Image: Ellie Forde, Rosie Jackson, and Madison Beaumont (taken by Missing Perspectives).

The meaning behind the 'men or bear’ signs at this weekend's rallies

This weekend, tens of thousands of Australians marched to call for an end to the violence against women epidemic in the country. Meet the women behind the viral 'man or bear' signs at the Sydney rally.

CW: Discussion of violence against women

Tens of thousands of Australians have marched over the weekend, calling for an end to the violence against women epidemic in the country - which has reached crisis levels.

The rallies, organised by Sarah Williams from not-for-profit What Were You Wearing?, are demanding that the federal government declare violence against women a national emergency; media regulation around the publishing of names and images of victims; mandatory victim-blaming prevention training for frontline workers; alternative reporting options; and better funding for services and programmes.

Missing Perspectives attended the Sydney/Gadigal rally on Saturday, where we were lucky enough to cross paths with three incredible attendees: Ellie Forde, Rosie Jackson, and Madison Beaumont. These three young women, who only met for the first time at the Sydney march, all devised signs around the viral 'man or bear' videos taking TikTok by storm.

For their signs to make sense, you need to first watch the actual TikTok video, which has since amassed over 13M views. Women were asked a simple question: Would you rather be stuck with a man or a bear?

The responses to this video, particularly from young women, have sparked an important conversation around the world. And it's what made the signs that Ellie, Rosie, and Madison made so powerful and clever.

"These videos and the discourse that followed them was really striking to me because they emphasise the reality that, for many people, men can represent a very real threat to our mental, emotional and physical safety; that there are things we fear that are worse than death," says Rosie. "I wanted to make a sign honestly celebrating the wild bear here, for being such an attractive death option."

“I thought the question ‘bear or man’ perfectly encapsulates the fear that can come with being alone with a man. If it was a bear, at least our only worry is death. And we’d be believed," Ellie tells Missing Perspectives. “That we’re angry, we’re tired, and that men need to come fix the problem that they have created. The onus should not be on women.”

Madison agrees. "The “bear or man” debate demonstrates the crisis point we’re at as a society. It’s a punch to the point question that may seem obtuse at first but makes you stop and think - “why would women choose the bear?” she says.

"The TikTok trend is only shedding much needed light on the shared female experience when it comes to the misogyny and femicide perpetrated by men for centuries, to the point where society is more inclined to accept that you were attacked by a bear without question than acknowledge the grotesque physical and sexual violence at the hands of men. You would never be asked what you were wearing in response to a bear attack, nor would the bear’s character be questioned."

So what needs to change?

“I want men to take up the mantel and take on the labour. I want to see men doing the organising, the sharing, the marching, calling out their mates, educating themselves, and making changes," Ellie tells Missing Perspectives.

"If you’re the problem, then it’s time to be the solution. I’m so damn tired of it falling to women when at the core of it, this violence is a men’s issue, we’re just collateral damage. I’d also love to see some of my fellow rally-goers learn about intersectional feminism, because some of the responses at the mention of Palestinian women’s plight was absolutely appalling.”

Madison wants to see legislative reform. She says this includes amendments to the Crimes (Domestic and Personal Violence) Act 2007 to introduce harsher penalties for domestic violence related offences both financial and goal time to make it a serious indictable offence to serve as a deterrence measure; and that all DV matters are to be mandatorily heard before a magistrate at the local court level - no more registrar rulings.

"However this all comes too late especially in the wake of Molly Ticehurst’s murder where she had done everything right and navigated the appropriate channels only to be killed," she says. "It’s damming on the justice system and society’s confidence in the institutions that the mechanisms established to protect women repeatedly fail us."

In terms of issues that need to be addressed, Rosie points to the fact that the "mental health system in this country is broken to non-existent." "We need to be taking seriously that this is an area where education, intervention and rehabilitation are crucial and must be prioritised through funding," she says. "These attitudes creep in really really, young and it starts with how we treat little kids and the examples we set for them in our homes and in the world around them."

The trio said their signs brought a lot of smiles to faces during what is a heavy time. They were also approached by former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and businesswoman Lucy Turnbull, who were curious about the meaning of their signs. "I think what seemed to hit most with them was the idea that a woman would be believed if she were attacked by a bear," says Rosie. Madison agrees, saying "It’s safe to say the Turnbulls were also Team Bear."

The best bit is that the trio have formed a friendship purely because of their signs at the rally - they hadn't actually met beforehand. "It was kind of poetic being alone, only to find strength and community with Ellie and Rosie and their bear signs too, it’s safe to say we’re “bear-sties” for life" says Madison.