Sunday, September 23, 2007

Value of the victim

This past week in Toronto, a woman died after undergoing cosmetic surgery that was performed at a private clinic. This is certainly a tragic story, to be sure, and I in no way intend to minimize what her family is going through at this time.

But I do have a problem with how heavily publicized this case is, and the reason, as I see it, for the intense media scrutiny and coverage. The story has been on every newscast since Friday evening and covered in every newspaper. Ostensibly this is because of the nature of where this woman had her surgery - at a private clinic with an unlicensed "cosmetic surgeon" instead of in a hospital with a trained plastic surgeon. While these are worrisome factors, and certainly something that needs to be examined and rectified, I don't think that the issue of private clinics and unlicensed doctors are the sole reason behind the media's focus and attention on this particular case.

If you've heard details and seen photos of the woman, you'll know that she is a successful real estate agent in a trendy Toronto neighbourhood, that she is quite pretty, based on popular perceptions of beauty, and that she is Caucasian. As I watch and read the rabid media coverage of the story, I can't help but wonder, cynically perhaps (or perhaps not) if the story would have received as much coverage, if that coverage would have been as outraged and horrified, if the woman in question had been a less conventionally pretty, maybe a little overweight, middle-aged housewife. If she had had a less than perfect smile. If her hair hadn't been as glossy, if it had been a little frizzy, if the roots hadn't been touched up in a few weeks. If she had been Latino, or Middle Eastern, or African American. If her photo had not been a re-touched professional portrait, but instead the average photo snapped in haste during a summer barbecue with a sunburn, shiny forehead and unbleached teeth on prominent display. In essence, if she had been anything less than the poster child (woman) of a gorgeous successful Caucasian woman living the urban dream.

I am aware that this is not a unique phenomenon. How many women had to die in British Columbia before the police finally found and charged a suspect? It took over two decades and more than 60 missing victims from downtown Vancouver before the police finally charged Robert Pickton. Who
were the victims? Most of the women were prostitutes and/or drug addicts and some were Native Canadian. In comparison, it took two missing girls from St Catherines and approximately two years before Paul Bernardo and his wife, Karla Homolka, were charged with their disappearances and murders. The victims in this case were both young, pretty school girls, good students and Caucasian. Different victims, different priority on the respective cases?

This past summer Madeleine McCann, a young British girl was allegedly abducted from her bedroom while on vacation (her parents are now suspects). Media coverage was extensive and global, often running as the lead story even here in Canada, far away from the scene of the crime. Global celebrities got involved, offering rewards for her safe return. Horror stories about the possibility of her being sold into slave trade or a child prostitution ring abounded. Yet every day in this world children are abducted from their families and sold into slavery and prostitution. Most of these victims come from poor countries. The parents of these children are not wealthy doctors vacationing with their children in far away countries and fancy resorts. Their stories do not make the evening news, their pictures are not splashed across every newspaper and magazine on every continent. They are faceless victims, they are nameless victims. There are no rewards offered by important celebrities for their safe return.

Two winters ago a young white girl, Jane Creeba, was shot and killed outside a store while shopping on Boxing Day - the unlucky victim of a gang shooting. Her story received pages upon pages of coverage in the local media and newscasts covered the story and its updates over the course of the ensuing two years. Yet there are many, too many, other innocent victims as a result of gang violence. Go to any of Toronto's neighbourhoods with heavy gang influence and you will find husbands, wives, sons and daughters lost to the exchange of bullets between warring gangs. Their stories may make the evening news, but too often it is merely a footnote, a blurb and the media quickly moves onto the next victim(s).

Any time I'm confronted with this dissonance, I term it the value of the victim theory. The more marketable the victim is, the more coverage that victim and their story will receive from the media. The more sympathetic the victim, the more police attention and resources the case will receive.

I'm sure I'm not alone when I say how much this disgusts and upsets me. While I feel terribly for the tragedies like the Jane Creebas, the Madeleine McCanns, the Leslie Mahaffy and Kristin Frenchs, and, this past week, the Krista Strylands, and I wish for them the justice that they deserve, I also wish to see justice for all the victims of senseless gun violence, of kidnapping, of child prostitution, and of every other horrific crime that this world has to offer. This emphasis on the value of the victim has other troubling implications. When we focus so much energy and resources on single victims, we can miss the opportunities to save many others. With the massive of use of global resources in the search for Madeleine McCann, how many other children may have been saved? How many women's lives in British Columbia might have been saved by an increase in police resources on the case? Or is a Native Canadian drug-addicted prostitute's life worth 3% of a Caucasian teenage girl's life (the 60 women it took for charges to be laid in Vancouver versus the two girls in Ontario). While I understand every case is different, 60 women died. These weren't random women either, with no discernible connection. They all came from the same area of the city, and most worked in the same trade.

What would happen if it was you, or someone you loved, and you didn't fit the model of a "good victim"? Would your case or story get swept under the rug. Would you only be a brief soundbite before the more important news (victim) of the day? Would you get the resources, the police help, the justice that you deserve?

The question, of course, is what can we, as the average person, do to change this? How can we avoid being influenced by the value of the victim. While we may have great difficulty in changing what the traditional mass media airs and prints, we can choose to pay attention to all the stories even when that means following non-traditional media. We can read publications such as these and support organizations like this that focus on all victims globally, and increase our awareness of the issues at a global level. We can get involved at a regional level by working in communities and with organizations that are working to effect change in low-income communities and communities overrun by gang violence. We can read our mainstream newspapers and watch our mainstream newscasts with a critical eye, and question the motives behind the elevation of one story over another. We can ask for action from our police and from our political representatives even when the case or the community may not seem to be applicable to us. And we can stop ourselves from viewing images of a victim and making the easy comments, the "oh what a shame, she was so pretty" because the value of a victim lies not in their appearance but in the gap that they leave in others lives and in the loss to society that lies in the potential of every person.


Sandra said...

Thank you for writing this post. I agree 110%

I work in an organization that supports women experiencing violence. On average 40 women die just in Ontario a year at the hands of their partner. The ones that get publicity are either the "pretty, white, affluent" ones or the reverse to make some sort of statement how violence is worse in certain cultures or socio-economic groups. Which it is not. Domestic violence happens equally in all groups - it is what the media does to influence public opinion that is problematic.

I know that isn't quite what you were writing about but it made me want to rant.

slouching mom said...

This disgusts me. I agree. Given the coverage white women who are missing, or who have been found murdered, get in the USA, you'd expect that they are missing/murdered a whole lot more than black women or Latino women. Of course, the reverse is true.

I'm glad you wrote about this. It really sickens me.

Aliki2006 said...

This is such an important post to write--thank you so much for doing this, and for expressing all this so very well.

I am sickened by so much of what the media covers or chooses not to cover, as the case may be.

Mad Hatter said...

Great post and I couldn't agree more. I was thinking the same thing when I saw, again and again, the story of the Toronto woman this past weekend. Just so you know, I plan to include this post in this month's Just Post round up on October 10th.

painted maypole said...

this is an interesting take on this, and I agree. Another aspect of the coverage these victims get, I think, is due largely to what else is going on in the world that day. If some other story is big news for a week, than an abduction will get pushed to the background, if covered nationally at all.

kittenpie said...

excellent points, b. Excellent. I hat ethe whole "flavour of the month" way the media has of addressing things, too. You know that now there will be other stories about other cases of plastic surgery mishaps and such for the next month, and then it will be on to drunk drivers or leashless dogs or something else for a bit. I understand that having a face for a problem can be helpful, that sometimes it leads to pressure that leads to change, but why wait for the perfect face?

bubandpie said...

I just sent the URL for this to Mad for the Just Posts - but now I see she was way ahead of me...

ewe are here said...

You are 100% spot on with this post. While I see the issue of 'who' gets covered and 'why' (like you say: victims who are well known, wealthy, white, middle to upper classes,etc) in the press addressed in the media from time to time, the coverage never seems to change. Very frustrating.


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