“Every few weeks, this stressed-out nation with more problems to worry about than hours in the day finds time to become obsessed with the saga –it’s always a ‘saga,’ never just a story — of a damsel in distress,” says Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson. Natalee Holloway, the student who disappeared on a class trip to the Caribbean island of Aruba, is the latest in what seems an endless series. Earlier sagas featured the runaway bride, Laci Peterson, Elizabeth Smart, Lori Hacking, Chandra Levy, and JonBenet Ramsey. We even found, or created, a damsel amid the chaos of war in Iraq: Jessica Lynch.
A damsel must be white, Robinson says. This requirement is nonnegotiable. It helps if her frame is of dimensions that breathless cable television reporters can credibly describe as “petite.” She must be attractive — also nonnegotiable. Her economic status should be middle class or higher, but an exception can be made in the case of wartime (see: Lynch). The disappearance of a man, or of a woman of color, can generate a brief flurry, but never the full damsel treatment. Since the Holloway story broke we’ve had more news reports from Aruba this past week, I’d wager, than in the preceding 10 years.