Photo By: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images News via Getty Images
*CONTENT WARNING: This article deals with issues of domestic violence and murder.*
If you’ve been on social media at all in the last couple of months, chances are you have at the very least heard the names Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie.
Petito and Laundrie, who were 22 and 23 years old respectively, set out on a cross country road trip this past summer. Starting from their home near Tampa, they headed west in their renovated white Ford Transit van, with a particular focus on the many national parks in the states of Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado.
Their story starts out innocent enough, relatable even. Being the same age as them, I personally know many people who have embarked on similar extended camping trips, some even in their own renovated vehicles. Petito had hopes of her and Laundrie making it big on social media as #vanlife influencers, something she had been diligently working away at throughout their trip.
But their romantic cross country trek took a turn for the worse by the end of August, when Petito’s mom stopped hearing back from her daughter. Then in September, Laundrie infamously returned home in the couple’s van, but without Petito. He and his parents then quickly brought in their long-time family attorney and refused to speak with law enforcement, media, and most devastatingly, the Petito family.
It was then that Petito was declared missing and the search for her began, with Laundrie considered a person of interest in her disappearance. Shortly after the search began though, Laundrie too went missing, leaving his parents alone at the family home with a media circus around their property for weeks.
Petito’s body was eventually found on Sept. 19 in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. Her cause of death was later revealed to be manual strangulation. This intensified media and general public scrutiny of Laundrie and his family, but he was still nowhere to be found.
That is, until last week.
Laundrie’s remains were just recently discovered in an environmental reserve not too far from his home, after flooding receded in the area where his parents told police he had said he was going when he originally left to go, ‘on a hike’.
Now, the case is essentially over, with no answers and no justice for Petito or her family. Despite mountains of evidence that have piled up which point towards Laundrie being involved (including a 911 call while they were out on their trip wherein the caller said he saw Laundrie slapping Petito) now he will never be questioned by police about her death, will never be charged, and will never face trial in a court of law.
While the Laundrie family has been and continues to remain silent publicly, this isn’t the case for the Petito family. Her parents have been all over the news, originally calling on people to come forward with information regarding their daughter’s disappearance, and now pushing their newly-founded Gabby Petito Foundation. According to the foundation’s website, it will provide support for missing persons cases, domestic violence support organizations, as well as scholarships for students from her hometown high school.
The website also mentions in their mission statement that they, “wish to turn [their] personal tragedy into a positive,” which is an important and valuable message that should be heeded by more people.
A lot of the hot takes that I’ve seen regarding this case all bring up one thing: missing white woman syndrome (MWWS). On the face of it, I can certainly understand why. For one, she perfectly embodies the idea; she was a young white woman from a middle class family who garnered a level of media attention far greater than the vast majority of missing person case victims, especially those involving People of Colour. However, if we dig below the surface, we can see that just claiming this case is an example of MWWS and nothing more doesn’t exactly tell us the full story, nor does it support the Petito family’s admirable goal of turning this tragic situation into a positive one.
First of all, MWWS is specifically about the lack of mainstream media coverage of missing persons cases involving People of Colour. It’s important to recognize that the news media was very slow to pick up on this story, and really only worked around the edges. All the real momentum for this case came from YouTube and TikTok; the communities where Petito had been trying to make a name for herself as an influencer.
Her story connected with not only the #vanlife community however, but also those (like myself) who like watching true crime content on YouTube, listening to podcasts, or whatever it may be. My point is that her story hit on multiple important cultural intersections that helped it to become a social media phenomenon, at which point it was slowly picked up by national and international news outlets.
Despite this case not perfectly fitting into the MWWS theory, does that mean her race had nothing to do with why the story caught so much attention? Of course not. I’m not sure there’s a proper way of measuring it, as I don’t think simply comparing minutes of coverage of random missing persons’ cases is entirely fair or in good faith, but MWWS is a well documented phenomenon and this case doesn’t exactly buck that trend.
However, to those who bring up MWWS in this case only to try and sound like the smartest person in the room, all you are really doing is trying to throw a wet blanket on the captivated audience that this case has amassed. Unlike the Petito’s, who have already raised over $13,000 during the first-ever fundraiser for the Gabby Petito Foundation to help domestic violence support organizations and missing persons investigations across the United States. Talk about using your privilege to mobilize your support base for those who are marginalized. Despite their 22-year-old daughter being murdered, this family has already done more to support missing and murdered People of Colour across the United States than many of the armchair critics.
Let’s not forget the massive online audience that has been mobilized throughout this investigation. Unlike news media, which is designed to be passively taken in by the viewing public, much of the coverage for this story on YouTube and TikTok is entirely interactive; people ask questions directly to the creators that they are watching, they send them links to new developments in the case, they call in to share their two cents on everything, it’s a whole different landscape than traditional media.
Because of that, many people who became engaged with this case online have now been pulled into all kinds of missing persons’ cases, ready and willing to take part in the conversation, spread the word, and otherwise help out how they can.
With this case now largely over, I do hope that this tragedy really does become a positive moment. I hope the Petito family is able to find some comfort, peace, and closure, despite the fact that justice will never truly be served. I hope that people who were brought into the true crime world with this case don’t let their passion die and continue to engage with other important cases involving people of all genders and races. Lastly, I hope the passion that this case stirred up will continue to be used to support missing persons and domestic violence cases involving People of Colour, as that would not only prove the naysayers wrong, but would truly allow this tragic moment to be turned into something positive.