THE LOST GIRL EVENT
SARAH EVERARD, ‘MISSING WHITE WOMAN SYNDROME’ & THE ‘BLAMELESS VICTIM'
Written by Amber Wilkinson (@tawnyleaves)
On 12th March 2021, the Police located the body of Sarah Everard; whose disappearance had dominated many Instagram stories for days on end. A few days prior, a Metropolitan Police Officer was arrested in connection with her kidnapping and possible murder. Somehow a woman simply walking home from a friend’s house was taken by a man in a position of authority and implied safety, to later be murdered and dumped in a woodland.
This event sparked a debate across social media – predominantly amongst the female echo chamber, – about sexual harassment, sexual violence and the place of men in all of it. Women were using their platforms to call for the education of men, even when they were met with the dreaded ‘#NotAllMen’ line; an excuse for men to free themselves and their friends from the responsibility of their own actions; so they do not have to admit how they continue to allow public and private spaces to be unsafe for women and non binary people.
When ‘#NotAllMen’ started trending on Twitter, it became increasingly clear how a woman was killed just by talking a walk. How male guilt and intimidation continues to highlight the inequality we truly face.
Sarah Everard does not deserve to be blamed for her own death. We do not have the right to question the narrative of someone whose voice was removed against their will. Whose narrative was cut short. Her story was hers when she was alive, and should remain that way now.
But this onslaught of victim blaming still emphasises one key facet of this; these men are still talking about it, and the conversation has begun.
The British Press and social media platforms are centering the murder of Sarah Everard. We all hope that this will simply not be just another trend, but an opening for real groundwork for survivors and victims of violence. What we can ascertain right now is that Sarah Everard is the focus of the ever-grinding media spectacle. The question is what role the media play in this discussion and why this is in the headlines.
THE LOST GIRL EVENT
Since the 1960s and the rise of the news media, ‘the image’ became more important in western culture, as the ‘media spectacle’ became a significant effect of this new age. Josh Cohen suggests how the spectacle provides ‘representations of seeing, and spectacular culture, [which] overlap the boundaries of theory and fiction’. Jon Stratton argues that ‘[f]or Baudrillard, violent death takes on the role because, like human sacrifice, violent death requires a response from people’. The ‘death-as-spectacle’ motif in mainstream media is therefore encoded with narratives of violence, as well as a need for a mainstream audience.
In the case of Sarah Everard and the murder of young women, one particular media event sits at the centre of this debate; what Rebecca Wanzo describes as ‘this recurring media spectacle, which we might call the Lost Girl Event in [western] Culture’. Wanzo defines the cultural obsession with stories of young women and girls ‘lost’ or dead, as ‘always about innocent girls, inexplicable violence, and villainy’.
In a Baudrillardian sense, these women become purely images, simulations of the ‘lost girls’ behind them. The representation of these women in the media simply replaces their original selves, and become projections of femininity.
But, hundreds of women are killed each year. In 2019, 241 women were victims of homicide, averaging at 2 a week. We do not see every one of these stories plastered across the headlines. This lack of coverage implies a selection process; an X-factor-esque search for the ‘perfect’ Lost Girl figure. A question we need to pose here is: why Sarah Everard?
Like many discussions around Gender, Race is key to this answer. Western beauty standards place whiteness on a pedestal, and in the case of the News Media, they do not stray too far from this norm. This is emphasised by Rebecca Wanzo, who identifies the cultural phenomenon of the ‘lost girl’ with an image of whiteness, and the fairy tale heroine. Wanzo highlights how ‘lost girls must be fairy-tale heroines, golden in visage and character, offering bodies that can sustain a fairy-tale ending for others, even when the ending for the specific lost girls is a terrible death’.
The coverage of Sarah Everard’s disappearance and death highlights the societal obsession with stories about dead girls who fit this pre-determined image of the fairytale heroine. Ultimately, Sarah Everard was chosen because she was blonde and white. It is why Blessing Olusegun wasn’t; a black woman found dead on a Sussex beach whose investigation was buried by the police, and who was deemed unworthy of mainstream coverage. It is why as of November 13th 2018, £11.5million was spent on Operation Grange; the search for Madeleine McCann. Yet Asha Degree, a black girl who went missing in 1990 at the age of 9 did not get the same international campaign and support.
This recent tragedy has only heightened what journalist Gwen Ifill has coined as ‘missing white woman’ syndrome; ‘the media’s obsession with covering the cases of missing and endangered white women’, as Refinery29 wrote in 2019. This obsession dominates our screens while we do not talk enough about the 40+ black trans women who died last year. Or the fact that in 2016 there were 5,712 known incidents of indigenous women who were murdered or missing in the US and Canada. These women do not fit the ‘type’ so fall through the gaping holes in our Press. Violence against women is an endemic, yet the coverage of it is incredibly narrow.
THE BLAMELESS VICTIM
Ellie Ward recently discussed this facet of the coverage around Sarah Everard commenting that ‘I am grateful we are talking about her’, while adding ‘What I am not grateful to the media for is the picking and choosing which women there were articles’.
While the Media centred the story of Sarah Everard, they failed to even mention the two women who were murdered on the 4th March; Imogen Bohajczuk and Geetika Goyal. Ward went on to add that these other women who died in the same month ‘don’t fit into the narrative of the blameless victim that our media adores and is circulating everywhere at the minute’.
This narrative of the ‘blameless victim’ precedes the age of visual culture, however, Ward goes on to quote Carolyn Conley’s definition of rape according to the standards of Victorian England as ‘a brutal act of violence usually committed in a public place on an apparently respectable woman who was previously unknown to her assailant and had done nothing to acknowledge his presence’. It is not much of a stretch to see how this definition continues to fit narratives about violence against women.
‘Respectability’ and female passivity are still regarded as the checklist of the 'blameless victim' in our visual and social media and is the very reason why so many women are never even discussed. Why victims of domestic abuse do not get the time of day, because though they may have suffered under ‘brutal acts of violence’, they weren’t unknown to their assailant, even when this was the very thing that put them at risk.
No one wishes to diminish what happened to Sarah Everard. What this all serves to exemplify is why she was picked by the media over the other victims. As many Tweets and Instagram posts have suggested, Sarah Everard ‘did everything she was supposed to do’. She perfectly fit into the ‘blameless victim’ image; a good girl who follows the rules yet still loses her life to the hands of a powerful man.
The point here is what constitutes ‘victimhood’ in our society, and who gets the privilege to be spoken about, and whose body is even found. Ultimately, victimhood is something that is packaged and presented by our media for public consumption. I really hope that Sarah Everard is talked about, wishing for her not to be discarded in next week’s rubbish. She deserved more than that. She deserves more than that.
As do the countless other women, whose names we either don’t remember or we’ve never heard uttered in the first place. We need to take time. We need to mourn. We also need to take a critical look at which narratives are allowed through the mesh nets from the private sphere to the public. We need to examine why 90% of rapes are never reported – why so many of us live in fear throughout our lives, not only scared of the constant threat of male violence, but that some man in an office might decide that we are not worthy of being remembered.