Women Are Celebrated This Month, but the Media Has Turned Their Suffering Into a Spectacle
BY MICHAELA MAKUSHA
Trigger warning: Murder, sexual assault, rape
The mainstream media tend to create mass hysteria when a woman goes missing. Speculation occurs on social networks, sometimes accusing those around her, seemingly forgetting that a real person is missing. In the case of Nicola Bulley, who disappeared in Lancashire in January 2023, the discovery of her body did little to quell such morbid fascination.
“Nicola Bulley’s disappearance has somehow become a crime scene; very much a true crime phenomenon," says Katie Tobin, a writer who focuses on contemporary feminism and its relation to art and literature. "She is not treated as a real-life person who deserves sanctity, with people who want her home safe, but rather a spectacle. The whole mythos with the dead, or Missing White Woman Syndrome, requires a lot of introspection on our part culturally.”
As explained by Metro columnist Natalie Morris in 2021, Missing White Woman Syndrome refers to the media’s coverage of missing, young, often middle-class white women who are victimised in some way, and their lack of attention to non-white women. In the UK, this was seen particularly within the disappearance and death of primary school teacher Sabina Nessa, which did not receive the same media coverage as the Sarah Everard case, or a similar level of outrage from activist groups, despite both murders happening within months of each other. In 2020, the murders of sisters Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman in London were met with the same mild reaction from the press.
These discrepancies in media coverage and police attention are nothing new, and the Bulley case proves yet again that the media know how to rally when white women disappear. Regardless, with the rise of sexism and the popularity of true crime as a genre, it is not hard for me to be disturbed by people already treating this with anything other than the dignity Nicola Bulley and her loved ones deserve.
Following this case, The Daily Mail decided to report on the murder of Emma Pattison and her daughter by her husband, by highlighting how ‘happy’ the family was - and more specifically, how good of a husband he was - with front pages showcasing images of the smiling family. This is an ancient phenomenon: whenever a white man kills his spouse or children, an effort is made to build a positive, or nuanced image, rather than promoting his mugshot that would implement the accurate idea that this man is a dangerous abuser.
“The language used to frame this has been interesting. Almost as if they are trying to say, ‘he snapped and was otherwise a loving husband,’” says Katie Tobin. “Looking at the pictures, at first, I did not even realise that he was the perpetrator. Gender relations and interpersonal relationships often ignore that misogyny is an internal factor - you are supposed to be driven mad by the one you love, rather than external forces that lead men to act violently towards women.”
The other side of the coin is that using these photos shows how these killer men looked 'normal' to outsiders - the face of respectability to everyone else. Yet, that still fails to explain how the Daily Mail continues to victim blame, asking in one headline: ''Did living in the shadow of his high achieving wife lead to unthinkable tragedy?'
It seems this was the more important story to uncover here for the tabloid - not a story of how abusers may appear to the world against their private personas and how that results in tragedy. Instead, the Daily Mail used its resources and platform to ask ‘essential’ questions and discuss whether or not women having jobs meant their husbands would be forced to murder them.
It was right in the middle of that particular tragedy that Piers Morgan piped up. Disgraced broadcaster Morgan decided to invite various female writers and activists for a debate on his attempt at a talk show. The idea for this debate, named “Has #MeToo Gone Too Far?” was revealed at the same time Met police officer David Carrick was jailed for life for a series of rapes and assaults on at least 12 women, and when it emerged that police were treating the deaths of a family of three – including the headteacher of Epsom College – as a murder-suicide by the husband.
Piers Morgan using sexism and misogyny for clicks and views is nothing new (see: every single article he has written about Meghan Markle). Still, one would hope he would have much more awareness than to ask if holding men accountable has gone too far on the day a police officer is imprisoned for being a serial rapist.
“It is always there in the back of my mind - a look I get in the supermarket if I’m wearing my gym clothes. People like Piers Morgan treat misogyny as merely jokes and comments, and fail to realise that it always starts with that,” says Katie Tobin. Morgan’s call for talk show guests was met with the usual amount of mixed reactions, from his bros to renowned activists. “Oh dear… if Piers Morgan wants me on his show, he can call me his damn self to hear the answer he’ll get: No,” wrote Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu on Twitter. Others echoed this response.
Britain’s underlying problem is that it treats misogyny as merely an opinion, and not what kills women. It has become mere entertainment with controversy at its centre, while muffling the screams of millions of women worldwide. Andrew Tate, currently held in Romania on suspicion of human trafficking, has over 5.3 million followers on Twitter only, and each one of his ‘opinion’ tweets does numbers. The mainstream media is currently busy discussing whether he has cancer, or got trolled. This bro culture kills. The reason I and so many others are tired, angry, and scared is that we feel nothing will change. Every week looks like the previous one. David Carrick is merely a symptom of how systemic misogyny cultivates to promote abusive men into positions of state power with the ability to cover up their crimes. The British press is failing to hold men accountable even when they murder their children, and is treating misogyny, transphobia and racism as mere matters of debate and not people’s lives. Their actions are louder than any statement they may post this International Women’s History Month.
If there is one thing time continues to tell, it is that Britain is not a shining beacon of hope that seeks to create a safer and equitable society. Like many issues in this country, we merely enjoy covering it up and playing celebratory music to drown out unpleasant noises and gather likes.
Image credit: Tim Dennell on Flickr