A suburban wife goes missing, prompting a flurry of 24-hour cable news coverage. Her husband appears on television declaring his love and pleading for her return. He’s accused of murder. A national drama ensues, as the media looks for answers. This script made Scott Peterson a national villain 15 years ago, after he was accused — and eventually convicted — of murdering his pregnant wife, Laci. And now Colorado husband Chris Watts has followed in Peterson’s bloody footsteps.
Vanity Fair called the Peterson case “a made-for-tabloid murder,” and it became so archetypal that the story inspired the 2012 Gillian Flynn thriller Gone Girl. (Peterson even looked a little like Ben Affleck, who played the missing woman’s husband in the movie.) A similar scenario played out with Watts after he reported his wife and daughters missing in August, asking for their safe return on television, only to later be accused of murdering them. Last week, Watts agreed to a plea deal in order to avoid the death penalty, pleading guilty to nine charges including first-degree murder. (He will be sentenced on Monday.) The story quickly became a national talking point, making the cover of People magazine three times in one month; the case was debated on morning shows and, in a sign of the times, dissected by entire networks of social media sleuths.
These cases both became big scandals because they play on a very particular, conservative moral framework that’s popular with tabloids and cable news. Both are middle-class suburban melodramas that resonate with onlookers because they juxtapose the spectacle of the enviable-husband-gone-bad with the iconography of the white, innocent wife, who cannot seek justice for herself, but on whose behalf the public and media can be galvanized.
These are the kind of crime stories that “highbrow” media outlets like Vanity Fair usually cover only to point out the coverage they’re getting elsewhere — mainly in “soft news” human interest outlets like People magazine and the network morning shows, such as Today or Good Morning America, whose readers and viewers are predominantly women. These outlets address themselves to the white minivan majority — suburban middle-class moms, or moms-to-be — and it is their fears and expectations that these narratives speak to.
In this particular suburban imaginary, so-called inner-city crimes involving people of color are seen as “normal,” non-newsworthy pathologies of the underclass. And in fact, there’s nothing inherently noteworthy about murderous husbands, because, as we now know, more than half of women murdered are killed by a current or former intimate partner. Yet stories like Watts’ and Peterson’s are still positioned as supposedly shocking anomalies, and become investigations into an apolitical idea about individually evil men and sociopaths — not, say, incels or participants in toxic masculinity. The stories adhere to a certain individualistic, conservative moralism, one that allows the media and public to play detective in a murder mystery, all in the name of justice for innocent white women and reaffirming the safety and sanctity of the (white) suburban way of life.
Both the Peterson and Watts stories initially attracted attention as another instance of what is now called missing white woman syndrome. This is a phenomenon that really took hold in the late ’90s and early aughts, fueled by TV personalities like Nancy Grace, cable’s queen of facile moral outrage, in which the disappearances of young white women like Chandra Levy and Natalee Holloway captured a disproportionate amount of the attention of cable news and the media.
The Peterson story first garnered coverage in Modesto, California, in 2002, and focused on Laci, a mother-to-be, who vanished on Christmas Eve. Her husband, Scott, claimed he went fishing and came home to find his wife gone. Similarly, Watts first got the attention of the media in Frederick, Colorado, when his pregnant wife, Shanann, was reported missing by a friend and coworker. Like Peterson, Watts was given a media megaphone to plead for his wife and daughters’ safe return. “If you’re out there, just come back. If somebody has her, just please bring her back,” he said to cameras. “I need to see everybody. I need to see everybody again. This house is not complete without anybody here.”
During the Peterson circus, reporters converged outside of his house, and included shots of the neighborhood in their reports. Watts was interviewed on his porch, clips from which played over again and again on cable news. The suburban context becomes a visual trope in these stories that trades on viewers’ (presumed) emotional resonance with the idea of “home,” with the white suburban family inside and some unknown outside force threatening it. Look at how normal everything looks, they suggest, even as the story teases the potential horror of what might have transpired inside these homes, rendered spooky or gothic in the aftermath.
And these telegenic white men are so often sold and packaged as emblems of normalcy — right up until the moment they turn out to be monsters — by the media. Peterson had been the family’s “golden boy,” as a sister put it. “Probably the worst thing I could say about him is he kind of knew he was good-looking and he knew he came from a good family,” one high school classmate told People. And Peterson’s wife Laci was “everybody’s sister,” as Grace put it.
Watts too was framed as an affable and devoted father. “Everybody liked him,” was the Daily Beast’s headline take on Watts. "His entire persona was as a family man, talking about his wife and his girls,” said a friend. They were the epitome of the picture-perfect social media family.
But it is of course not these couples’ normalcy that gives these stories legs. The public and media really latched on when these supposedly devoted husbands were discovered to have “scandalous” double lives, which led to a morality play that began with an unrelenting examination of their marriages. And any deviations from “normal” monogamous heterosexuality — often a husband lacking in devotion, or having affairs — inevitably become the cause for sensationalist mini-panics and media tut-tutting.
In Peterson’s case there were immediate suspicions about his behavior surrounding Laci’s disappearance. During one of his first interviews with a local news anchor he was asked, in a question that echoed public sentiments, "Why would you leave Laci, who’s eight and a half months pregnant, alone to go fishing on Christmas Eve?”
“It’s not uncommon for us to just, simply, we have separate pursuits,” he explained, sometimes stuttering, which only led to more suspicion. The outrage over Peterson reached its peak when Amber Frey, a massage therapist he was dating around the time of his wife’s disappearance, came forward in a January 2003 press conference to say they had had an affair. (Frey later got her own People magazine cover, wrote a memoir, and became, in the memorable words of the San Francisco Weekly, “the William Hung of women-who-boned-guys-who-killed-their-wives.”)
Peterson’s first big national interview was on Good Morning America, where he claimed to a disbelieving Diane Sawyer that he had told his wife about his extramarital activities. With the affair taking over as the main story, the Peterson case was featured on the cover of People, which featured Laci’s smiling face even as they teased Peterson’s “double life” and “other woman” as the story inside. Her smiling visage, juxtaposed with the lurid details inside, spoke to many women’s fears about the humiliation of everyone knowing but you. A follow-up cover — featuring a portrait of the beaming couple — promised to take readers “inside their marriage.” Supermarket tabloids reported spikes of 300,000 more copies sold every time the case was on the cover, and cable channels, like Fox News and MSNBC, saw huge ratings bumps when they focused on the unfolding mystery.
When his wife’s body washed ashore, along with the body of the fetus, in April 2003, Peterson was arrested, and the media frenzy consumed news networks and tabloid magazines alike.
But rather than settling the question of Peterson’s guilt in the media narrative and the public’s view, details that emerged after the discovery of the bodies did the opposite. The act he was accused of was seemingly so incomprehensible that people were willing to entertain outlandish theories, like the defense attorney’s suggestion that a satanic cult had kidnapped Laci to steal her baby, despite the simple statistical reality that more than half the time the person likely to have murdered any given woman was her male partner.
The Watts case began in August of this year, when a coworker noticed that Shanann, who was pregnant, was missing from work. She called Chris, who said his wife had taken their daughters Bella, 4, and Celeste, 3, to a playdate, but she also insisted on a police welfare check. When police did visit the Watts home, Shanann and their two daughters were nowhere to be found. The furor over the story played out differently, because Watts was arrested within days of the disappearance, and he confessed to police. Investigators eventually discovered his wife in a shallow grave on property of Anadarko Petroleum, where Watts worked. They also discovered his daughters’ bodies submerged in oil tanks. (That particular gruesome detail is one that lingered in people’s minds, and that commenters on Reddit threats and YouTube videos brought up time and time again.)
Still, what really happened remains unclear, since Watts only confessed to strangling his wife in a rage because he claimed he had seen her strangling their daughters on a baby monitor. (Prosecutors didn’t believe his story.) The public appetite for the case and the rest of the family narrative fell right into the established pattern, with onlookers taking a magnifying glass to the couple’s marriage via their social media profiles, searching for motives and clues. The couple’s Instagram and Facebook posts, including video of 4-year-old Bella singing to her father, all became content to parse.
In September, the media uncovered two alleged affairs that extended the story’s shelf life. The first one was between Watts and a then-unidentified coworker, who was given ample space in Radar Online to describe their “animalistic” sex, which included choking fantasies (details no doubt meant to hint at sociopathic tendencies). “He would put his hands on my throat during intercourse. Now that I know who he is, it gives me the chills! I can’t even think about it,” she told the tabloid.
Soon after, a man identified as Trent Bolte came forward on social media to say he too had an affair with Watts, alleging that Chris told him he was trapped in a loveless marriage. The revelation of a gay lover made the Watts story even more of a sensation. As one redditor noted, “I think this news story just bumped this up from a Lifetime movie to a Netflix docuseries.” The Watts family's three appearances on People that month were accompanied by headlines like: “A Husband’s Deadly Secrets,” “Did His Affairs Lead to Murder?” and “Married to a Monster.” As with Peterson, so-called experts were trotted out to call him sociopathic, to read the lack of emotion in his responses after the disappearances as explanation for what came before. On Today, Megyn Kelly also labeled Watts a sociopath, adding, "It's just so shocking and it breaks every covenant of marriage and love and parenthood."
The idea that these supposedly good, upstanding white men could show so little regard for the lives of their family is what rendered them so profoundly other to onlookers who identified with them; their ability to turn on the family was seen as the ultimate desecration and sign of perversity. In Watts’ case, the uncovering of a kind of kinky and hidden gay sex life was meant to prove that perversity, activating the phobic trope of the queer killer. (Similarly, after he was in prison, Radar Online gleefully reported that Peterson had become a “death row sissy,” trading sexual favors for protection.) This evidence of "strange" secret sexual behavior quelled anxieties that anyone — other than these sociopathic cheaters — could do something like this.
Peterson never confessed, but was ultimately found guilty, based on circumstantial evidence and, not incidentally, the testimony of Amber Frey, which had decidedly turned the public against him. One California radio station, for instance, put up a billboard with a Peterson mugshot framed with the question “Man or Monster?” and asked listeners to weigh in on his guilt or innocence. “Trapped by His Lies,” was People’s cover story headline, wrapping up the melodrama. The actual guilty verdict rendered through the court was so unsurprising that it didn’t even merit a full cover. The verdict was celebrated nationwide, and passersby honked their car horns and clapped outside the courtroom.
Ultimately, the decisions or verdicts in these cases are simply taken as after-the-fact proof that the criminal justice system works. This is despite the fact that it’s the minivan majority’s identification with the lost lives of these innocent, pregnant white women that mobilizes so many resources and brings the glaring media spotlight that keeps even prosecutors under constant scrutiny. (George W. Bush, a master at stoking minivan majority hopes and fears, even renamed a fetus-rights bill the “Laci and Conner” law in 2003.) Meanwhile, there are thousands of women each year whose deaths and disappearances are barely noticed or investigated, let alone obsessed over by a nation and its media — or simply treated as routine.
Melodramatic appeals on behalf of missing white women initially galvanize the public and tabloids, becoming a kind of moral cover for why these stories are newsworthy — yet the stories largely revolve around the husbands. Even as Watts awaits his sentencing on Monday, the “other woman” in the case is still making headlines with her revelations about his lies.
These men become perverse celebrities, partly because they are, of course, still alive — but also because their crimes can be framed as cautionary tales about evil sociopaths, that don’t require a reckoning with, for instance, the real effects of toxic masculinity and the violence it often leads to. This media framework in which the criminality of white masculinity is always individual, and always a shock, is especially relevant at a moment when the ongoing radicalization of white men has shown itself to be a genuine threat, and yet one that even the government has had trouble naming.
Of course stories that require grappling with cultural problems can’t easily fit into the moral imagination of tabloids and cable news, a world of individual monsters and innocent victims, and one that — in these particular tales — offers viewers and readers the promise of avenging a death, and setting their world back as it should be. Who could possibly resist? ●