Social media is overflowing with heartfelt tributes, outpourings of grief and hot, blind fury over the tragic murder of Grace Millane. As I type, talkback radio listeners are calling in non-stop to vent their feelings. The hashtag #HerLightOurLove is trending on Twitter. Users are uploading images of the sky as a way to honour the pretty dead girl.
Hashtags and heart emojis. 💔
This is how we grieve.
It’s not just online. The Auckland Sky Tower is lit up white in Grace’s memory. The Prime Minister has tearfully apologised to her family, on behalf of all New Zealanders. It’s not typical for the PM to issue statements like that on individual homicides, but I think she read the mood of the nation and got it right. Our thoughts are all with Grace’s whānau, who will forever associate our land with their senseless and devastating loss. We are all sorry and ashamed that this happened to a tourist.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that Grace’s murder has been prioritised by the media, or that the nation has taken what my friend described as a ‘ghoulish delight’ in this young woman’s death.
Cynics will be quick to point out that Grace was attractive and Caucasian, and there is no doubt something to that.
Just the other week, an elderly man was decapitated in Petone. His head was stuffed into a plastic bag and thrown out of the second-storey window of the block of council flats where he lived. The details of this case genuinely shocked me, but I have not read or heard a single thing about it in the media since it was first reported.
Pretty, dead white girls make headlines. This is nothing new.
But there’s more to this than that. Grace Millane’s story appears to be having a profound, personal emotional impact on the lives of countless New Zealanders who have never met her.
Some of them are energised in their sorrow. Candlelit vigils are being set up all around the country. In Auckland, Wellington, Dunedin, and many other cities, thousands have registered their interest in attending on the Facebook event pages.
Mobilised mourning. Grief gone viral.
I don’t recall seeing anything quite like this in Aotearoa before.
It’s easy to understand why someone like Grace would become something of an adopted daughter, sister, friend to so many. She was a recent graduate and a talented artist. Full of promise, travelling from overseas, exploring the world on what should have been the adventure of a lifetime. Murdered on the eve of her 22nd birthday, by a man.
It’s a tragedy with all the ingredients for primetime. A photogenic young woman. A distraught family desperately searching for her. A life extinguished, a body discarded. A necklace and a watch, still missing.
The candlelit vigils will provide plenty of heartwarming footage for the inevitable ’60 Minutes’, ’20/20′, ‘Sunday’ style shows. We all know this routine.
Another factor in the hyper-romanticisation of this homicide is the timing.
In a social environment where disparaging men simply for being male is not only tolerated, but actively encouraged, a hideous murder of a beautiful girl is just too perfect a #MeToo movement moment to pass up. Opportunists have already seized upon Grace Millane’s death to fuel their cause.
None of us knew Grace.
As strangers, all we have to piece her together are fragments. Images and words. Little clues scattered in cyberspace, a digital imprint of her short time on this earth. I trawled through Grace’s Twitter timeline while writing this article, and all I could see was a genuinely lovely girl. Nothing in her digital imprint suggests to me that Grace Millane was a spiteful or vindictive person. I don’t see hate in her eyes. I don’t see hate in her art.
Before she was the pretty dead girl, Grace Millane was a real person. She had hopes and ambitions and insecurities and a sense of humour and a shoe addiction. She was an animal lover. She adored her dogs, Benson and Maddie. She studied. She painted. She played hockey. She posted a lot of funny gifs. She loved her friends and her baby niece. Everything I can see of what she left behind online gives me the impression that Grace was exceedingly gentle and kind. Many people who die young are given undeserved sainthood status simply by virtue of being young and dead. This pretty dead girl seemed like a thoroughly decent human being in every respect.
We don’t know what Grace would have wanted to be said or done in her memory in the aftermath of this horror. We can only speculate as to how she would deal with her post-mortem publicity if she had any say in the matter, whether she would approve or disapprove of a hateful message being propagated in her name.
Still, the “Men are trash” Twitter brigade are brazenly informing Kiwi blokes that they all have Grace’s blood on their collective male hands. They were all in that hotel room that night. Half the population just killed a young woman.
I don’t want to make this about feminism — I’ll leave that to the feminists. They’re doing a great job of making Grace Millane’s death all about them. But I will take a moment to observe, not for the first time, that demonising a demographic and attempting to hold them collectively responsible for crimes committed by individuals within that demographic is wrong. When the targeted demographic is an ethnic or religious group, everyone seems to be very, very clear about that. When it applies to race or religion, this is the general consensus. When it comes to blaming males for all of society’s ills, however, this logic does not apply. One man committed a heinous crime, therefore, men are trash. All of them.
In the downtime between breaking announcements related to this case, news sites are publishing lists of all the female backpackers and tourists murdered in New Zealand over the decades. Journalists are making Twitter threads, attempting to collate all the women and girls ever murdered by men in New Zealand, ever — getting names and key details wrong in their enthusiasm and haste.
I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen anyone use the hashtag #NotAllMen in seriousness, but I frequently see it used to mock and dismiss anyone who refuses to participate in this vicious scapegoating.
So while I don’t expect for a minute to get an answer, I do have a genuine question for Team Men Are Trash.
Is Grace Millane’s father, David, who flew across the world to search for his missing daughter, pleading through tears for information on our televisions, trash?
Grace’s older brothers, Declan and Michael, are they trash?
Detective Inspector Scott Beard, whose voice shook with emotion when he announced that this missing person case was now a homicide investigation. Is he trash too? The male police officers, forensic and medical examiners involved in this case. The men who helped track down and arrest Grace’s killer, the men who will undoubtedly be part of prosecuting him and bringing him to justice. Are any of these human beings exempt from this?
Or are they all just male trash?
I don’t believe Grace Millane would have wanted all New Zealand men to feel guilty and ashamed for something they had nothing to do with. But again — I did not know her.
Nor did those grieving so publicly for her on social media, organising marches and candlelit vigils.
Anyone can exploit a stranger’s death to further their own narrative. People do it all the time. No one can stop them. I wouldn’t even attempt to try. But I would like to respectfully suggest that Grace Millane’s name, her face, her memory, do not belong to any of us. They belong to her whānau and friends. The people she knew and loved, who knew and loved her.
That’s not to say there is any shame in mourning for a stranger. I thought the sky photos were a nice gesture. I have friends who plan to attend one of the vigils, and I respect their choice to do that, but I don’t think I’ll be going. Organised emotional outpourings aren’t my scene, and I suspect some of the attendance will be politically motivated. For obvious reasons, I don’t want to be a part of that.
I have said a quiet karakia for Grace and wept for her in private. No doubt I will weep for her again — her passion for animals and especially for her dogs is what keeps getting to me, and there we go, the tears are streaming now — but I’ll keep it to myself.
Grace cannot consent to being made a symbol for anything. Her memory should not be a blank canvas for us all to project our personal politics onto. I know I may be accused of having done just that by writing this post, so I’ll say it one more time: I didn’t know Grace. I have no way of knowing what her wishes would have been in all of this.
And neither do you.
Grace Emmie Rose Millane deserves to be remembered for who she was, not who certain activists need her to be to fit their agenda.
The fact that she was murdered in this country should not automatically make Grace public property.
She was — is — so much more than the pretty dead girl.