Noble: The owls are not what they seem |

Noble: The owls are not what they seem

For two weeks in September, the saga of Gabby Petito riveted the country. The last time she communicated with her mother, Nicole Schmidt was on Aug. 25. On Sept. 11, Schmidt reported her daughter missing. On Sept. 19, Petito’s remains were found in Wyoming, and a month later the remains of her fiancé, and likely murderer, were found in Florida.

The media’s coverage of the story bordered on the obsessive. Cynics claim it was “Missing White Woman Syndrome,” a term coined by the late Gwen Ifill to describe media attention lavished on missing white women, while ignoring the disappearances of black and brown women. Given the dearth of coverage of the thousands of other people who go missing each year, this complaint is not without validity. However, it is hardly the complete explanation.

For comparison, consider that nearly 3 million people die every year in America, and the media only covers a fraction of those deaths. There is only so much media coverage available, so the deaths of the wealthy, powerful, famous, and infamous make the news. The rest of us must hope that when we die whoever writes our obituary is not out to settle scores.

What made Petito’s story compelling, and therefore irresistible for the media and public alike, was the narrative arc featuring attractive young lovers on a #VanLife adventure that turned into a chilling tragedy with both dead. More than 500 years ago, Shakespeare wrote a tale of young love that ended in death — a testament to the enduring appeal of such a story.

Petito, born in 1999, was at the vanguard of Gen Z — the first generation to grow up with the internet, mobile phones, and social media. As a result, more than any other generation Gen Z has eradicated the distinction between public and private life, sharing every moment from the mundane to the intensely personal.

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The consequences of the constant exposure and feedback loop are found in the stunning mental health problems that besiege their generation: sobering depression, anxiety, and suicide rates. Perhaps it is not so much the public sharing that is the problem, but the scrutiny and criticism it invites.

As the search for Gabby wore on, the delicate pretense of her carefree, adventurous life evaporated. Witness accounts of physical altercations and law enforcement video emerged. A shadow eclipsed the happy fantasy and the suspicion that it was all staged arose. Social media was blamed.

Instagram is criticized for perpetuating unrealistic beauty standards and flawlessly staged lives. But Instagram did not invent make-believe. Social media may be an intensifier, but keeping up appearances has always been a thing.

Thanks to the television series “The Crown,” the movie “Spencer,” and a CNN documentary series, Princess Diana, gone for more than 20 years, is suddenly everywhere.

For those who stayed up late to watch the royal wedding in real time and gushed over the dress and the extravagant ceremony, fairy tale and real life became indistinguishable. Diana’s wedding to Prince Charles was a secret sham from the start, concealed even from her. She was a breeder of heirs, expected to play the dutiful spouse to her adulterous husband. Diana refused to play along with the farce. It is possible to be sad the fairy tale was a lie, and still cheer the woman who walked away from that lie.

Huma Abedin displayed a dignified and reserved manner as Norah O’Donnell questioned her about the tawdry scandal attached to her, but which she had no part in — her husband’s philandering, as well as his inappropriate communications with underage girls. Abedin is beautiful, educated, and accomplished. These assets should have inoculated her from marrying a loser husband, or one would hope.

Petito, Abedin, and Princess Diana were stars in their own fairy tales. Unfortunately, there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the phrase, “fairy tale.” Blame in on Disney. It was Disney, after all, that took the darkness out of fairy tales and repackaged them in more palatable versions for modern Americans.

Fairy tales of old were dark and frightening, Medieval versions of scared straight. They were meant to be morality tales with dire consequences woven into their fabric. To modify behavior, describing real life penalties was far more effective than bland Sunday sermons about eternity.

The stories of Petito, Abedin, and Princess Diana teach us that if the beautiful, the royal, and the exceptional are vulnerable, everyone is; and that keeping up appearances is a tale as old as time.

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