Disappearing Girls: Movies & Real Life

February 2, 2010

I like Bob Mondelo, movie reviewer for NPR. He’s got that perfectly modulated authoritative-witty-man voice down, and while I often don’t agree with his estimations, I enjoy hearing them.

It was quite troublesome, however, to hear him reflecting and questioning on the possible meaning of the similar plot lines of a recent crop of films and miss so entirely – how to put it? – reality.

Apparently, there’s at least three recent films – I’m kind of out of touch, these days, but I have vaguely heard of The Lovely Bones – where a daughter is murdered and her ghost returns to talk to / commune with the father.

Mondelo, wondering what chords of cultural anxiety Hollywood is plucking with these plots, came up with the Iraq war.


Earlier in the day, I’d come across the Hook reporting that they’d found remains that are most likely those of the girl who went missing from JPJ arena here in Charlottesville a few months ago. The article referenced the plights of other abducted and murdered girls – Elizabeth Smart, for instance.

What was so disturbing about the movies Mondelo was discussing was that it sounded like a repeated story – in real life – girls being abducted, murdered.

And the ones we hear and see are often white and blonde. They are the high-profile cases that capture our horrified fascination. Other ones in recent years include wives and girlfriends.

Mondelo did posit one theory that seemed closer to the mark – that these father- characters don’t want their daughters to grow up – by dying and becoming ghosts, they remain ever-young, ever-innocent, ever-present.

What I wish he would have worked on a little more was the confluence of the mass audience appeal of watching -whether on the television news or the big screen – the story of girls being taken and done away with.

As soon as I write that out, I have the flashing image of Snow White running in the forest as her pursuer with the dagger chases her. I saw part of that movie the other week – hadn’t seen it in decades – and it’s really quite a gruesome story of repeated attempted murder. And gee, when you think about it, Sleeping Beauty and Ariel both face possible death .

Strangely, though, all of the traditional Disney fairy tales have the step-mother as the murderer/oppressor and the random strange man – crowned, of course – as the savior. Quite a flip of reality, no?

But wait – back to the recent movies – these also seem to focus on the almost saint-like male figure – fathers. What’s going on here?

One of the pieces of all this I find myself resenting is this underlying assumption that girls are victims-in-waiting – let’s chain them down or lock them in towers or cover them in burqas – do anything to protect them from the dark forces out there waiting to snatch them up.

I’m troubled by the media frenzies that seem to tenaciously devour a story of a girl or woman’s disappearance – but never investigate further into the reasons and contexts behind these kinds of tragedies.

I’m bothered that these storylines and fairytales merge in our imagination – and do happen in real life. Do they feed each other?

Do girls represent the tender parts of ourselves? Some older societies once sacrificed virgin girls to the gods. Are we still performing this type of ritualized offering to our unspoken desires to trample upon innocence?

Does the exploitation of our Jon-Benets maintain our version of gender power? Do we need to have someone play the victim?

I don’t know the answers. All I know is that there are some chilling coincidences that reflect real dangers to our minds and bodies – to my little girl. To me. To the women I love.

We see rapes, abductions, domestic violence all the time – but we don’t do much to prevent them, as a society, do we? With the images we fetishize? With the stories we tell?

Are we teaching our daughters that they are victims? Or, even worse, maybe even at the same time, are we teaching them that beauty will somehow protect them?

Certainly, being beautiful has a magical quality that helps Snow White, Cinderella, Belle, and others escape dire ends, receive mercy. Becoming the object of beauty for princes is a way to be liberated from oppressive mothers and poverty.

Did Harrington – the girl whose body was found – believe that her beauty would protect her, so it was okay to go hitchiking into the unknown?

I don’t know. I’m not feeling analytically astute. Just disturbed.