Thursday, July 28, 2011

Would it have been less of a tragedy had she not been beautiful?

While I am not a particular fan of magazines, networks and TV shows that focus almost obsessively on "true life" crime I am aware of the major stories that saturate their pages and time. Indeed, for someone who researches popular culture it would have been difficult in the last few weeks not to be aware that Casey Anthony was on trial (in Orlando, Florida) for the murder of her daughter Caylee. And it would have been, if anything, even more difficult to remain ignorant of the outcome of that trial and the angry public response to that verdict.

At another time I may address both the verdict and the responses. Here and now I want to write about the framing of tragedy itself. In comment after comment on television, in article after article in newspapers and magazines and in post after post on the internet we are told (and reminded) that Caylee Anthony was a beautiful child. For example:

the tragedy surrounding the loss of this beautiful little girl cuts to the heart of everyone
[The Casey Anthony case and abortion: a tragic disconnect]

The alleged murderer of Caylee Marie, a beautiful little girl.[Casey Anthony Jury Selecton Under the Big Top]

From the start, her mother Casey willfully lied to the police about what happened to the beautiful little girl [Why Is Casey Anthony Smiling In Court]

I have never had any doubt that Casey killed her daughter. Her beautiful little girl with the big brown eyes.[Casey Anthony could take a lesson from Charlene Spierer]

a beautiful little girl's life was cut oh so short, and there's no doubt in my mind who did it.[Caylee Anthony: A beautiful life cut short]

This emphasis on the beauty of the victim is not unique to the Anthony Case. For example, consider the case of Natalee Holloway of whom one can read:

How did this beautiful, sweet girl end up murdered?.....[comment to the post Natalee Holloway: Jaw Bone Found in Aruba, Sent for tests at the NFI Forensic Institute in The Hague.

Dave and Jug, both busily trolling the Internet in their search for donated funds to enable on-island search efforts to resume, surely can have no excuse for their continued absence from Aruba, where Natalee Holloway, the beautiful missing-from-Aruba Alabama honours student, disappeared in the last days of May. [Natalee Holloway Is Missing From The Missing Persons Lists]

Or JonBenet Ramsey:
JonBenet Ramsey. The beautiful little girl who wowed crowds at beauty pageants [New DNA Clue Found in JonBenet Ramsey Murder Case]

A beautiful little girl with a dazzling smile lives a wonderful life with her family in their Colorado mansion.[The Truth About JonBenet Ramsey]

Or Elizabeth Smart:
Before June 5th of last year, the Smarts led the kind of life most people would consider blessed: a happy marriage and six beautiful children.[Elizabeth's Road Home]

Ed Smart and his beautiful daughter, Elizabeth[Transpcript: NANCY GRACE
Interview With Elizabeth Smart, Aired July 18, 2006 - 20:00:00 ET

Reading the typical newspaper coverage of crime, listening to the news and watching news magazines one wonders--do they only cover the abductions and/or murder of females who could be described as beautiful or or does the description "beautiful" simply mean "a life that we value"? Has beauty become synonymous to "worthy to live?" Do we only empathize with the parents who have lost a beautiful child? Do we only sympathize with the husband who has lost of beautiful wife? Are females who are not beautiful invisible? Are children who are not beautiful disposable?

The reader might argue that "obviously" I am exaggerating. They might argue that even the worst of the worst don't pick which child or woman to value on the basis of their beauty but ask yourself this question--why is it so important for writer and speaker to tell their audience over and over again that the victim of choice is beautiful?

The reader might also meditate on the glaring and painful disparity between the demographics of the country (and the demographics of the missing and murdered) and the demographics of those who are described as "beautiful."


  1. I think you are on the right track when you ask "does the description 'beautiful' simply mean 'a life that we value'?" All brides are beautiful. All babies are beautiful. One of my cousins, a 20 year old, was murdered last month and when I wrote a letter of sympathy to his mother I referred to him as her beautiful son. I think it's a way of saying this person had value, this person was important to us, this person was an ornament to life, not a way of saying this person would have won a beauty contest.

  2. I agree with your analysis.

    Tangential to your point, I just read a biography of Lady Randolph Churchill, written by a man. 622 pages of way more info on her father, her 3 husbands, 2 sons, assorted males in her life than I had any interest in, and an utter *fixation* on her "beauty" (there were no photos, so I have no personal opinion). The woman accomplished things, lived an amazing life, was a Whole Person. Can we stop nattering endlessly about her looks? Please?!

  3. I think "beautiful" is especially frequently applied to children with a kind of implication of "beautiful because fresh and innocent." They haven't been worn down by life; if "beauty is as beauty does," they haven't done anything to make themselves less beautiful. And they have a kind of beauty of potential, if you know what I mean, the expectation of beauty of all the ages they have yet to pass through.

    There are of course difference in the way these cases are reported: everyone knows about Natalee Holloway, but who outside of Baltimore knows about Phylicia Barnes? Everyone knows about Caylee; who outside of Washington knows about Aja, N’Kiah, Tatianna, Brittany? But in the localized reporting on those cases, "beautiful" and "lovely" and "sweet" were used just as often.

    @Coleslaw: my condolences on the loss of your relative.

    @Laiima: If Lady Churchill is who I think she is, she lived at a time when "noted beauty" was a recognized career path, so to speak, for a women who qualified. Of course she had a life besides her looks, but I can see that it might be relevant to examine the effect of her looks on her life, on people's responses to her, on her own evaluation of herself. But I haven't read the book, and if her beauty is the only thing about her that interested her biographer, well, that seems like a waste.


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