The notoriously aggressive British tabloid press has been obsessed with the disappearance of 4-year-old Madeline McCann since she vanished from her family's hotel room at a Portuguese resort this past May. The majority of the the scrutiny, as Broadsheet pointed out this morning, has fallen on Maddy's mother, Dr. Kate McCann. In September, Kate was named as a suspect in Maddy's disappearance. Most recently, Kate was quoted as telling her mother, "If I weighed another two stone, had a bigger bosom and looked more maternal, people would be more sympathetic." An editorial in the Daily Mail contended that Portuguese women have been especially unsympathetic because Kate's, well, a a skinny bitch. "Anyone who has traveled in Spain, Portugal, Italy or Greece knows how young mothers quickly come to look like overblown roses... It's hard not to imagine Portuguese women murmuring to their husbands that this British woman is — yes — much too skinny."
The racism and sexism of that editorial notwithstanding, I'd contend that if Portuguese women are unsympathetic, it's not because of McCann's weight. It's because when abductions and kidnappings take place in Portugal involving poorer, less telegenic, non-Aryan children, the media and police attention is much more difficult to garner.
It's such a ladywriter cliche to evoke Joan Didion, but fuck it, I'm going to do it anyway. In her 1990 essay about the Central Park jogger fiasco, "Sentimental Journeys," Didion writes about the rape and murder of Laurie Sue Rosenthal, a case that did not get the kind of attention that the Central Park jogger received: "[It] seemed a natural tabloid story but it failed, on several levels, to catch the local imagination... She seemed not to have attended an expensive school, or to have been employed in a glamour industry (no Ivy Grad, no Wall Street exec)."
Some of the articles about Maddy McCann mention Joana Cipriano, a local eight-year-old girl who was abducted from the same part of Portugal as Madeline was in 2004, and her mother, Leonor, was allegedly beaten into confessing to Joana's murder. Leonor's common-law husband told ABC News, "The only difference between the McCanns and us is that we don't have money... If Kate McCann were Portuguese, she would already be in jail." Leonor is currently serving a 16-year sentence for Joana's murder, even though she retracted her confession. Joana's body has never been found.
If you think about the abduction cases that get the most media attention (Jon Benet Ramsey, Natalee Holloway) the players are always the same: middle class, attractive, lily-white. The parents of the abductees are always subject to an unreasonable amount of scrutiny and media scorn, but at least the police and the public remain involved in finding the answers to their cases. Kate and her husband, fellow doctor Gerry, even got an audience with the Pope. The parents of the over 2,000 Colombian children kidnapped each year would probably love that kind of attention.