Clementine Ford has written a terrific piece today on Daily Life outlining, in almost real-time, the kind of repugnant victim blaming that we see when a woman is attacked by a man. What makes this time different is that a woman has gone missing in baffling circumstances, and ticks all the boxes for a media obsession.
The story of Jill Meagher (you should pay attention to that link – you may be able to help) has it all for salacious exploitation by the trashmedia. Beautiful woman. Trendy locale replete with those nefarious ‘latte sippers’ that Herald Sun readers find so confusing and intimidating. Strange absence of evidence given it was the middle of Brunswick on a Friday night.
Beyond that, it’s still understandable that the media pays close attention to this story. At least around Melbourne, it affects us all. A woman has gone missing. Her family is distraught. Getting word out about it may help. But the kind of obsessive focus and victim blaming we’re seeing has real-world ramifications.
I live about a 35 minute walk from the scene of Meagher’s disappearance, in a location similar in demography to Sydney Road, and even closer to the main drag. My wife is one of those that are, as Ford notes:
…trained from an early age to assume every night time situation could carry some danger…naturally develop strategies and tools in order to get themselves home safely, despite the constant bleating from people that they need to take more care and accept the reality of their own vulnerability.
Yet over the years, an equilibrium has emerged. She will happily walk home from the pub, or catch a midnight train or tram on a Friday night. She was beginning to go for runs after sundown. All of these things are, statistically, perfectly safe things to do.
As Ford also points out, the vast bulk of assaults on women happen in the home, are perpetrated by someone who knows the victim, and there is no iron-clad correlation between violence and darkness.
Yet decades (centuries?) of victim-blaming have led women to believe that it is THEY who must change their behaviour. This story, and its slavish reporting in the press, are reinforcing that.
Before this story, I had only a vague understanding of the fear women felt for their safety, even though their encounters with violence were often negligible or non-existent. Now, it begins to make sense. The news of Jill Meagher has left my wife unwilling to walk the streets at night (and this is not the backblocks of Frankston, this is Fitzroy, Collingwood or Northcote). Running at night only if I come along.
And she is not alone. I am hearing more and more of women – strong, independent, capable and generally excellent women – reduced to the stereotype of yore by this news.
Nothing has changed. The odds of being assaulted by anyone, anywhere within 10km of downtown Melbourne remain infinitesimal. Southern suburbs like South Yarra and St Kilda are statistically far more likely to have violence than Brunswick.
Yet this almost Pavlovian reaction by the media to this story, and the near-Pavlovian response to it by so many women speaks volumes as to the role our media plays in making women feel secure and safe. First – and it boggles the mind that I feel the need to type this – if a woman is attacked, it is the attacker’s fault. Irrespective of the woman’s dress, demeanour, behaviour, or choice of route home.
Second, by heightening the salacious, female aspects of the story, the media piles on to a now-ancient narrative that women need to be scared. Again, probably shouldn’t require spelling out, but here goes: women should not feel afraid on our streets. They have the RIGHT to not feel afraid.
It’s one thing to report the news. It’s another to inflame and then capitalise on women’s long-founded (and inflamed and capitalised) fears to get eyeballs. One person’s disappearance doesn’t suddenly increase the level of risk we all face.
Please god that Jill Meagher is found, and found well. And before anyone knows the answer to that question, the trashmedia need to understand that their salacious and shameful coverage of this story has implications for women around the country. Real life implications. And we should all know better.