Every time there is a heavily publicized act of violence against women just for being women, there is an inevitable backlash of “Hey, come on. Not all men…”
“Not all men are jerks.”
“Not all men treat women that way.”
“Not all men are violent psychopaths.”
And the resounding answer is always: DUH.
We all know that NOT ALL MEN ARE ______________. We know. But the reason we need to talk about violence against women is because even though not all men are violent psychopaths, all women have to learn the difference between a violent psychopath and a regular guy.
She’s so absolutely, terribly right. At the age of twelve, I had my first realization that a man I’d thought was just another person could actually be a threat to me. It was someone my family knew–someone we trusted. I’ll never forget that moment of clarity when he sidled up really close to me on a bench outside the Rec Center and started breathing down my neck. Some deep, dark instinct rose to the surface inside me and I thought, “This could be bad. This could get ugly. I need to go, now.”
And I did.
The betrayal I experienced as I made an excuse to get up and leave and wait for my ride inside was so fresh and new and absolute that it’s stuck with me ever since. It also created something else in me: the feeling of being prey. I imagine it’s how antelope feel, standing out in the open, just minding their own business, when they hear that faint, indicative rustle of grass, or smell a predator upwind. You realize your security is not yours anymore. Suddenly, your safety is completely at the mercy of somebody else. Somebody who wants you not for you, but for your parts, for the sheer fact that you are female.
You lose all personal autonomy at that moment.
As the #YesAllWomen hashtag gained momentum, I kept wondering: how do we get that autonomy back? What is it about our society that makes one gender the predator, and one gender the prey? (Obviously, not always the case, but let’s go back to Gina’s point about NOT ALL MEN _________. Yes, I realize many young boys have had the experience I did. But all women have had an experience like mine.) Why does the simple fact that I am female automatically place me in a position where I not only am suspicious of a man who sits too close to me, but need to be? Like an antelope, I’m now trained to keep my ears pricked when I go out at night, checking the edges of the meadow for a predator. Because I have to, if I want to stay safe out in the world.
Let me rewind a second to something I said earlier: that moment before twelve-year-old me was changed forever. That idyllic stage in her life when she thought every person was just a person, and would treat her as such.
And I want to talk about how I think Adventure Time can lead the way to making that a reality.
Even if you’re not familiar with the Cartoon Network show Adventure Time, the concept is easy to grasp: it’s a goofy cartoon about a boy named Finn and his magic, talking dog Jake, who go on adventures together. In Adventure Time’s Land of Ooo, there are no rules; but in a lot of ways, the story is placidly traditional. There are bad guys kidnapping princesses, and Finn and Jake fight them, and they always win.
Then, sometime during the third season of the show, Fionna and Cake were introduced: the gender-bended counterparts of Finn and Jake. In fact, the entire show was gender-bended. The princesses became princes. The evil wizard became an evil sorceress.
So here is the part about Fionna and Cake that turns me into a giddy mess: after gender-bending the characters, everything else about the show stays exactly the same–for the most part. Very little in the story itself changes, or in the personality of Finn/Fionna. Instead of Princess Bubblegum getting kidnapped by a baddie, it’s Prince Gumdrop. And Fionna still has to go beat up bad guys and save him.
Prince Gumdrop likes throwing parties and going to balls and dressing up. Fionna will wear a dress (and look awesome in it), but when she gets a whiff of the tiny purse she’s supposed to carry around, she asks, “How am I supposed to fit my weapons in this?!”
Fionna still gets nervous before a date. She still wonders if the person she’s attracted to is attracted to her back. She still worries about all the things that people (not girls–people) of her age worry about.
The conversation in the book and film communities about “strong female characters” has been ongoing for some time–about how “strong” doesn’t have to mean “bad ass.” It doesn’t have to mean a girl that kicks butt, as it did for a long time (but sure, it could!). A “strong” female character can mean: well-rounded. Determined. Passionate. Real.
To be honest, I’d like to see the “strong” part stricken from the term completely. Can we simply write good female characters? Realistic, honest female characters? Can we write female characters across the entire spectrum, just like we write male characters? Evil sorceresses, sword-wielding heroes, shy sweethearts, and fierce scholars–in real life, all genders can be all of these things, even non-genders. So why is it so unusual for a story in media to reflect that? Why does Fionna and Cake have to stand out?
Women of my generation have already had the experiences that changed us forever–the ones that taught us suspicion, that taught us to be careful, that taught us not to trust. But I honestly believe Fionna and Cake is what we can do for the next generation.
I want to go back to that one moment, that one feeling, that changed way back when–that moment when I lost my own autonomy. Of feeling like little more than a sum of my physical parts, rather than like a person, to be treated like a person. Because what it did was completely direct my focus, and the focus of my potential attacker, on one single aspect of me: my female-ness. And maybe this comes from my own personal bias as a writer–the bias that culture is shaped by stories, and stories can change culture–but I can’t help feeling like that skewed focus originates in stories. That it emerges from savior men and damsels-in-distress, from females as mothers, wives, and victims, rather than heroes or scholars or any of the many different roles that men have had.
We can show girls they are warriors, if they want, and they can still dress up, if they want; just like we can show boys they can wear pink and like dolls, if they want, or be warriors, too, if that’s their calling. Gender-bending shouldn’t feel so odd, unusual, or out of place. It only does because for so long, we’ve told stories where men get to play all the parts, but women get just a few–and more often than not, those are roles focused completely on their female-ness.
Not to say that we ought not to embrace our differences, either; but I believe that a healthy attitude towards our physical differences comes with this cultural change. If a woman wants to wear that low-cut dress, to accept and show off those natural assets of hers, she shouldn’t have to wonder: is this too much? Will someone get the wrong idea? Because she’s not just her low-cut dress, or her female parts. She’s just a person wearing a cute dress.
Because we are all more than just our parts. We are all people, with passions and hobbies and quirks and personalities. We all have hearts and souls and minds. We all have control of ourselves, and our bodies, and who we interact with, and how we interact with them, regardless of male or female or trans or any other gender/non-gender on the spectrum.
And telling stories where this is true? Maybe it’s just the writer in me, but I think that’s where stopping rape culture starts.