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'The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann' Gets It All Wrong

By Kate Hudson | TV | March 29, 2019 |

By Kate Hudson | TV | March 29, 2019 |


I moved to the UK in the fall of 2010 and utilized the small regional airport in Exeter for the three years I lived there, averaging one flight every couple of months. Every time I went to my departure gate, the massive poster of Madeleine McCann — who was and still is missing — was there to bid me safe travels and plead with me to pay extra attention to the faces of the young girls I might encounter on my travels because one of them might be hers.

It’s hard to describe the prevalence of Madeleine McCann in the UK press and cultural psyche during the time I lived there. Madeleine McCann disappeared from her bed in a rented apartment at a holiday resort in Portugal on May 3, 2007. She has not been seen since, although there is no evidence that she was murdered. Her abduction is still an active investigation.

The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann, recently released on Netflix, is another entry into the growing business of missing or murdered women and girls. Teresa Halbach, Hae Min Lee, JonBenét Ramsey. These girls (and woman) all have had “their” stories told without their voices being heard. Every aspect of their murders has been dissected and put on display for people like you and me to discuss and argue under the guise of “seeking the truth.” The story of their pain and suffering is mitigated and lessened in order to focus on the impact their violent ends have had on the men in their lives. The men are always the central focus of these women’s stories.

In the first episode, a curious choice is made to illustrate to an American audience just how saturated the coverage of McCann’s disappearance was in the UK by comparing it to two high-profile cases in the States. If you’re thinking one of them would be JonBenét Ramsey, you’d be wrong. The film oddly compares it to Etan Patz and Adam Walsh’s respective abductions. Horrific, absolutely, but surely the abduction of Polly Klaas — while at a sleepover — is a more direct correlation. She was taken from her bed, just like Madeleine, not to mention the eerie overlap between the McCann and Ramsey cases (both started out as apparent abductions, both parents were long-theorized by the public to have played a part.) By drawing a comparison to two young boys who were murdered, it’s almost as if the intention is to elicit empathy from the assumed (male) viewer. It’s an odd choice, especially because there are stronger comparisons alluding to the inherent gendered violence of McCann’s abduction (she was sleeping in the same room next to her twin brother and sister, yet she was the one taken.) The violence against a girl is used as a jumping off point for men and spoken in terms that men will understand: The vague and amorphous threat that took her can be a threat to them, too.

Relating the narrative thread back to the very real violence towards a little girl and demonstrating the impact it had on men is reiterated in the second episode, which chooses to focus on some of the local men who were accused of playing a role in McCann’s abduction. The narrative focus becomes less about Madeleine — who was taken from her family and robbed of the future she might have had — and instead becomes how McCann’s disappearance negatively affected people around her. In more nuanced hands that might be compelling, but this is not that kind of series. It’s dull, easily distracted, and doesn’t spend enough time with its subject before it jumps into what happened after she was gone. Director Chris Walsh is most likely known to you for his far superior Fyre Fest documentary. Here, his empathy is not with the little girl whose entire future was snatched from her. The first two episodes instead focus the narrative on the men who were only tangentially related, at best, to the core mystery surrounding this series: What happened to Madeleine McCann?

The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann comes off as lurid, cheap, and boring. I’m not sure, either, what the aim or objective was in creating an eight (!) episode series around Madeleine without her family’s involvement or blessing, but the result is a jumbled mess that never finds its footing, never says something new, and never focuses its attention on where it should be: Madeleine McCann. If she’s still alive, she would be 15 years old as of publication. That’s 12 missed birthdays with her parents, Christmases with her family, years at building a life. It’s something the documentary should have driven home much more clearly if it wanted to capitalize on her disappearance. Dead and missing girls are a booming niche industry in the true crime documentary world. The lack of humanity afforded Madeleine is just the cost of doing business. Just ask Teresa, Hae Min, and JonBenét.

Kate is a staff contributor. You can follow her on Twitter.

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