Gabby Petito is one of the thousands of women who disappear each year, as nearly three women are murdered every day in America by their romantic partners, but unlike almost all of those women she has become front page news and, in her disappearance and possible death, a sort of human Rorschach test: a meme, a hashtag, a social media moment and movement.
Gabby Petito’s hashtag was searched 268 million times on TikTok. In the same area that Gabby Petito disappeared, 710 indigenous people— mostly girls—disappeared between the years of 2011 and 2020 but their stories didn’t lead news cycles, internet sleuths didn’t clog Instagram and Twitter trying to solve the mystery of their disappearances. Personally, I find it more than a little infuriating that those 710 people didn’t get the same attention as this white, model-thin 22-year-old who’d been documenting her travels through Utah’s national parks in a white van with her boyfriend on Instagram.
While her story has resonated on many levels—to some she is an abused girlfriend, to others the victim of a serial killer of the kind you might find in a cold case podcast series (two newlywed women were murdered in Moab at around the same time as Petito came to town), and many of us see proof in this story of how police often don’t take domestic violence as seriously as they should.