Why Are There So Many Shows About Missing Girls On TV Right Now?

Photo: Courtesy Of Channel 4
It’s just what January ordered: a new primetime crime drama to ease us back into normality and give us something to pore over with our colleagues in the morning. Kiri, airing Wednesday nights, is the four-part Channel 4 drama about the abduction and murder of Kiri Akindele, a 9-year-old schoolgirl taken while on an unsupervised visit with her grandparents – a visit granted by her social worker, Miriam Grayson (played by Sarah Lancashire). But despite interesting themes of race, adoption, class and social care, the show has fallen a little flat. Perhaps it’s the inklings of humour, which – given the plot – feel misplaced, or the "significant inaccuracies" in the plot itself, pointed out in several complaints by social workers about the show. Plus, haven't we seen this all before – a number of times?
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Dramas about missing girls have become commonplace in British TV over the last few years. Kiri is just the most recent in a long list: Top of the Lake, Thirteen, In the Dark, The Child in Time, The Moorside – which was based on the true-life kidnapping of Shannon Matthews – and The Missing, which had Twitter and WhatsApp groups lit with discussion. We were even treated to a missing-girl plot in one of Charlie Brooker’s recently released Black Mirror episodes, "Arkangel", where the suggestion of abduction came in the first 10 minutes and, although fleeting, ramped up the stakes all the same.
Abduction, battery, sexual assault, rape and the (usually long-drawn-out) imprisonment of females have all been central themes of the above TV shows. They’re the most grisly Crimewatch cases we see – the kind that play on our mind for days afterwards – dramatised for the small screen. And the victims are always the same: young females.
It’s no secret that crime dramas have blown up in recent years: Homegrown shows like Happy Valley, Broadchurch, The Fall, Sherlock, Luther and US offerings like Breaking Bad, True Detective and Narcos – to which the likes of Netflix have kindly provided a gateway – are just a handful of our favourites. And it’s not hard to work out why these shows are so successful: Death is the highest stake in life, so shows about death make for gripping viewing. But why has this ‘missing girl’ sub-genre become particularly compelling?
One answer is desensitisation. Silent Witness, Law & Order and Inspector Morse-era shows just aren’t cutting it anymore; the ‘find body, perform autopsy, solve crime’ narrative simply does not grip us in the way it once did. The 2018 viewer requires a new level of suspense: the abduction, prolonged sexual abuse and/or imprisonment of the most vulnerable in our society – young or adolescent girls.
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TV writer Hanna Woodside thinks the winning crime drama formula plays into our real fears: “The missing-girl plot taps into fears that society – rightly or wrongly – has about the vulnerability of young women and girls at the hands of 'bad men'. Why missing and not dead? Perhaps because we're desensitised to dead bodies and the imagined torment and desperation of searching for a missing loved one is more emotionally affecting.”
Photo: Courtesy Of Channel 4
It’s not the actual death but the potential of death that enraptures today’s viewer. Perhaps that’s why Kiri’s plot isn’t gripping me like others in the genre have before. Aside from the show feeling fairly light and airy (it’s set in Bristol in the springtime), we find out Kiri’s been murdered pretty quickly after her abduction (they find her body in episode one). We don’t see Kiri in any sort of distress, and there’s no suggestion of torment (the main suspect is her father, who by all accounts seems to care for her, despite his criminal history). Maybe there’s just not enough horror to keep my eyes glued to the screen? And what does that say?
Hanna also wonders if the news media could have something to do with it: “It could be in response to news splashes in recent years about previously abducted women being found/escaping after years or decades of being imprisoned. There's undoubtedly a ghoulish appetite: What horrors did they go through when they were 'missing'?”
Are the stories of missing girls, kidnap, rape and imprisonment not some of the worst yet most captivating stories we hear about on the news? We all know that real-life stories pack more of a punch, and maybe that’s why the missing-girl dramas work so well, because we’re reminded of the grim headlines of cases like Josef Fritzl and Jaycee Lee Dugard. You could call it the Serial-cum-Making a Murderer effect, both true crime series (one a podcast, one a documentary) which transfixed viewers on both sides of the Atlantic.
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But are these excessive storylines of battery and rape damaging to women? It’s a topic that actress Keira Knightley has taken issue with recently, commenting: “I always find something distasteful in the way women are portrayed [on TV and film set in the modern day].” She told Variety that women “are nearly always raped”. Is this focus in entertainment making women feel unsafe and more fearful of going out? A few female friends I asked agreed, with one saying: “Abduction is probably the most terrifying fear we have as females, and we wouldn’t really know much about the grim details of it if it weren’t for these shows. They don’t stop us from going out, but they definitely make us more sensible with travelling alone at night and stuff.”
There’s one aspect of consuming missing-girl dramas that never seems to falter: We’re all rooting for a satisfying, if not happy, ending. Maybe that’s why they work so well, because despite the torture and torment, there’s still hope of a restored life, reunion and even revenge. We’re obsessed with the adrenaline of the escape. We question what we’d do if we were in this situation: What object would we pick up to knock our captor round the head with? Would we be able to run to the door and unlock it before they caught us? After that, we crave the reunion. The deep exhale of pent-up anxiety. The feeling of seeing the mother and daughter in each other's arms again. The joy of seeing two actors we’ve come to know separately, share the same scene for the first time. Could the appeal of these shows actually lie in the hope factor? I hope so. Putting everything else aside, the hope of finding Kiri’s killer is the reason I’ll be tuning in on Wednesday night.
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