The titillating photo of a heavily made-up JonBenet Ramsey in a saucy cowgirl costume that circulated after her murder 10 years ago propelled the case into a public obsession.
A handful of unsolved murders involving children make national headlines each year, but the name JonBenet and her photograph became shorthand for a society's concerns about the safety of children and the nature of childhood. The lack of signs of forced entry and the distant demeanor of the girl's parents compounded public discomfort with images of a victim described as a "6-year-old beauty queen."
"When we saw those images, people thought, `There's something wrong with this whole picture,'" said Jeffrey Ian Ross, a criminologist at the University of Baltimore. I think the public deconstructs these messages on a very superficial level, and they wondered about the relationship between the parents and their daughter."
At a Bangkok news conference yesterday, John Mark Karr confessed to killing the daughter of John and Patsy Ramsey "by accident." In Boulder, Colo., where the beauty pageant star was found dead Dec. 26, 1996, in the basement of her home, Karr was charged with murder, kidnapping and sexual assault. Uncertainty about Karr's confession lingers.
As in the JonBenet case, images that galvanize the public are often tied to pressing social concerns, said Ross, author of Making News of Police Violence. The image of Rodney King being beaten by police officers in 1992 encapsulated fears about race relations and police violence. The photo of John F. Kennedy as he was shot in an open convertible in Dallas signaled the end of an era. The image of O.J. Simpson fleeing in his white Bronco crystallized the notion of a fallen hero, Ross said.
The media's compulsion to simplify a story into "black and white" hurt the Ramseys, said Matthew T. Felling, media director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. "Hypersexualizing your 6-year-old does not make you a murderer. There was a large leap Americans had to take. I don't think they thought through the difference between strutting out your daughter as if she were 21 and tying her up with duct tape and killing her."
The incongruity of a little girl dressed for sex at once fascinated and appalled people following the case. JonBenet's murder was the "hook on which you can place stories about criminals, pedophilia, America's hypersexualized culture, deviancy, recidivism," Felling said. "And all those plot lines are ratings gold."
The polished quality of the photos and videos repelled some viewers who believed they were taken to promote JonBenet's career as a model or actress, Ross said. That quality also contributed to the frequency with which the photos and videos were shown in newspapers and magazines and on television, he said.
The "exploitation of [the] child caused anger and resentment among ordinary people," said Scott Johnson, associate professor of political science at Frostburg State University. "Making her so visible created the impression that she was vulnerable. There are pedophiles out there who attend those pageants."
But Arnett Gaston, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Maryland, said the public was misled by the photographs.
"There are a number of parents who have their children involved in beauty contests where there's no sexual motivation at all," Gaston said. "It's a matter of dressing them up like dolls, perhaps as a way to continue their own childhoods. Or they may receive vicarious pleasure from the admiration that the child gets."
When distributed around the world, however, those images sent mixed messages about childhood and sexuality, said Sheri Parks, professor of American studies at the University of Maryland.
The "highly sexualized images of JonBenet raised the question of how [her parents] were relating to her as a child as opposed to a sexual being," Parks said. "Even for people who participate in pageants, she was made up more maturely than girls who normally do that."
"On Christmas of 1996, America was heartbroken and wanted to know as much as possible," upon hearing of JonBenet's death, Felling said. "Then the pictures started leading the story in a different direction. The more Americans saw, the less comfortable they were with it all. What kind of parent dressed their kid up like a showgirl?"