What makes a good victim? Who does society deem worthy of saving?
These questions were brought to light through the recent tragic murder of Gabby Petito. Petito, a 22-year-old former pharmacy technician, became an infamous household name after her parents declared her missing from her cross-country road trip with her fiancé Brian Laundrie on September 11, 2021. The search for Petito, as well as the outrage surrounding her case and tragic death, took over social and mainstream media and revealed the general public's obsession with web sleuthing and the victimhood of White women: raising fundamental concerns about society’s prioritization of White, female disappearances over those of African American and Indigenous women.
Petito and Laundrie set out on their cross-country journey on July 2, from New York, where the couple initially met at Bayport-Blue Point High School in Long Island. Their trip to various Western National Parks seemed to be going smoothly, as chronicled by Petito’s popular Instagram posts with the hashtag #VanLife, until August 12, when police in Moab, Utah, was called in to mediate a “domestic dispute” between 23-year-old Laundrie and Petito. The 911 caller claimed Laundrie was hitting and chasing Petito, however per body camera footage released on September 16th, the police appeared to believe Laundrie’s side of the story; joking with him about how dramatic women could be, and eventually taking no further action, asserting that “insufficient evidence existed to justify criminal charges.” A week later, on August 19, Petito uploaded the first video to her and Laundrie’s Youtube channel “Nomadic Statik.” Six days later, on August 25, Petito spoke to her mother over the phone for the last time: telling her that she and Laundrie were leaving Utah for Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.
On September 1, Laundrie returned alone to his and Petito’s North Port, Florida home, which they lived in with Laundrie’s parents. After Petito’s family reported her as missing on September 11, Laundrie hid inside his family home, refusing to talk to the police or cooperate in the search to find Petito. Then, on September 17, Laundrie himself went missing, following a letter from Petito’s family begging for his and his family's cooperation with the investigation. Laundrie has been missing for about a month, and police are still searching for him in over 25,000 acres of nature preserves and swamplands in Florida. Two days after Laundrie was reported missing, a body was recovered at the Bridger-Teton National Park. On September 21 was confirmed to be Petito, whose death was ruled a homicide.
The disappearance of Petito and her eventual tragic death went viral for a multitude of reasons, including the release of police body camera footage of the August 12 altercation between her and Laundrie; after which the officers involved were extensively criticized for being sexist, failing to notice Laundrie’s manipulative behavior, and not taking issues of domestic abuse and violence seriously. Overwhelmingly though, the reason why Petito’s case went viral is because of a web sleuthing obsession with and objectification of White female bodies and victimhood.
Web sleuthing is a practice by which ordinary people become ‘online detectives’ of sorts to solve cases and assist in police investigations, which historically does more harm than good. In Petito’s case, web sleuthing was accompanied by an inundation of media coverage about her disappearance: the New York Post wrote three front-page articles about her disappearance in less than a week, and her disappearance was a trending topic on popular mainstream news sites such as The Washington Post and CNN.
The media coverage and web sleuthing that engulfed Petito’s case is emblematic of an immense societal obsession with the ‘perfection’ of white femininity. Petito’s social media, especially her Instagram account, were carefully curated to make her life seem perfect: much like Shannan Watts’ social media did, before the highly publicized, tragic murder of her and her children by her husband Chris Watts in 2018. The highly publicized murder of Watts, a White woman, along with Petito’s, reveals a trend in society. There is an inherent obsession with the subversion and destruction of stereotypical ‘perfect’ constructions of white femininity and family. Unfortunately, this public obsession often leads to web sleuthing, which engulfs and dramatizes missing persons and homicide cases, thereby detracting from the actual issue: a real woman’s suffering at the hands of male domestic violence and abuse.
Web sleuthing and press coverage often make a show of missing person cases and reveal public bias about which missing persons truly matter. For example, at the height of the press coverage over Petito’s disappearance, the Washington Post described Petito as a “blue-eyed, blonde adventure-seeker,” a description that expressly demonstrates what the public views as worthy qualities for a victim to have: mainly, whiteness, and a care-free attitude that allows society to come to her rescue. This idea is encapsulated in the term “Missing White Woman Syndrome '', which describes the excessive amount of media coverage missing, or endangered middle-class White women, like Petito, receive as opposed to the complete lack of news coverage for Black and Indigenous women. This disproportionate news coverage is cause for concern: the University of Wyoming reports that 710 Indigenous people went missing from 2011-2020 in Wyoming, the same state in which Petito’s remains were found, and none of them received any more than minimal local news coverage - if even that - much less a three-day monopoly on the New York Post’s front page. The discrepancy between the amount of Indigenous missing persons in Wyoming, 57% being women, and the utter lack of news coverage or web sleuthing outrage about their cases, speaks volumes as to whom society values and highlights that society only cares about a victim when they fit a traditional role of someone who needs protecting, i.e., a white woman.
Equally crucial as simply disseminating news about missing Indigenous and Black individuals is how they are spoken about in the media. While women like Petito are labeled as “adventure-seekers” and “America’s Daughter,” when Indigenous and Black missing women do get media coverage, they are categorized as “risk-takers,” or in some way made to seem complicit in their disappearance, as a prejudiced society often believes them to be a product of unsafe environments, unlike White victims. The discrepancy in how the media talks about White versus Indigenous and Black women is indicative of a larger culture of racism and devaluation of Black and Indigenous female bodies.
Petito’s case is tragic for many reasons: the first being her untimely death, supposedly at the hands of her fiancé, Laundrie. Secondly, Petito’s case demonstrates how ill-equipped the police are to handle issues of domestic violence. However, it also highlights how detrimental press coverage and web sleuthing can be to missing person cases, not only in how they sensationalize and dramatize severe domestic violence issues but also in their racial biases, which wholly exclude Black and Indigenous missing person cases from ever being discussed. Thus, Petito’s case has gone beyond her tragic death and now instead serves as an example of how immoral and racist web sleuthing and press coverage about missing persons can be. More often than not, these mediums sensationalize and objectify the disappearance and brutalization of white women for a captivated society, who simultaneously ignore missing Black and Indigenous women, thereby labeling their life and death as unimportant. Moving forward, media coverage of missing person cases must be standardized: so that Black and Indigenous women’s cases are given the same amount of attention as that of a white woman and so that the sensationalism of these cases stops taking attention away from actually solving crimes and ending domestic violence against women.