How “Only Murders” foreshadowed Gabby Petito’s media circus and citizen sleuth


In what looks like a page from an episode of “Only Murders in the Building,” citizen detectives have taken action on social media platforms in response to Gabby Petito’s ongoing heartbreaking and mysterious case.

The 22-year-old was reported missing earlier this month after a four-month trip across the country with boyfriend Brian Laundrie, who returned home to Florida without Petito a few weeks ago. With Laundrie also missing, the story has since sparked an explosion of weirdly excited and crime-obsessed vloggers and Tik Tokers, who are desperate to beat detectives – one Twitter thread theory at a time.

The trio of citizen detectives “Only Murders”

The hyper-engagement and twisted opportunism of these true influence-seeking crime junkies resonates eerily with the subject matter and commentary featured in the Hulu murder crime comedy. “Only Murders in the Building” follows Selena Gomez, Martin Short, and Steve Martin as three curious neighbors united in their obsession with a true crime podcast. When their neighbor Tim Kono (Julian Cihi) dies under mysterious circumstances, the three are convinced that their years of consuming real criminal podcasts have made them uniquely qualified to solve their neighbor’s case, much to Detective Williams (Da ‘Vine Joy Randolph).

From the first episode of “Only Murders”, Williams is exhausted by the antics of self-proclaimed citizen sleuths, mobilized by real criminal podcasts and convinced they can do the expert job after listening to two episodes of “My Favorite Murder” . His cynicism towards true crime junkies is validated as Mabel (Gomez), Oliver (Short), and Charles (Martin) break laws, tamper with evidence, and cross all kinds of lines to get to the bottom of Kono’s death.

“Only Murders” satirizes the opportunism and presumption latent among many true creators and consumers of criminal content, looking to make a dime or at least go viral because of the worst thing that has ever happened to the world. family of a young woman. From the first episodes of the series, Oliver, a struggling Broadway director, is determined to do a podcast about the death of their late neighbor, before they know anything about him, have any concerns. suspects or even that they spoke with the family of the young man.

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At one point in the third episode of the series, Putnam compares the process of finding a suspect to the murder of his neighbor, looking for a lead in a Broadway production. “I’ve run 212 theatrical productions,” he says, “and I’ve always found my lead role. It takes a special eye to know who has that special spark, who’s just a background actor.” For Oliver, the possible murderer of a young man in their apartment building is a character to him, and the murder itself is just a theatrical production. Oliver is heavily involved in branding the podcast, finding a rich and mysterious sponsor, and even networking with a titan from the real criminal podcast industry, played by Tina Fey.

Eventually, Oliver changed his mind about their podcast when Mabel reveals her close relationship with Kono and the trauma she suffered following the loss of their mutual friend years ago. But Oliver’s original approach isn’t all that different from clickable Tik Toks or thirsty Twitter threads invoking Petito’s name for personal gain, or further obscuring an already complicated ongoing investigation with ignorant speculation.

Self-proclaimed “Elle Woods” TikTokers Are Looking For Weight

In real life, Petito’s case also kicked off an avalanche of almost dizzying Tik Tok analyzes, with TikTokers like @robandhaley creating and sharing dozens of videos eagerly speculating on Petito’s case over the past two weeks, with millions of views. One TikToker, @stopitparis, began sharing analysis videos on Petito’s case last week, and has since grown from around 150,000 subscribers to nearly 260,000, according to the New York Times.

Some Twitter users have highlighted extended theories just based on Petito’s different hair coloring in recent photos and videos shortly before his demise. This has led some amateur detectives to call themselves Elle Woods, in reference to the iconic character of Reese Witherspoon in the 2001 comedy “Legally Blonde”, in which a key witness is caught in a lie based on Elle’s extensive knowledge of the matter. hair care.

The obsession with Petito’s disappearance has sparked a number of conversations about how we are responding to the tragic disappearances and murders of young women. The case shows how real crime has desensitized many of its fans to horrific violence and instead fostered greedy voyeurism, a phenomenon that “Only Murders” skillfully mocks. A young woman has died, with disturbing evidence pointing to her boyfriend’s possible involvement in her death, and vloggers and social media users are enthusiastically consuming her story, make “legally blonde” jokes while her family cries.

None of this is to say that there is no value in crowdsourcing information on ongoing mystery cases, or raising media attention and awareness. Many true crime junkies clearly don’t lack the time to research or help, and the mass mobilization often produces at least a couple of useful details, every now and then, as Netflix’s True Crime Documentary shows. , “Don’t F ** k With Cats,” in which online cat lovers unite to catch a killer.

Yet most ordinary citizens simply do not have the resources, the authorization, the expertise and the detective skills to occupy so much space in the investigation. Worse yet, many of the social media circus participants we see around Petito don’t seem as interested in helping his family as they do, helping themselves and their own social media accounts.

Missing white woman syndrome and its faults

What is striking about the immediate cultural obsession and extensive national media coverage of Petito’s case is that it blatantly reflects the centering of whiteness and white narratives in our society. This is a textbook case of what sociologists have long called the “missing white woman syndrome,” or the selective attention given to missing persons cases involving young, white upper-middle-class women or girls. .

In contrast, among the many people dedicated to Petito’s case, you would be hard-pressed to find one who could name any of the unspoken numbers of missing Indigenous women, or many missing and killed women and girls of color from backgrounds. low income. . In Wyoming alone, the state where Petito may have been killed, 710 indigenous people, mostly women and girls, are missing. The missing white woman syndrome speaks of a double standard in which life is valued, and which is considered worthy of attention, care and mobilization for justice in a society and media landscape steeped in whiteness.

Citizen detectives have chosen to use this private tragedy as a public opportunity, and their selfish analysis is often, unsurprisingly, devoid of important considerations about power and race – how missing white woman syndrome has erased others. victims and how Laundrie’s identity as a white man may have enabled him to escape police action and suspicion, disappearing a few days ago in the middle of the investigation. There has certainly been little to no conversation about the systemic failures of law enforcement agencies in dealing with possible cases of domestic violence, possibly due to the prevalence of domestic violence among police officers themselves.

Despite this, missing white woman syndrome often does little or no good to white women themselves, relegating their lives, their pain, their most intimate struggles to yet another episode of a crime podcast for millions of people. .

The subject of Oliver, Mabel and Charles’ podcast in “Only Murders in the Building” is notably not a white woman, but a young Asian or mixed race man, and presumably a wealthy resident, who grew up in their luxury apartment building. In this way, the series reverses the traditional true-crime podcast storyline with the identity of their mysterious subject. As a result, the show might make audiences wonder why in real life we’ve heard so few podcasts on stories with topics like Kono, and instead we’ve heard so much on topics. white and feminine like Petito.

Since Petito’s case first gained media attention earlier this month, Laundrie has disappeared, shortly after being named a Person of Interest. Petito’s family have asked very publicly for Laundrie’s family to cooperate with the ongoing police investigation. Then, on Sunday evening, the FBI announced that it had found human remains in the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming, as described by Petito. The next day, ABC7 reported that police raided Laundrie’s home and seized his car and other evidence, while he was still missing.

The business continues to develop at a rapid pace, with new developments announced on an hourly basis. As the “Only Murders” gang quickly discover in the midst of their fictitious on-screen detectives, their mysterious subject had friends, family, and loved ones who were struggling to deal with his death. This awareness of humanity at the heart of their investigation prompts them to slow their pace – and we can only hope that real-life TikTok detectives will eventually follow a similar example.

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