A Tragic Fairy Tale in the Era of Social Media: The Disappearance and Death of Gabby Petito

A case of suspected domestic violence captures the attention of the media in the U.S., while family members of other missing people claim racial discrimination.

A honeymoon broadcast live on social media turned into a drama that has captured the attention of the U.S. for weeks. A young couple, beautiful and carefree — and also white (a point worth mentioning); their setbacks in the U.S. on board a van and the accompanying posts on Instagram and YouTube; their mushy love messages, but also their fights and the first hints of conflict, which should have been a warning sign. All of this was exposed to the public eye without any alarm bells ringing until the disappearance of 22-year-old Gabrielle “Gabby” Petito, and later the discovery of her body, put an end to the romantic online story and turned it into a case of domestic violence, fed (or at least protected) by the forced happiness of social media.

The body of Petito, a typical 20-something — blond, beautiful and optimistic — was found on Sept. 19 in a national park in Wyoming. Her family had reported her as missing one week before, after her partner Brian Laundrie, 23, had returned home to his parents’ house alone on the first of the month. A couple since high school, they had lived together since 2019 at his parents’ house and got engaged in July 2020. On July 2 of this year they embarked on what they called the trip of their lives (“van life” and “nomad life” according to the tags on their posts), which was to last four months and during which they left a trail of photos on social media, where they looked completely happy.

Until Aug. 25, when the posts stopped and nothing more was heard from them. Since that day — one week before Laundrie returned to his parents’ home alone — another recording, one showing a worrying argument between the couple, replaced the syrupy tale and the reality was shown on televisions everywhere. In the city of Moab, Utah, the couple was involved in a heated discussion that was recorded by the body camera of a police officer, previously alerted to a possible domestic violence incident. The altercation, which happened on Aug. 19, was itself a delusion, as well as a warning sign; a cross between a teenage tantrum and a call for help that nobody heard. The images show a tearful Petito complaining about her mental health, while painting herself as a victim and confirming that the fairy tale was over, and acknowledging that the pair had argued frequently during the trip. According to the police report, Laundrie said that Petito had hit him after an argument.

Nothing was heard from them until Laundrie’s disappearance shortly after he returned to his parents’ home, with the police hot on his heels, and the discovery of Petito’s remains in a remote part of Grand Teton National Park. The high-profile response — it was on the news for days, on prime-time television — and the attention of the mainstream media, without exception, has infuriated family members of other missing people, in many cases belonging to minority groups and disadvantaged social classes. They believe the fact that Petito was a typical young white woman explains why their cases (around 550,000 across the country in 2020, according to the website Statista) were pushed to the side, and why most of their searches have been forgotten.

This terrible reversal of a romantic tale attracted all the attention that has been denied to tens of thousands of families, who must fight in silence. Every new clue relating to Petito or her boyfriend, who refused to speak to the police after returning without his girlfriend, was analyzed in depth by detectives, onlookers and bystanders, if not fans of conspiracy theories. But the case got so much attention especially because Petito was white, which feeds into “missing white woman syndrome,” a term coined by African American journalist Gwen Ifill to define the disproportionate coverage of missing person cases when the victim is white. In other words, racial privilege, even in tragedy. As well as being white, if the missing person is attractive and financially well-off, the coverage is guaranteed. It is coined as “damsel in distress syndrome,” according to the language used by many U.S. media sources.

Racial bias, the potential for discrimination, especially affects the Latino population, particularly women. It is impossible to know how many Hispanics there are in lists of missing people, let alone how many Hispanic minors, since the calculation seems to be hidden in the FBI’s annual statistics, which only record five racial categories: Asian, Black, Indigenous, unknown and white. Hispanics are represented as a sub-category in the last option, with an asterisk. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the total figure of missing Hispanics is 20%, but it could be higher. Therefore, the wide media coverage of Petito’s case has resonated loudly compared to the rest.

The fairy tale in reverse, but also a blatant structural inequality even in these events, is what will always be associated with Petito’s memory. That, and the dangerous role, normatively speaking, of social media as a sparkling showcase where there is no room for sadness. As children’s stories repeat, drenched in fatalism and a certain determinism, one cannot be too happy because then happiness disintegrates. Petito’s fairy tale shattered.

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