What the shaming of Kate McCann says about us all 

Kate McCann has been blamed for 13 years, writes Claire Cohen
Kate McCann has been blamed for 13 years, writes Claire Cohen Credit: Andrew Crowley

Over the past eleven weeks, most of us have been kept apart from those we love. Parents have missed their grown-up children, grandparents haven’t seen grandkids, siblings have been separated. It has been a cruel taster of what life would be like without their physical presence in it. Hard. No Zoom call can replace a hug or kiss, or even seeing their face properly - since March, I’ve mostly had conversations with my mum’s forehead and dad’s left nostril. But we know they are there, eagerly awaiting the moment we can embrace once more and hopefully pick up family life where it left off.

Kate and Gerry McCann’s only hope is that their daughter might still be alive. They have been apart from Madeleine for 13 years. They don’t know where she is, or what happened on the night she was taken from their holiday apartment in Praia da Luz in May 2007.

For 13 years they have also been blamed. As news broke this week that the police have identified a new prime suspect - a 43-year-old German man, already in prison for child sex offences - in the three-year-old’s disappearance, I was shocked at the number of people still pointing their fingers at her parents. Specifically her mother. The social media echo chamber resonated with thousands of tweets reading ‘I didn’t know Kate McCann was German’ and GIFs of people wiping sweat from their foreheads, “The McCanns right now - phew”.

Is this supposed to be funny? At what point does the pain of parents who have had their infant daughter abducted become a joke? It made my blood boil because it shows so clearly our cruel habit of turning women from victims into villains. 

Almost from the moment Madeleine was taken, Kate McCann was treated this way. Never mind that the Portuguese police ruled her, and her husband, out as suspects. The public appetite for blame wouldn’t be held back by something as trifling as that. 

We like women to fit one of two stereotypes in these situations - the martyr or the monster; the madonna or whore. What began as “that poor woman’ swiftly became “she’s hiding something” - because the latter trope is so much more thrilling, right?

So Kate McCann was accused of not crying enough, of not showing the proper amount of emotion. She was criticised for not appearing devastated, daring to wash her hair and wear make-up during television appeals for her daughter’s return. When she was spotted exercising, it only fanned the flames. How could a woman whose child has gone missing dare to think about keeping fit? We didn’t understand then, as we do now, the mental health benefits of running. But even if we had, I have a feeling the McCann conspiracy theorists wouldn’t have cared.

And the rest of us? There are still plenty of people who dole out blame and shame, and have done so for more than a decade. What sort of mother leaves her children unsupervised to go to a bar? No loving mum would do such a thing...

As if the McCanns don’t feel guilty enough already. As if they don’t berate themselves for that decision day in, day out. As if many of us haven’t made similar decisions, assessing the risk and doing what we think reasonable at the time. The only difference being that the McCanns paid a heavy price for it. 

This pattern of blaming women has been repeated in a number of high profile cases in the past decade or so. By coincidence, Joanne Lees was back in the news this week, as a new Channel 4 documentary examines the disappearance of her boyfriend, British backpacker Peter Falconio, in the Australian Outback in July 2001. Lees told police that they had been flagged down by a truck driver on a remote stretch of road; he shot Falconio, whose body has never been found, while she escaped. 

Bradley Murdoch is in prison for the murder, but almost 20 years on Lees is labelled as guilty in the court of public opinion. At the time, she was accused of being - guess what? - “cold” and “emotionless” in press conferences. Surely not the behaviour of someone who’s just witnessed their boyfriend’s killing? God forbid she, as with Kate McCann, might have been in shock, traumatised, in denial or simply resilient and not prone to tears. 

Why must a woman appear broken - a distraught, inconsolable heroine - to be believed? That was also what made Amanda Knox problematic in 2007 when, shortly after the murder of her flatmate Mereditch Kercher in Perugia, Italy - she was seen doing cartwheels and kissing her boyfriend. I have always believed that Knox’s only crime was being a naive, idiotic teenager who didn’t appreciate how her behaviour would look to a world desperate to apportion blame.

Not to mention the madonna/whore fixation - how much more titillating to buy into the ‘sex game gone wrong’ story featuring Knox, than believe a scarier truth: that any one of us could have our lives altered in a moments by a total stranger.

This article first appeared in Claire Cohen's weekly newsletter, The 51 Per Cent. Sign up (for free) here.