How should newspapers refer to a victim of kidnap? Heaven knows in these modern days the question of appropriate nomenclature seems to get more complicated — and my hat is tipped to the female actor v actress debate that so exercised Guardian readers recently — but the aversion some newspapers have towards the term “kidnap victim,” or even just “victim,” when reporting the discovery of Jaycee Lee Dugard last week was notable. Even more surprising was the term that is apparently more acceptable, more au courant: sex slave.
Last week the London tabloid Daily Mail and, less predictably, the Times used this term in their headlines about the case, while other tabloids, of course, pledged their support to the term, too. London’s Evening Standard slapped it on their familiar billboards all over town, which managed almost to neuter the term through prosaic repetition. But then, “kidnap victim” does lack an illicit erotic kick, don’t you find?
One tabloid made a horror-struck comment about how kidnapper Phillip Garrido (“the new Fritzl/Charles Manson, etc, etc” — U.K. press) “satisfied his sick sexual urges” with Dugard, when, at that moment, it sounded like the only people being satisfied were the tabloids’ readers. There have been unconfirmed tales from a neighbour about the “orgies” Garrido may or may not have held in his backyard involving “eight to 10 men, mostly Mexican.” True? Possibly not: “I just hope that sicko wasn’t pimping out Jaycee or those children. The thought makes me sick,” the neighbour said, but not so sick he couldn’t share his supposition with the slavering press.
The coverage of Dugard reflects the strangely voyeuristic way the British press covers kidnappings of young girls. It would take a highly patriotic American to claim that their country’s media doesn’t succumb to tasteless voyeurism from time to time, but it was striking how, last Friday, when this American story was breaking, it was the headline on all U.K. newspaper websites. Over at the New York Times and Washington Post, however, it got only small paragraph mentions on the front page; instead the unashamedly tabloid (and Murdochian) New York Post gave it what shall now be known as the U.K. treatment.
Now, you could say that this was a sad reflection of America’s outdated obsession with the Kennedy family that an ageing politician’s funeral, which was happening that day, took precedence. But, my God, the U.K. press does love a “house of horror” story hence the detailed photos of Dugard’s prison backyard in several U.K. papers by the weekend. Moreover, the interest in the fate of kidnapped girls has arguably escalated in this country after the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. But one wonders how Kate and Gerry McCann feel when they read all the (hypothetical, unconfirmed) graphic details of what Dugard has been through for the past 18 years.
The coverage of other recent cases involving rediscovered kidnapped girls — Elisabeth Fritzl and Natascha Kampusch — have eased the slimy way for the sweaty-palmed coverage of Dugard. Fritzl and Kampusch were both referred to as “sex slaves” occasionally, but with nowhere near the frequency and abandon as Dugard.
New kind of shame
The sexual abuse is an important part of all these cases and, in the case of Dugard, who left her prison with two children she did not have when she went in, an unavoidable part. But describing her as a “sex slave” not only puts the emphasis on her, as opposed to her captor, but suggests the sexual abuse element was the only damaging part, as opposed to the imprisonment, the loss of contact with her family and the possible brain-washing. No doubt the tabloids would claim that Garrido is merely getting the pillorying he deserves. But to use concern for Dugard as an excuse to pull back her bedclothes seems but a whisper away from claiming, as Garrido did, to be the voice of God in order to have control over your captive. It’s hard not to feel that Dugard has just escaped 18 years of sexual abuse, only to walk out into the blinding light of a whole new kind of shame. Her disappearance may have been public knowledge, but now that her fate is known, why doesn’t she get the same protection as other rape victims?
Speaking of Kennedy, now we come to an inevitable tale of our times. 2009 is shaping up nicely to be the Year of the Dead Famous People. Which is great if you’re a celebrity obituarist but a nightmare if you’re a famous person in poor health as your risk of being overshadowed in death is even higher this year. And then your life will have been for naught. Well, if you’re the family of writer Dominick Dunne, who died last week right in the middle of Kennedy coverage, you know what to do.
It’s apt that Dunne, the modern-day Truman Capote (if not in novel-writing) and a man who knew that not all Bold-Faced Names (American slang for celebrities) are created equal, should be the one to confront this problem where Mother Teresa (clashed with Diana) and Farrah Fawcett (like you need to ask) failed. According to the New York Times obituary, “The spokesman had initially declined to confirm the death, saying the family had hoped to wait a day before making an announcement so that Mr. Dunne’s obituary would not be obscured by the coverage of Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s death.” Yeah, shove over, Teddy!
But how long should one’s family wait? And what if there was a backlog? Formaldehyded corpses stinking up parlours from Beverly Hills to Manhattan seem to be the inevitable future. Hey, has anyone seen Elizabeth Taylor recently? — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2009