It’s early morning on 17th of July. I read the backlit news on my iPhone. The sun isn’t quite up; I was woken by some sirens passing on the busy street below my apartment. With my partner away, it isn’t unusual for me to stir more easily – not because I am afraid to sleep alone, but because, as women, we are programmed that way.
Awake now, I flick through the article in front of me, holding my breath. In Melbourne, two states away, a woman has been found dead in the shower of a hotel room where eleven men were celebrating a buck’s night. She hasn’t been identified but four of the men have been questioned and released overnight.
My heart beats a little faster in my chest knowing the feminist combat that cases like this usually provoke, the kinds of questions that women like me will have to defend against throughout the day: what was she doing there with those eleven men? Didn’t she know better? And, of course, what was she wearing?
Clicking from source to source, I’m not surprised to find the same detailed descriptions of her clothes over and over. Most sites list the information like it’s a natural inclusion, some mention that it is to aid police in identifying her, and only one excludes the details entirely.
‘She is believed to be aged in her 20s wearing a black long sleeved top, blue denim shorts and white runners …’ I wonder what I am supposed to deduce from this information. Between the lines it says she wasn’t wearing high heels, or a short dress, or makeup, or cleavage, or suggestively coiffed hair. The dots are laid out to be connected. The mainstream sketch suggests that the situation is much worse than the usual ‘loose woman’ narrative: for all intents and purposes, she appears to be an average girl. Undeserving of such brutality.
It’s still in the early hours of the case breaking, and the men have so far declined to tell police whether they knew the woman or how they met her, though one of them has commented to reporters that he felt that they had been ‘stitched up’. Out of context, it is hard to know exactly what is meant by the comment, but its blasé connotations are jarring. A dead body in a shower being likened to a prank that might appear in one of those cinematic odes to buck’s nights.
Getting ready for my day, I decide that the great ‘stitch up’ is the way that in 2017, a woman is still primarily understood as an object – a body in an outfit – or a prop to the age-old tradition of ‘boys being boys’. I can’t shake the similarities to the trope of the ‘dead girl’ found across pop culture, wheeled out every time a woman’s body is found in untoward circumstances.
Harking back to the corporeal feminists of the 90s, I remember Moira Gatens’ critique of bodily representation: ‘… depictions which purport to be the human body turn out to be depictions of white male bodies – with the bodies of others called upon to illustrate specific capacities’. I wonder what capacity this unknown woman’s body illustrates? Over the coming days, rather than becoming a commentary on masculine rituals, I fear that this will largely be another conversation about victim-blaming and female agency.
Cases such as this highlight the kinds of reactions that crimes against the female body (especially the young, attractive female body) elicit, and the way its fragility is emphasised. Will this young woman be reduced to a trope; a vessel to reinforce the notion that the female body is inherently dangerous, for both herself and for society? A wild, vulnerable creature that needed to be protected from the power of her own sexuality?
I recently finished Emily Maguire’s 2016 Stella shortlisted novel An Isolated Incident. It’s a fictional representation detailing the rape and murder of a woman in a small town. Through her work, Maguire takes aim at the annexation of women’s bodies that follows women not only throughout life, but also into death. When the ‘dead girl’ in the novel, Bella Michaels, is found, Maguire writes:
Someone dies of natural causes and everyone’s all about respecting privacy. Someone gets murdered and it’s considered okay – helpful and responsible, even – to delve into every email and text message, to lay out her underwear and porn collection, to note body-hair removal habits, how often the sheets were changed, whether she preferred tampons to pads, condoms to an IUD …
I recall the furore in the days after Melbourne woman Jill Meagher was murdered in Brunswick; all the things she came to represent. At the time, Clementine Ford wrote a scathing rebuke against the speculation around what led to Meagher’s death:
Some folk are still relishing the opportunity to remind women that if they don’t want anything bad to happen to them, they should be more careful about drinking/staying out late/talking to strangers who aren’t their husbands/wearing suggestive clothing/walking while female/having a vagina in the first place.
While I would like to hope things have changed in the last five years, I have a horrible premonition that discussions of this woman’s behaviour and predilections will extend beyond her denim shorts and running shoes. Flash forward and I see her face plastered across front pages, the titbits of information stitched up into an elaborate outfit that reminds women that their bodies are still not truly their own.
I hope I am wrong.
Image: High heel / Minoru Karamatsu