Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Back to the Future, Part 16: It Sure Helps To Be White If You Go Missing, Or, The Case of Gabby Petitio

Back to the Future, Part 16: A Young White Woman Goes Missing and We All Go Nuts--The Case of Gabby Petitio

As a mother and grandmother, I can't imagine the pain of losing a child, much less if that child went missing under mysterious circumstances. No attention would be too much--I would want all eyes, everywhere, searching for my child.

But the frenzy over the disappearance (and likely death) of Gabby Petitio while traveling in Wyoming is about more than one missing woman, no matter how precious she may be to her family and friends. 

Since the report on her disappearance was filed on 11 September 2021, Petitio's story has occupied hours of TV and radio time, but the obsessive and relentless coverage has been driven by newer media outlets. Petitio has become the focus of hundreds of posts on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, Reddit, and Facebook, her story broadcast by and for the "true crime community" on multiple podcasts and the subject of hundreds of YouTube videos (as of this moment, 1,850 YouTube videos, to be precise).

The overwhelming public interest in Petitio's disappearance serves as one more reminder of the inequities in American life. What about the hundreds of other women who have gone missing from Wyoming? Women who were not young, white, "petite," blonde, and blue-eyed? 

As only one example of all these other missing persons: according to Missing & Murdered Indigenous People, a report recently published (January 2021) by the University of Wyoming's Survey and Analysis Center, "Between 2011 and September 2020, 710 Indigenous persons were reported missing [in 22 of 23 counties in Wyoming]. Some Indigenous people were reported missing more than once during the time period, resulting in a total of 1,254 missing person records for Indigenous people." Of these 710 missing persons, "[e]ighty-five percent were juvenile, and 57% were female."

Meanwhile, nationwide, "In 2016 [the most recent annual figure available], 5,712 Indigenous women and girls were reported missing to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), an electronic clearinghouse of crime data used by criminal justice agencies. . . ."

How many of these missing persons have you heard about? 

I am reposting here an edited version of an op-ed commentary I wrote sixteen years ago, "Missing Woman Would Be Bigger News If She Were Blond," published in The [Tacoma-Seattle] News Tribune, 7 August 2005. Insight 4. In the column, I was limited to 800 words. In 2014, I posted a longer version on my personal web page, but I removed it two years ago in a refresh of my website. I am publishing here my longer version of that 2005 op-ed.

 Who Cares about LaToyia Figueroa?

The photo of LaToyia Figueroa
that first drew my attention
when published in the New Tribune
Nicole. JonBenet. Amber. Chandra. Elisabeth. Laci. Natalee. We are on a first-name basis with all of them. Say their names, and their faces appear before our eyes. Young, female, pretty, blonde—mostly blonde, anyway—and mostly dead. We like them dead. And then there’s LaToyia Figueroa.

While the disappearance of Natalee Holloway in Aruba has occupied the mainstream media for the last two months—breathless, round-the-clock coverage on the all-news channels and, at the very moment that I sit here writing, some 257,000 hits in .05 seconds on Google—where is LaToyia Figueroa? Her story seems to have all the elements we find so irresistible: She’s young (just 24), very pretty, pregnant (5 months), and she has disappeared. Vanished without a trace.

LaToyia is not blonde, though neither was Chandra Levy or Laci Peterson. But Latoyia is not white. Since her disappearance on July 18, there have been no screaming headlines, no hourly updates on Fox or MSNBC, no Larry King Live interviews with members her distraught family, no FBI rushing to the scene, no Katie Couric or Stone Phillips or Dateline. It wasn’t until 9 days after her disappearance that CNN finally mentioned the story. And then, in the bottom right corner of the third page of our Friday News Tribune, was the brief wire-service story that caught my eye: “Family Calls Attention to Missing Woman.”

According to the reporter who wrote the story for the Knight Ridder news service, the people who know and love LaToyia “can’t understand why it took so long to get her disappearance into public view,” but I don’t believe that claim for a minute. I think LaToyia’s family and friends know exactly why no hordes of reporters have descended on her Philadelphia neighborhood in the now-familiar feeding frenzy that is regularly triggered by the disappearance—and possible rape, torture, mutilation, murder, or other unspeakable torment—of a pretty, young woman, whose smiling face will be imprinted in our hearts and dreams forever.

The police say that it is “rare that a minority missing persons case has attracted so much attention.” They are undoubtedly correct—LaToyia Figueroa is not a “missing person,” she is a “minority missing person,” and that’s exactly why no one much cares where she is. That’s why on-line references to Natalee Holloway mount up at the rate of thousands a day; meanwhile, 11 days and counting after her disappearance, I found only 539 references to LaToyia when I Googled her name, many of the posts arguing about whether she is Latina or African-American. My point exactly.

Leave it to Tucker Carlson to defend us all against racism—“there’s another dynamic involved here,” he claimed on the 27 July edition of his MSNBC show, The Situation. That other “dynamic”? Well, when “someone” (“not just a black person or a Hispanic person,” he was quick to say) lives in a “tough neighborhood,” such things are to be expected. A case like LaToyia’s isn’t news because “it’s like planes that land safely aren’t news.” A young white woman disappears, and it’s news, it’s the equivalent of the crash of a Boeing jumbo jet with hundreds of passengers on board. A young woman of color disappears, and it’s the same old same old, another uneventful arrival of a cheap Southwest hop from L.A.

Carlson and his crew even managed to find humor in the whole thing, suggesting that the case hadn’t gotten much national attention because, after all, if you were a reporter, where would you rather “vacation,” Aruba or west Philly? At that point, the show’s transcript indicates “LAUGHTER.”

Despite Tucker Carlson’s denial, this is racism. But it’s not only racism. It’s not just the absence of Latoyia Figueroa’s story, it’s the presence of all those other stories and what they reveal about our obsession with sexualized brutality, cruelty, and violence, and about our voyeuristic fascination with the torture, torment, and mutilation of the bodies of young women. We fetishize their stories. We revel in the lurid details.

The struggle for power, domination, and control has always played itself out on women’s bodies. We can look as far back as Homer’s account of the Trojan War—the clash of civilizations inscribed on the body of one woman, Helen of Troy. And we have only to look around us today—whether it’s the systematic rape of women in Darfur, the burqaed women of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, or a U.S. pharmacist refusing to fill a woman’s prescription for birth control pills, we see political, racial, social, economic, and religious ideologies using women’s bodies for their battlegrounds.

And, as comforting as it might be to think so, our pleasure in these battles is not just confined to rap music and Grand Theft Auto. It’s where you might least expect it: in our churches and in our schools and in our great books. I could never understand why saints’ tales were so popular in the Middle Ages until I read a few, and there it was. Every kind of sexual perversion, twisted torment, and painful death enacted on the bodies (but not the souls, it goes without saying) of one beautiful young woman after another. We were all introduced to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales at some point in high school, but my college students are horrified at the stories he collects in his Legend of Good Women. Dido, betrayed and abandoned. Lucrece, raped. Philomela raped and mutilated, her tongue cut out to prevent her from naming her attacker. All of Chaucer’s “good” women suffer, and they all die, either at the hands of the men who have assaulted them or by their own hands, to save the honor of their fathers and husbands. As one surprised student blurted out recently in class, “Is Chaucer saying that the only good woman is a dead woman?”

And all of those beautiful Renaissance love sonnets? I’ll be teaching them again this fall. There are thousands of them, addressed to Stella, Delia, Diana, Phyllis, Chloris, Cynthia, and countless other idealized young women, all of whom are beautiful and most of whom are blonde. Although these poems are all addressed to women, they’re not really about women, but about the lovers themselves, who anatomize their beloveds, describing in lingering detail their eyes, noses, lips, thighs, breasts, even their nipples. The women in these poems are not unique, thinking, feeling, desiring persons—they are body parts, examined and displayed for the reader’s enjoyment.

And so the women in our music videos, on our television screens, and at our favorite multiplex. Female bodies displayed, exploited, abused, assaulted, and served up for our entertainment.

And so the stories of Nicole, JonBenet, Amber, Chandra, Elisabeth, Laci, and Natalee. Their terrible stories are commodified for our pleasure, neatly packaged up like one of Chaucer’s legends of “good” women. We enjoy all the lurid details. We are transfixed by the agony of their mothers and fathers. We greedily consume the graphic accounts of their sufferings and deaths, and we are moved by how much we care. The candlelight vigils, the flower-and-teddy-bear memorials, the prayers we say as the cameras record how much we care. And then the apotheosis, as each martyred young woman joins our pantheon of angels and saints. We promise that we will never forget them, and we don’t, not really, until the next young, pretty, blonde, white woman disappears.

Our stories reveal our values. They tell us what—and who—is important. The story of Natalee Holloway tells us a lot about what we value in women. We like our women lost, weak, threatened, endangered, fearful, exploited, controlled, silent, and, to be honest, dead. We prefer these dead women to be young and pretty and blonde.

We don’t want to pay attention to women who are too fat or too old or too unattractive. We don’t much care about poor women, who cost us money and have too many children, and we don’t want to have to think too much about homeless women. We’d rather not train women as soldiers, arm them with M-16s, and send them into combat, unless we can rescue them, like we did Jessica Lynch—who is young, pretty, and blonde, and whose shattered body, while not dead, still made a good story. We don’t much appreciate women if they are too powerful or successful or demanding or loud. We don’t much like them gay, unless they’re funny like Ellen or hot like the women on The L Word. We don’t think much about women who are working hard, making ends meet, struggling through life. And we don’t pay much attention at all to the more than 22,000 missing women in the United States who aren’t Natalee Holloway.

Nearly 9,000 of the women missing in the United States at this very moment are women of color.

One of them is Latoyia Figueroa.

Update, 2006: LaToyia Figueroa was reported missing on 18 July 2005. A month later, on 20 August, Stephen Poaches, the father of LaToyia Figueroa's unborn child, was arrested; on 17 October 2006, he was convicted of two counts of murder and is currently incarcerated in the State Correction Institution—Houtzdale (PA). The lack of news coverage in LaToyia Figueroa's case sparked a controversy, dubbed the "missing white women syndrome," commonly attributed to PBS news commentator Gwen Ifill.

In March 2014, a Google search for "LaToyia Figueroa" produces 8,360 results. A search for "Natalee Holloway" produces more than 4 million hits.

For the most recent statistics on missing persons in the United States, with information about the age, sex, and race of those reported missing, see the 2020 NCIC [National Crime Information Center] Missing Person database (click here).