would start to be widely understood as obscene and intolerable. If the news media highlighed rather than suppressed the need for social change and awareness, the coverage would more likely be viewed as serious news. And a reduction in violence against women — of all races, classes and appearances — might be the result.