celebrity

Two phones, two men, and the unspoken fear women have in public.

Dearne Cooper is a New South Wales maths teacher. She has a young son and a partner, and last week, she was sitting in a restaurant in St Tropez.

I only know this because Drake, a rapper, singer and actor with 117 million followers on Instagram, posted a photo of her there. 

He does not know her. He has never met her. He has presumably never spoken to her. 

He just wanted her to know that he thought she was attractive.

"Tried to AirDrop this woman a pic of herself 'cause she’s a dime," he wrote on Instagram, over the top of a photo of Dearne. 

In the image she appears to be looking at her phone, entirely unaware that a man's camera is pointed at her, ready to share what he sees with anyone who happens to tap on his Instagram Stories. 

The photo shared to Drake's Instagram Story. We have chosen to blur Dearne's face. Image: Instagram. 

It didn't take long for Saturday Confidential to identify her and publish any information about the maths teacher they could find. The paper even spoke to an 'insider' who said "stunning girls" were all over Drake, but he was "pretty much oblivious" because he "couldn't take his eyes of Dearne". 

An article about "Drake's crush" in another publication ends with the line, 'Do you know Dearne?' alongside a contact email for the news desk. You'd be forgiven for thinking this woman is a fugitive - a beautiful one - who has finally, finally been spotted, allowing us to piece together a story we deserve to know.

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Of course, the assumption is that Dearne must be flattered. Surely that's the only response one ought to have to a famous man thinking you're beautiful. Nevermind that Dearne's physical appearance is now a topic of conversation in comment sections and Twitter threads, and that her name, her partner's name and her child's name are printed in news stories all over the world.

In the days before Dearne unwittingly walked into the same restaurant as Drake in St Tropez, a conversation about another woman was unfolding in Australia. A woman named Maree.

Maree had been sitting in a Melbourne food court when a young man approached her and asked her to hold a bunch of flowers. He rummaged through his backpack, retrieved his jacket, and then said, "have a lovely day," before leaving her with the flowers.

I only know this because a 22-year-old named Harrison posted a 19 second video of the exchange on TikTok, with an emotional Sam Smith song playing in the background. Harrison has over three million followers on the platform, and at the time of writing, the video featuring Maree has 65 million views. 

A still from the video featuring Maree. We have chosen to blur her face. Image: TikTok.

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But last week, Maree - who withheld her last name for privacy - spoke to ABC Radio about what really happened.

After the young man walked away, Maree had realised she was being filmed by a group of people. When she asked if they were filming, they said no. She asked them if they wanted the flowers, because she actually didn't want them. She didn't want to carry them on the tram home. 

"He interrupted my quiet time, filmed and uploaded a video without my consent, turning it into something it wasn't, and I feel like he is making quite a lot of money through it," Maree told the ABC

"It's the patronising assumption that women, especially older women, will be thrilled by some random stranger giving them flowers," she said.

Again, Maree is meant to be flattered. A young man noticed her, while she was just minding her own business! Isn't that what we're all waiting for? She couldn't possibly have been enjoying her own rich inner life, thinking and planning and feeling in the same way as everyone else in that food court. 

There's a common thread in these two stories - one in St Tropez, one in Melbourne - where unaware women were thrust onto the public platforms of two men they didn't know. 

This isn't about flattery. This is about power. 

It's about stripping women of their subjectivity and treating them as objects that deserve to be reacted to rather than interacted with. 

In both these instances, the women were merely tools to fulfil a man's purpose - to look like a good guy, a kind guy, the type of guy who goes out of his way to make a woman's day, without having to speak to her, or ask her what she wants.

And the cost? The violation of their privacy.

A violation of their right to exist in a food court or a restaurant as a private citizen, who is just as anonymous as the person beside them. Their right to not be observed, and to not be the focus of unwanted public attention.

Of course, people in comment sections will be quick to remind you that in Australia, there is no law that prohibits filming in a public place without asking for permission. But the question here isn't legal - it's ethical. Why do we socially think it's okay to record a person who hasn't consented, especially when that recording is reaching an audience of millions?

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Something shifts in you the first time you realise that as a woman, you're not anonymous in public. The first time you were walking down the street in your school uniform and had a man shout at you from his car window. Or the time a man approached you on the train and wouldn't leave you alone. Or the time you were told to 'smile, love,' when you happened to be deep in thought.

You become aware that there are conditions upon your right to exist in public. You should look a certain way and act a certain way, and brace yourself to have the invisible boundaries you thought existed around you violated. 

In the age of social media, those boundaries are even blurrier. We spend so much time on platforms like Instagram and TikTok that our brains have become wired to experience the world through the lens of potential content. By extension, we see people as potential content. Women in particular. 

The cameras pointed at Dearne and Maree provide a window into how some men see women. As objects that should be invariably flattered by male attention. 

A member of the public should be able to dine at a restaurant and not have her image shared with 117 million people. She should also be able to sit in a food court and not be watched by 65 million people, in a clip that fundamentally misrepresents the reality of what happened. 

It doesn't matter whether the person sharing it is complimenting her, or leaving her a gift. The fact is that she didn't ask for it.

What we're seeing is the male gaze in action. A spectator whose perspective is somehow held in more esteem than the person he's looking at. Is she beautiful? Is she sad? Is she helpless? She didn't ask, but apparently a man who has never met her is qualified to be the judge.

Dearne and Maree's stories are misogyny disguised as flattery.

Maree told the ABC she felt "dehumanised" by the viral video that featured her - a video that claimed to show an 'act of kindness'. 

Dearne hasn't responded to the attention she's attracted as Drake's 'crush'. 

This content wasn't for women, especially not the women involved. It was about women. And it speaks to a fear so many of us have: that male desires outweigh our own autonomy over how we exist in the world. 

For more from Clare Stephens, you can follow her on Instagram or TikTok

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