In reaction to the manifesto from the mass killer in Santa Barbara promising to punish women who had rejected him, my Twitter stream has been flooded with disturbing, emotional and angry commentary and experiences of misogyny tagged #YesAllWomen.
This conversation does not surprise me, as my slice of the social media pie has been sharing thoughts more often lately on related topics from rape culture in college, to bullying and other abuse. There has also been lengthy debates on Lena Dunham daring to be comfortable enough with her body to get naked on screen, the kidnapping of school girls in Nigeria and the subsequent “#BringBackOurGirls” hash tag campaign and discussions on what is feminism including Neko Case’s response to Playboy labeling her a “female musician” and how Shailene Woodley, of the upcoming movie “A Fault In Our Stars”, is wrong or just misinformed on the subject.
Typical of any discussion on social media, there was immediate backlash, some serious intending to engage in conversation and some just trolling to provoke a response. That was followed by the backlash to the backlash and defense of the backlash blacklashers and so on. I have always been fascinated by how these situations unfurl, how the well intended and the anonymous bullies interact on these public platforms where societal rules barely apply. I find it intriguing how a valid conversation can get hijacked and devolve into a discussion about the validity of the conversation instead of the subject itself.
I am a voyeur, I observe but rarely participate. I wish I participated more. I wish I thought my participation would matter. I wish there could be actual conversations with listening and understanding not inflated outrage and dueling justification.
I believe these social media conversations do help. They might not create an immediate world change, but they raise awareness and make those capable and willing to think, think a little more. Tiny seeds of ideas float about in the world and take hold and they will bloom and spread more seeds. Eventually, things get better or at least not so socially tolerated due to the awareness.
My friends and I never talk about this topic, but I am sure most women I know, and probably several men as well, have instances where they have felt terrified by men and unsupported in this feeling by both genders or have had to deal with a misogynist.
In college I had a few uncomfortable moments but I always felt lucky that nothing bad happened to me. As I got older, I felt sad that I lived in a world where my primary feeling was luck.
I have dealt with catcalls, comments about my “rack” or butt, both negative and I think thought to be a compliment for some reason. I have received numerous comments made in online settings that I know would not have been said to a man. My response is to be annoyed and angry on the inside and outwardly ignore.
In addition to those behaviors I am forced to tolerate that are just annoying, there have been those scary encounters, mostly with strangers, in random, sudden moments where I knew things could turn awful and I was powerless. Luckily, they have never been more than a scare but they are a jolt and leave me questioning my actions and if I was being silly to have been scared at all.
One time I decided to get gas late at night. I pulled into a station at the crossing of two busy streets in Uptown. The location was well lit, there were plenty of cars driving by and there was an attendant on duty. I felt perfectly safe. As I stood by my car waiting for the tank to fill another car pulled into the station and two large men emerged. One man attended to the gas pump and the other walked directly toward me.
My immediate reaction was to tense up, wedge my keys between my fingers but tell myself to be calm and not assume anything was wrong. I would never want to insult this stranger or make him feel bad knowing that I felt scared and intimidated by his unexpected move toward me. Plus, I was in a well-lit, busy place.
He came closer, said hi, asked me a few generic questions and kept moving closer and closer invading my personal space. I glanced toward where the attendant was and saw him turn away, it seemed deliberate and clear he wanted nothing to do with this situation. Nor did I.
There is an assessment that happens in a flash of time where one must decide how to react to an uncomfortable situation, how best to ensure safety but not an escalation. Do I take an aggressive approach and hope he does not respond in anger? Do I just run and hope he doesn’t follow? Do I directly tell him that he is making me uncomfortable and hope he is evolved enough to understand, apologize and go away? Do I play along keeping him at ease and hope he will not take this as any invitation to continue?
Based on the data at hand, my mind chose to play along. I am not sure “chose” is the right word, there was no debate, no time, just an instinctive reaction to the situation at hand. I laughed off his comments, tried to shift away from him and did my best to act calm and confident.
Suddenly, he reached up and grabbed my glasses off my face. He laughed and called for his friend to come over. So now I was blind, up against my car and surrounded by two large men. I began to panic and felt my heart racing as my mind was looking for an escape.
“Are these Burberry? I love Burberry!” The first man exclaimed as he tried on my glasses, his friend commented that they looked good on him and we exchanged words on where I bought them and the value of unique eyewear as I attempted to retrieve what was taken and he pushed my hands away. He commented that he wanted to keep them as his friend began walking away. I continued to play along, claiming he was a funny jokester who would never leave a girl without her glasses, even if they were super cool.
He finally returned my glasses, rubbed my arm and back, called me darling and left. I was able to exhale once I sat in my locked car. I waited for them to leave and cautiously drove home ensuring I was not followed.
After, I was flooded with emotions and conflicting thoughts. I felt relieved that nothing had happened and I also felt silly for thinking something might. I was angry with the two men in the car for intimidating me and at the attendant for turning away; I was embarrassed for feeling intimidated. I felt sick for having to play along like I had betrayed my feminist self. I felt sick from all the adrenaline. I questioned all of my choices from getting the gas I needed to going out at night. I felt ridiculous for being scared, after all nothing happened and it was probably all in my mind. I felt lucky.
There was the time I left the bar alone to walk to my car 10 feet out the back door and three men tried to block my car door and wanted me to “celebrate” one of their birthdays. That time my reaction was one of anger and nearly running over one as I left.
There was the co-worker that repeatedly said lewd things to me and would leave me graphic notes and the manager that told me to ignore it and he would go away.
There was the time I was in Brussels and was surrounded by men speaking a language I did not understand although the hand and tongue gestures were clear. And just yesterday, window-shopping in a small town of Minnesota a man turned the corner and was suddenly in my face screaming at me and pulling on my shirt. I did not even have a moment to react before he moved on.
Each situation scared me for a while and left me assessing my choices and if I did anything to provoke it. Sometimes I feel bad for thinking the worst of others. I often wonder if my fear was an overreaction to a harmless situation created by a fertile imagination. If I do share a story, I mostly do so through a filter of humor. No matter what, I always feel lucky knowing that there are so many woman who may have had these similar situations but with a much different result.
I am not someone who looks weak or easily intimidated and I have a resting bitch face that says leave me alone. I do not have the “ideal” body. I don’t dress provocatively, I barely brush my hair, I am aware of my surroundings, I would never try to get in my car if a van parked next to the drivers side but I do enjoy being alone. But none of those things matter. Sadly, sometimes being just alone brings risks. Just being a female brings risks. Actually, just being alive brings risks and always will.
I don’t see anything immediately coming of the #YesAllWomen tweets other than a series of favorites, retweets, follows, unfollows and blocks but a little conversation and awareness are never a waste. I feel really sad for some of the horrible stories women have shared and I feel quite lucky that I have never had to deal with anything more severe or physically violent.
It would be great if someday women did not have to feel lucky for having not been a victim, or question their own actions or feelings when they are in an uncomfortable situation, or all men would know what is intimidating and not dare to do so or turn away when they see it. It would be great if people sucked less in general. For now, I will observe the conversation and the commentary on the conversation until the next topic trend takes over my social feeds.