Grâce à la liberté dans les communications, des groupes d’hommes de même nature pourront se réunir et fonder des communautés. Les nations seront dépassées.
Friedrich Nietzsche (Fragments posthumes XIII-883)

07 - Le syndrome de la fille blanche disparue - S. Stillman






The mainstream media play a vital role in constructing certain endangered young women as valuable ‘front-page victims’, while dismissing others as disposable. In this essay, I examine the techniques that activists can use to challenge media stereotypes of ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ victims. Drawing on examples from the USA, central America, and Europe, I offer three practical methods for engaging in feminist media activism: the ‘diagnostic’, to provide a cultural vocabulary for unveiling and resisting media biases; the ‘theatrical’, to revive the lives of disenfranchised bodies in the public imagination; and the ‘archaeological’, to dig proactively for the human stories that have been buried beyond the margins.

Dead people belong to the live people who claim them most obsessively.
James Ellroy

Each day, the mainstream media provide audiences with a subtle instruction manual for how to empathise with certain endangered women’s bodies, while overlooking others. These messages are powerful: they position certain sub-groups of women often white, wealthy, and conventionally attractive as deserving of our collective resources, while making the marginalisation and victimisation of other groups of women, such as low-income women of colour, seem natural. Activists must therefore think carefully about how to bridge the constructed gulf between ‘worthy’ female victims and ‘unworthy’ ones, reclaiming the media as an ally to expand the boundaries of societal empathy. In this article, I make the case for three creative approaches to feminist media activism: the diagnostic, the theatrical, and the archaeological.



Selective silences: some statistics on distorted media coverage
When it comes to body counts, which bodies ‘count’? International headlines deliver the lurid details of British three-year-old Madeleine McCann’s disappearance while on holiday with her family in Portugal, but offer few clues about the fate of 16-year-old Esmeralda Alarcon, one of more than 400 young women to go missing in the border town of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, over the past decade. The Canadian media feature prominent coverage of a whale named Luna who died when she collided with a tugboat propeller, but silence enshrouds the brutal murders and disappearances of more than 32 indigenous women along a prominent highway in central British Columbia. News treatments of child abductions in the USA show a particularly glaring bias in favour of cases featuring young white females: between 2000 and 2005, 76 per cent of child abductions featured on CNN News between 2000 and 2005 were white children, although only 53 per cent of abductees are white (Hargrove and Haman 2005). Virtually all of the most prominent cases featured conventionally attractive females.



Sensationalised news coverage of young white women and girls in peril is so common in the USA that commentators have coined a name for it: ‘The missing white girl syndrome’. The phenomenon typically involves round-the-clock coverage of disappeared young females who qualify as ‘damsels in distress’ by race, class, and other relevant social variables. Cable news serves up images and anecdotes of the victims; media-aware lawyers and pop psychologists debate possible suspects on radio talk shows; and the national public participates in the trauma of ‘every parent’s worst nightmare’ building memorial websites, for example, or erecting shrines of flowers and stuffed animals to the young women and girls at the centre of the media flurry. As Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson reflected in an article entitled ‘(White)women we love’: ‘Someday historians will look back at America in the decade bracketing the turn of the 21st century and identify the era’s major themes: Religious fundamentalism. Terrorism. War in Iraq...Nuclear proliferation. Globalization. Therise of superpower China. And, of course, Damsels in Distress’ (Robinson 2005, A23).



But this contemporary trend of media distortion is not unique to the USA. Similar phenomena can be found in the Canadian and British press. According to Amnesty International, in Canada, indigenous women between the ages of 25 and 44 are five times more likely than all other women of the same age group to die as the result of violence, but significantly less likely to receive coverage in the local or national news (2004). In Britain, a related paradox of female ‘disposability’ presents itself in news stories about violence against sex workers. On the one hand, tabloid headlines capitalise on the sensational aspects of serial killings of sex workers, bringing these cases into the limelight; on the other hand, the female victims are often painted with a broad and dehumanising brush, depicted as hyper-sexualised ‘vice girls’ who are reified in one-dimensional deaths, rather than illuminated in nuanced and complex lives. Following the discovery of five murdered sex workers in Ipswich in December 2006, columnist Joan Smith described the contradictions inherent in much British coverage: ‘The press can never quite decide whether murdered sex workers are tragic victims, like any woman targeted by a serial killer, or have chosen a lifestyle that means they are partly responsible for their deaths’ (Smith 2006).



The body that was not Jessica: a personal case study

My own academic and personal inquiry into the ‘Missing white girl syndrome’ and related media myths of female disposability began in early 2005, when I found myself immersed in a disturbing tale of two corpses. That February, it was difficult for anyone who owned a television set in the USA to ignore the widespread media coverage of Jessica Lunsford, a nine-year-old girl who had disappeared from her bedroom in Homosassa, Florida. Lunsford was last seen alive on the evening of 23 February, asleep in her pink silk nightgown. The next morning, she was nowhere to be found. Within several days, the crisis exploded in the national media, prompting massive out-pourings of public empathy. Celebrity donors offered a $110,000 reward for information leading to her safe return, and nearly 540 volunteers joined law enforcement officers to scour the area where she lived, on ‘foot, horseback, and all-terrain vehicles’ amid heavy rains and a tornado warning, in search of her.



But as I sat with my eyes glued to the Fox News coverage of the case, a different body suddenly captured my attention, a corpse mentioned only for a brief instant in a ticker-tape scroll that crawled along the bottom of the screen: ‘Body found in lake was not Jessica’s’. The headline grabbed me not for the tragic loss that it intended to document, but rather for the loss that it blatantly erased. Whose dead body was floating in the lake, if not Jessica’s? Did this body have a name? Did this body have a gender, a race, a story, a family awash in fear or grief? Few clues proved forthcoming. A subsequent Internet search revealed a series of similar headlines: ‘Police confirm body found is not Jessica’s,’(1) ‘Body found in lake is not missing [Florida] girl’(2) but none addressed the secondary body’s identity, other than to convey a sense of relief at what, or who, it was not. To make the morality tale even more stark, local authorities held a televised press conference in which Sheriff Jeff Dawsy proclaimed: ‘We have confirmed it is not our girl. I repeat, it is not our girl. And for that, we are very happy.’



Witnessing this drama unfold, I felt compelled to learn more about how such gross acts of dehumanisation could not only be possible, but typical, in mainstream reporting. Soon thereafter, I began to document transnational activists’ efforts to resist media narratives that naturalise the deaths of certain ‘kinds’ of women (poor, non- white, precariously employed), while commodifying others. In the remainder of this essay, I offer the fruits of this research, focusing on three primary methodologies for media activism that have proven useful in my own work on the ‘Missing white girl syndrome’, but which could also apply to a broad range of social movements and human rights advocacy



The diagnostic: naming, shaming, and citizen journalism

Before we can attempt to shed light on ‘the body that was not Jessica’or, rather, the many thousands of ‘bodies that were not Jessica’ denied visibility in the public sphere- we first need a vocabulary to discuss the media frenzy that created ‘Jessica’. Sensationalised news coverage of young women and girls in danger is a difficult topic to address, precisely because it is such an accepted part of the north American and British cultural fabric. The goal of the diagnostic toolkit, then, is to remind audiences that every act of seeing is also an act of not seeing (Ewen and Ewen 2006). Activists can do much to awaken audiences to the dehumanisation that often results from seemingly ‘neutral’ or ‘natural’ news coverage, inviting them to think more critically about their responsibilities as media consumers.



The first and most basic diagnostic tool is the act of naming. When the deaths and disappearances of young women factory workers began to come to light in Ciudad Juarez in the mid-1990s, for example, the Mexican media refused to recognise the crimes as anything more than a string of isolated incidents (Schmidt Camacho 2004). Human rights advocates stepped into this media void to insist on giving the atrocities a name -feminicidios, Spanish for ‘femicide’. Femicide is often defined as the systematic killing of women because they are women (Wright 2001; Prieto-Carron et al. 2007), and employing this term urged audiences to consider how the violence was intimately linked to the gender of its victims. This act of naming the violence, born of grassroots protest movements, had a powerful impact on national and international news coverage of the crisis in Ciudad Juarez. Most vitally, it introduced a language through which journalists could connect individual traumas with local and regional struggles against gender-based violence.



Recently, the rise of online citizen journalism and blogging (the posting of personal and political commentary on public websites) sparked another, quite different, campaign of naming: an effort to address the exploitative coverage of ‘damsels in distress’. In the past few years, Internet journalists have coined terms such as ‘The missing white girl syndrome’ and ‘The missing pretty girl syndrome’ to describe the central dilemma of this essay (Malkin 2005; Ridley 2007). This expanding vocabulary, when applied with care, can help raise questions about who profits from turning attractive white female victims into national commodities; and, by extension, how we might counteract the myth of brown women’s disposability.



Another diagnostic tool that complements the act of naming is the act of shaming, whereby satire and critical humour prove useful strategies for capturing the attention of corporate newsrooms. Yet this diagnostic tool is inherently limited, in that it helps us to identify the problem of exploited damsels and their forgotten counterparts, but provides no nuanced methodology for countering it. Satire has the potential, when carelessly wielded, to invite the very kind of dehumanisation that it claims to resist, belittling the suffering of white female victims and those who mourn them. The goal of effective intervention is not to dismiss injustices against well-known victims such as Madeleine McCann or Jessica Lunsford; quite the opposite, the goal is to expand the boundaries of societal empathy to encompass the many ‘bodies that were not Jessica’ as well. Only once we have developed a shared vocabulary for diagnosing mass-mediated constructions of ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ victims can we turn our attention to the quest for proactive solutions.



The theatrical: resuscitating bodies through storytelling

The second toolkit for creative media activism, what I will call ‘the theatrical’ approach, can be summarised in two simple words: tell stories. Ironically, the ‘Missing white girl syndrome’ hints at its own best remedy, revealing the power of storytelling to bring young female victims of violence into the public imagination and mobilise resources for their protection. Following the disappearance of Jessica Lunsford, it was easy to relate to the grief of her family, in all its specificity, due largely to the proliferation of storytelling through interviews, home videos, and family testimonies featured in the press. Jessica was presented in the media as ‘everyone’s daughter,’ and Americans leapt to her defence accordingly. Meanwhile, the inverse was true of the body found in the Florida lake described only as ‘not Jessica’; it is difficult to rally a social movement around the rights of an anonymous corpse. How, then, can activists restore the specificity of women’s lives that have been twice marginalised, first by terrible acts of violence, then by a refusal of recognition and narration in the mainstream media? Lessons from the theatre community offer an instructive point of departure.



The first rule of the theatre is that every story needs a stage. When no public platform exists for an important news story, the challenge is to make or seize one often through the re-appropriation of symbolic social space (Butler 2004). This tactic is exemplified by the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, a group of bereaved mothers whose children were ‘disappeared’ during the brutal Argentine military dictatorship, between 1976 and 1983. Every Thursday afternoon for three decades, the Madres paraded in front of the presidential palace in Buenos Aires, enduring threats and beatings in order to call out the names of their lost children: ‘‘‘Hilda Fernandez: ¡Presente! (Present)... Eduardo Recuena:¡Presente! Irma Zucchi ¡Presente!...’’. They transformed their bodies into news stories and ‘walking billboards’ (Taylor 1997, 183), hanging blown-up photographs of the disappeared around their necks and writing pleas for accountability on their clothing. The effects were astounding. By bravely thrusting acts of ‘private’ mourning into the public arena, the Madres inspired a massive surge in international news coverage of Argentina’s 30,000-odd disappeared persons, and helped to undermine the legitimacy of the military junta.



Once a stage for storytelling is created or reclaimed, how else might activists seek to fill it? One option is props. Influenced by the Madres’ use of personal artefacts, grassroots activists recently gathered in the smog-filled streets of Guatemala City to protest the unsolved murders of more than 2,200 women and girls throughout the country since 2001. Each carried a dress on a pink cross, each dress to evoke the memory of a specific stolen life. In a more light-hearted event last year, a coalition of sex workers’ rights groups took to the streets of Montreal, Canada, holding red umbrellas as a boisterous symbol of strength and solidarity to mark the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.



Another option for dramatic space reclamation is the use of photographic images. In 2005, artist Jean-Christian Bourcart took what he describes as a ‘desperate gesture’ to resist the marginalisation of Iraqi deaths in the American media: he projected giant images of dead and injured Iraqis onto shopping malls, residential houses, parked cars, and churches in a small New York town at night. As Bourcart explains, ‘I could not help thinking of those images as some kind of restless ghosts... I took care of them like an embalmer would; downloading, revamping, printing, rephotographing, then projecting them as if I was looking for a place where they would rest in peace and at the same time haunt those who pretend not to know what was going on’ (Bourcart 2005). The Madres, too, used large photographs of their disappeared children as a public symbol against forgetting.



But the theatrical use of props and images to counter the hierarchies of the ‘Missing white girl syndrome’ has its pitfalls. One must think carefully about how to represent marginalised victims in life rather than simply embalming them in death, helping audiences to move beyond the dogma that poor, non-white women’s bodies can only gain public visibility once they have been gruesomely violated. Scholar-activist Alicia Schmidt Camacho warns against the growing numbers of artistic responses to the femicide in Ciudad Juarez that fixate on Mexican women’s corpses, often under titles such as ‘The dead women of Juarez’ and ‘The city of dead women’ (Schmidt Camacho 2004). She argues convincingly that ‘the use of the cadaver in artwork and journalism documenting the crimes does not demonstrate an authentic connection with the dead or their communities, but rather an ethical and political distance between observer and victim; it has a demobilizing effect where it intends to incite the desire for change’ (2004, 36). Some of these ‘awareness-raising’ images such as a sculpture featuring a murdered Mexican woman with her undergarments pulled down around her legs veer dangerously close to eroticising violence and indulging voyeurism rather than resisting it.



This is where storytelling comes to the rescue. With the 21st century rise of Internet technologies and grassroots media campaigns, disenfranchised communities increasingly have the opportunity to speak for themselves, and for the lives of the dead who have been robbed of voice. Anyone with access to a computer connected to the Internet can now partake in ‘citizen journalism’, playing an active role in ‘collecting, reporting, analysing and disseminating news and information’ (Bowman and Willis 2003), including animated profiles of marginalised victims. Corporate newsrooms are quickly losing their monopoly on public accounts of ‘newsworthy’ violence, due in part to online media such as community newspapers, blogs, chat forums, and video-sharing websites.



During the first round of US media fixation on blonde teenager Natalee Holloway’s disappearance in Aruba in 2005, a group of bloggers in Philadelphia banded together to spark national media attention for a local disappeared woman named LaToyia Figueroa (Degraff 2005). Bloggers narrated Figueroa’s plight in vivid theatrical detail: a 24-year-old black woman who worked as a waitress, Figueroa was five months pregnant when she vanished on 18 July in west Philadelphia, to the oblivion of the mainstream media. A growing number of citizen journalists shared stories about her life and provided her family with a mouthpiece for their grief. Most of the online stories were action-oriented: they disseminated Figueroa’s photograph, generated a $100,000-dollar reward fund for news leading to her return, created online videos about the case, and encouraged other bloggers and community organisations to profile Figueroa on their webpages. The surge of guerrilla journalism spread quickly through cyberspace, and soon Figueroa’s case was featured widely in the mainstream media, garnering coverage on Fox News, CNN, USA Today, and other major news outlets. A committed team of citizen journalists had successfully ushered Figueroa to the ‘other side’ of the good victim/bad victim chasm.



Ultimately, however, the goal is not to replace one sensational missing female case with another: a white girl with a brown girl, a university student with a sex worker. What we need is a different way of constructing ‘news’ altogether, one that acknowledges the social roots of gender-based violence and respects survivors’ rights to speak for themselves in the mainstream media, whenever possible not as tokens of suffering used to peddle newspapers, but as knowledge-bearers and agents of social change. Such an approach might be modelled on the empathetic template of the theatre: using reclaimed public spaces as stages, props, and vivid personal stories to help audiences imagine each human life as equally worthy of narration and protection. This goal is intertwined with broader political struggles against the intersections of race, class, and gender oppression, since attempts to reclaim the full worth of marginalised female victims cannot ‘stick’ until long-standing hierarchies of human worth are deconstructed (Jiwani and Young 2006). Consider that even when LaToyia Figueroa’s case finally received the coverage it deserved, cable news networks could not save her from an inexcusable fate: police found the young woman’s corpse in a grassy lot, murdered by the father of her unborn child.



The archaeological: a personal journey towards ‘The body that was not Jessica’

It is easy to comprehend why telling stories matters. But in this final section, I would like to suggest a strategy for addressing lives buried so deeply or neglected so radically that they resist our attempts at narration altogether. Sometimes, we begin with only a brittle collarbone unearthed from a mass grave, or a six-word obituary in a local paper, or perhaps just a name or phrase (‘Not our girl ...’). In such instances, what is our obligation if any to pursue the unknown ghosts who are the inevitable outcomes of the ‘Missing white girl syndrome’? This is precisely the question I asked of my encounter with the body that was not Jessica. I would like to share the details of my personal search for this unknown corpse, in the hope that it might spur future elaborations on a third and final form of media activism: ‘feminist archaeology’, or the everyday practice of sifting for human lives buried beyond the margins.



For more than a year after I first witnessed that haunting Fox News broadcast about Jessica Lunsford and her unnamed counterpart, the local sheriff’s catchphrase of dehumanisation rang in my ears ‘It is not our girl’. Eventually, I decided to pick up the phone and request answers from the local County Sheriff’s Office. The officer on duty relayed an account of the anonymous corpse that was both shocking and sadly predictable: it belonged to a 23-year-old white woman named Donna Julane Cooke, who had been arrested by local police four times for prostitution before her death. Her body showed clear signs of strangulation, but no murder suspect had been identified, and the case had now gone ‘cold’ i.e. closed to active police investigation. The officer assured me that he could not, or simply would not, say more about the victim.


As the inheritor of such unsettling news, one’s loyalties to the broader project of media activism are suddenly pushed to their concrete breaking point. What could I realistically do to legitimise the non-marginality of Donna Cooke? The most central element of the archaeological toolkit is persistent digging. And so, as if possessed, I took a leap of faith: I bought a flight to Donna’s hometown of Tampa, Florida, followed the trail left by her criminal record, knocked on the doors of her five last known addresses, and endeavoured to unearth whatever signs of her life still reverberated. After a week of this digging, it became clear that unlike Jessica Lunsford, whose personal story is documented in over 340,000 million Internet search entries that include intimate anecdotes and family photographs, Donna’s life surfaces in the public archives only through mug shots and police reports (for prostitution); medical records (for state-mandated drug rehabilitation); social security disputes (for epilepsy and mental disability payments); and death records. At her former addresses, I found nothing more than abandoned and demolished apartments. I began to wonder if the elusiveness of documenting Donna Cooke’s personal narrative her housing, her friends, her family, her employment was in fact its own kind of ‘news’.



But just as I was preparing to chalk up my quest for the body that was not Jessica as a testament to media myths of disposability turned literal I had failed, it seemed, to shed light on Donna Cooke’s life as more than a sum of documents I located her 24-year-old sister, Gladys Cooke, in a small Ohio town 1,000 miles way. A young woman full of strength and generosity, Gladys was more than eager to share what she could of her sister ’s story, which she felt had been so unashamedly exploited in the search for Jessica Lunsford. Over several days, she showed me family photo albums and shared childhood anecdotes. She described the process of dealing with her sister ’s death, and, somewhat alarmingly, her attempts to take up the role of private investigator after the murder, when police neglected to actively pursue the case. By conducting her own interviews with Donna’s friends, neighbours, and colleagues in the sex industry, she confirmed the troubling suspicion that her sister had been hired by the police to work as an informant in exchange for the waiver of her fines for prostitution convictions; yet another example of the state’s colossal failure to protect a mentally disabled woman whom they had deliberately endangered. Emphasising her anger that Donna’s history of sex work caused others to construct her as a ‘throwaway’ life mere bait whom the police could dangle to help them ‘clean the streets’ of drug dealers and pimps - Gladys articulated her desire for justice, and I replied with my desire to be her ally in this pursuit. Over the past year, we have embarked together on a shared project of media activism to bring Donna’s story to light, as part of a broader intervention against the dehumanisation of women in the sex industry who must bear the material consequences of the mass-mediated ‘Missing white girl syndrome’ and its dark underbelly.



The methods of feminist archaeology have proven invaluable in this endeavour: foregrounding ‘feminist curiosity’ (Enloe 2004) as a powerful alternative to passive media consumption; recognising the need for proactive digging to recover stories about those deemed ‘disposable’; and valuing the structural integrity, details, and delicacy of each individual story you unearth. Whenever I feel paralysed by the complexity of this task in the case of Donna Cooke, I return to a photograph taken during my visit with Gladys: a portrait of her holding the ashes of her 23-year-old sister in her lap. I share this photograph here, so that Donna Cooke may enter the public records as a focal point of her sister ’s love, rather than as the sum of her bureaucratic entanglements, and so that Gladys might be recognised for her courageousness in fighting back against a state and a mainstream media who have failed to recognise her plight.



Conclusions: transforming grief to grievance

This article has demonstrated the remarkable power of the mainstream media in north America and Britain to position the lives of certain young, white, well-off women as worthy of societal empathy, while casting others as disposable lives (Wright 2006): the ‘Bodies that were not Jessica’. But it has also shown that activists possess the power to challenge dominant media representations of ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ victims and cultivate empathy through diagnostic, theatrical, and archaeological strategies. This is happening today in cyberspace, where everyone from comedians to bloggers is challenging the ‘Missing white girl syndrome’ and providing a new vocabulary for its deconstruction. It is happening in the streets of Guatemala City and Ciudad Juarez, as mothers and transnational human rights groups insist on theatrically narrating the lives of young women extinguished with impunity in acts of femicide: marching, calling out the names and stories of the dead, refusing to let them go silently. And it is happening in Tampa, Florida, where Gladys Cooke wrestles to reclaim her sister ’s memory from the clutches of Fox News’ callousness and the state’s abandonment. Each of these journeys from grief to grievance, from ‘suffering injury to speaking out against that injury’ (Cheng 2001, 1), gives hope to the evolving importance of feminist media activism. Through critical news consumption and participatory reporting, we can dredge forgotten bodies back up from placid lakes and insist that no body - nobody - is imagined as anything less than fully human.


 Gender & Development - vol. 15, No. 3, November 2007
DOI:10.1080/13552070701630665