There are certain moments in history that mark a turning point for cultural understanding, acting as catalysts for change. For Victorians, one of the most brutal examples of this can be found in the now iconic image of a smiling woman gazing into the far left distance of a camera’s lens.
It’s difficult to believe five years has passed since the night Adrian Bayley randomly selected Jill Meagher on Melbourne’s Sydney Road to be the vessel for his anger and fury at women everywhere; but today – September 22 – marks this sombre anniversary.
The discovery of Jill’s body in a shallow grave 50 kilometres north of Melbourne and the subsequent arrest of Bayley ended any hope members of the public had that the young ABC worker might be found alive.
As a new timeline emerged, one in which a violent sexual predator stalked, brutalised and murdered a woman as she exercised her basic right to walk home alone late at night, public grief gave way to anger. And while some media outlets and personalities indulged traditional narratives of victim blaming (“Why was she walking home alone?”, “She looks like a party girl!” and “Girls, when will you learn?”), broader communities pushed back and instead began to discuss men’s violence against women in new and more meaningful ways.
Two days after Jill’s body was found, thousands of people were photographed marching down Sydney Road in what has since become an image of defiance and community strength.
There were two major learning points that occurred as a result of this crime, at least as I see it. At the outset, it can’t be overlooked that Jill was a young, attractive, middle-class white woman who worked in the media. The phenomenon of the Missing White Woman Syndrome is real, and speaks to the covert (and not so covert) ways racism and classism especially dovetail to elevate the value of certain women over others in an inherently unjust society. It’s no coincidence that Bayley was out on parole after serving time for the rapes of multiple sex workers, nor does anger diminish over time to know that, had the “wrong kind” of women been given proper respect and legislative justice in the first place, Bayley wouldn’t have been on the street that night and able to destroy what society sees as the “right kind” of woman.
Acknowledging Jill’s advantages in these areas is not a discredit to her memory – it’s a recognition that all women deserve the same care and respect.
But there was also the dawning realisation that it was pointless and even harmful to frame Bayley as the archetypal Evil Monster, even as he seemingly represented every stereotype that has ever sat alongside that. The rape and murder of Jill Meagher was horrifying and tragic, but this kind of sexual violence is not the norm.
Most victims and survivors of sexual violence are not stalked by the bogyman on the street before being dragged into an alleyway to meet a sordid demise. This cautionary tale is the widespread lie we’ve been told since childhood, and it obscures the true nature of the threat that is posed to women – which is to say, the people most likely to assault and violate us are men we know, in circumstances far less cinematic than those found on abandoned street corners with an absence of adequate lighting.
It was Tom Meagher himself who spearheaded the most truthful and heartbreaking conversations around this reality. Jill’s husband, who throughout all of this has been a picture of strength, inconceivable fortitude and quiet dignity, took the circumstances of his wife’s rape and murder and used them to challenge people’s internal biases around gender and abuse.
After returning to his native Ireland, he became a tireless community campaigner on men’s violence against women. In 2014, he wrote a blistering piece that excoriated the common Monster Myth. Particularly profound is this excerpt, which refers to the first time he came face to face with Bayley in the courtroom:
I had formed an image that this man was not human, that he existed as a singular force of pure evil who somehow emerged from the ether. Something about his ability to weave together nouns, verbs and pronouns to form real, intelligible sentences forced a re-focus, one that required a look at the spectrum of men’s violence against women, and its relation to Bayley and the society from which he came.
By insulating myself with the intellectually evasive dismissal of violent men as psychotic or sociopathic aberrations, I self-comforted by avoiding the more terrifying concept that violent men are socialised by the ingrained sexism and entrenched masculinity that permeates everything from our daily interactions all the way up to our highest institutions.
That Tom could be so generous and clear-sighted in his observations speaks to his profound goodness, and the legacy of change he’s determined be sparked by the horrors Jill (and her family, in its aftermath) have had to endure.
So what can we say we’ve learned as a community, five years later? There’s no doubt that collective awareness on this issue has manifestly evolved. We are, I hope, more honest about some things and also more willing to point to the realities of violence rather than the myths that help us sleep better at night.
The toxicity of victim blaming and the excusing of perpetrators still persists, but more voices have emerged to challenge this. Discussions around the common picture of sexual violence are becoming louder and more influential, and this continues to change minds that may still be grasping onto stereotypes rather than statistical fact.
But there is still a long way to go. The racism and classism that prioritise certain women over others is still deeply entrenched, as is the hyper protection still offered to young boys and men empowered by their own race and class privilege to keep “making mistakes”. We are not there yet, but we are heading in the right direction.
Vale, Jill. You are missed. You are remembered.