Thoughts Provoked by Victim-Blaming and the Notion of Female Responsibility

Help me down? You don’t dare.
I might rub off on you,
like soot or gossip. Birds
of a feather burn together,
though as a rule ravens are singular.

—Margaret Atwood, “Half-Hanged Mary”

Misogyny rewards women who reinforce the status quo and punishes those who don’t.

—Kate Manne, Professor of Philosophy at Cornell University

___

I recently found myself in an unwanted debate with a woman in her late forties who said, in relation to victims of sexual violence, that women needed “to start taking more responsibility for themselves.”

Up until this point, I thought we had been having a relatively friendly, thought-provoking, conversation. The statement, to me, was so out of line with all the opinions and values she’d expressed prior (being anti-trump; against and constantly shocked by the overwhelming entitlement many Americans possess; grossed out by our country’s racism, and its avid denial of the history that has allowed racism to evolve past slavery and segregation, etc.) that it threw me for a loop.

“What do you mean by that?” I asked.

“You know,” she said, “I’ve gotten myself into some situations, and I can’t sit here and cry rape and deny that I put myself in those situations.”

This led to my asking a surplus of questions, like: Are women supposed to just not, like, live or do anything? What about men? How much responsibility are they expected to take? All of which, ultimately, kept being answered with the cryptic reiteration that she had “put herself in some situations” and that she “had to take responsibility” for those “situations.”

Which, yeah, okay, fine. That’s her prerogative, and right, as a freethinking individual.

However, all that being said, I still couldn’t stop myself from saying, “That makes me feel so sad, for you, though.” (I didn’t say this from a place of condescension. I said it from a place of: clearly something not-so-great happened to her, and she felt, on some level, that whatever happened to her was her fault; that it was her responsibility to blame herself and hold other women to the same standard. That she couldn’t view the situation—whatever it was—as a mistake to move on from, free of blame for both sides, and completely irrelevant to the sexual violence experienced by other women.)

Long story short: She didn’t like me saying that. She didn’t like me, period. (She made it very, very, clear.) And, not going to lie, I wasn’t exactly charmed by her either.

Days following the conversation, I felt increasingly less and less sympathetic, and more and more pissed off. Not at her, exactly, but at all the internalized misogyny it takes for a fellow woman to say something as vague and victim blaming as “women should take more responsibility for themselves,” just because she, apparently, had “bad sex” (a term used to describe the grey area, between sexual assault and consensual sex, with one example being the encounter between “Grace” and Aziz Ansari) once, and is so limited to her own experience that she assumes “bad sex” is what every woman means when she claims sexual violence. (Every time I’m about to see what people mean when they say #MeToo has gone to far, or that “women need to take more responsibility,” or that being too discerning as a woman—AKA, attempting to call certain men out on their bullshit, or not wanting all that much to do with men beyond the necessary interactions—is a problem, I stop and ask myself: When have women ever not taken responsibility for themselves, generally speaking? Like, the people who think this shit, have they ever seen an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale? Because, if you’ve ever seen The Handmaid’s Tale, you already know, every female character is forced to take responsibility for herself, on some level, and in spite of all victimization—even the most privileged, and complicit, among them. While all the men are heralded, excused, and—essentially—allowed to do whatever they want, so long as they contribute to, or remain complicit in, an oppressive system. This is, 110%, intended to serve as a magnifying glass for the real world.)

It made me consider, all the ways women do take responsibility, and how we fail to understand these ways as very telling of our surrounding culture’s beliefs about where the blame—in instances of sexual assault, rape, and abuse—truly lies: pepper spray among car keys, the firearm’s trainer who told me more women than ever are signing up for his classes, a co-worker who advised me to get a license to carry, due to my late and lonely work hours, “just in case…”

Eventually, all this consideration bled into other relating thoughts, and memories. Like how—due to recent law and policy changes—I had to sit through a sexual harassment training and listen to other women say things like, If you work in a male dominated environment, then you should expect to be harassed and discriminated against. Or, Women are only coming forward now because they want fame and money. And, Men aren’t allowed to say anything anymore.

And, I realized, it never fails to shock me—as if every time is the first time I’m realizing it—just how far American women are willing to distance themselves from the experiences of other American women, and just how much—through this distancing—they must hate themselves, in some deep-seeded way, for not being born men.

Like, okay—let’s say you’re a woman, and you believe women should expect to be harassed and discriminated against in male dominated environments. Now, ask yourself: Why the fuck do you want to believe that? (Ditto to the idea that women should take more responsibility for being assaulted, abused, raped, or even for running into “bad sex.”) I hear so many women say such flippant and self-eradicating things, and I don’t understand. Why—the constant denial, of one’s right to her own wholeness, and interests?

As a result of all this thinking, and in an attempt to understand, I eventually decided to read more about the general psychology behind victim-blaming. And I learned that, to some degree, victim blaming is a natural response to our own fear surrounding a victim’s experience. (For example, thinking a person who gets pick pocketed should’ve held onto his wallet, rather than keeping it in his back pocket, is a mild form of victim-blaming. It’s a means for us, as unaffected individuals, to restore our belief in the world as a safe and fair place, under the pretense that bad things only happen to those who—on some level—deserve them. AKA, getting pick pocketed would never happen to us because we’d be more responsible.)

I understand this psychological reflex is a form of self-preservation; that—yeah—it’s human instinct to deny vulnerability, or to want to distinguish oneself from it. I get that: we all want to look tough in the face of, or exempt from, the world’s hardships. And, therefore, we all victim-blame, to a certain extent. None of us are innocent. However, the older I get, and the more I learn, the more difficult it is for me to relate with people who don’t sympathize with the small, normalized and continuous, traumas that women endure, in everyday life, and how these small traumas condition many women, overtime, to hate themselves, and often, eventually, leads them into complacency, painful and chronic confusion, or even an active role in their own dehumanization—in spite of the choices modern living has offered them.

In America, we live in a free world, where we, as women, can want what we want; can be what we want. But, I think, the surrounding culture and society has given us so many conflicting messages about how women should and should not act; what we can and cannot be—is still so hyper-critical of feminine complexity—that many women have been robbed of the proper tools to figure out what the fuck “what we want” even, truly, is. (I don’t mean this in the short-term, like with things such as consent, or being able to answer confidently—yes or no—to a date. I mean in matters of responding to coercion and manipulation; to sex and power dynamics in professional settings; to long term relationships that gradually turn isolating and abusive; whether to defend a female colleague, or to keep your reputation, status, academic standing—what have you… How can women be expected to always respond to these experiences “correctly” when a good portion of the population still tells us these experiences aren’t even that complicated, or traumatizing?)

And I know: I’ve read articles that argue how what I’ve just described is infantilizing to women. But—based on my own humble and limited experience—I don’t see it that way. I see it as being honest, and fair—for once. (Growing up, I wasn’t deprived of options. I was taught to fight for myself. I was told that I could be whatever I wanted; that I had the choice to pursue my dreams; to wear what I wanted, date who I wanted, go where I wanted; to define my own experiences and identity, for myself. However, I wish someone would have told me that, pursuing and doing all of these things, without apology, or self-doubt—with intelligence, and confidence—would feel so lonely, and costly. Especially as a woman.) Because: I get it. This is the world women live in—a misogynistic one, where men often do, and get away with, things they know they shouldn’t—and it’s each woman’s individual responsibility to figure that out; to decide, how much she’s willing to fight for her whole self, or how much she’s willing to sacrifice and overlook—in exchange for some semblance of our patriarchal society’s acceptance. Knowing that, regardless of what she chooses to prioritize, it will never be enough to someone.

Advertisements

Divided States, United Dreams, and All the Dinosaurs in Between (A Prose-Poem for What It Means to be Anti-Trump, as a Millennial and White Woman)

Out beyond ideas of

 wrongdoing and rightdoing,

 there is a field.

 I’ll meet you there.

 

—Rumitrump-13

My boyfriend says, “The Doomsday Clock is three minutes to midnight,” as I set up dinosaurs the size of Polly Pockets between Jenga blocks. “Our parents lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis—two minutes to midnight—so I try not to think about it too much.”

I pluck a yellow Brontosaurus from the coffee table. I marvel at its neck.

Our generation has been able to hold onto childhood for longer than any other. Every time our parents called us ‘special’ they were clearing out some space for us to dream. Tying our baby blankets around our necks in the style of superheroes, and introducing us to the backyard: ‘Go imagine the world in ways we couldn’t allow ourselves.’

I try placing the Brontosaurus on the rim of my boyfriend’s beer as a reminder that the world hasn’t ended, and we’re both still here.

But my hand quakes, and the dinosaur falls straight down the tab.

My boyfriend laughs, “Extinct.”

For a moment I’m reminded that, in the novel I’m reading, a fictional author writes a fictional children’s story about how the Brontosaurus never actually existed. A scientist got his dinosaur bones mixed up, and what he thought was a Brontosaurus was actually an Apatosaurus with a Camarasaurus’s skull. However, many museums never bothered to correct their placards—society was already familiar with the Apatosaurus as the Brontosaurus, and this understanding of the dinosaur was popular.

Which is to say: Society preferred the Apatosaurus when it was something that it wasn’t, so how much influence does truth actually have when it comes to popular interpretations of history?

I don’t mention any of this to my boyfriend as he dumps his beer into a glass and saves the Brontosaurus. Instead I tell him about how, before Donald Trump was elected president, I believed all my coming of age milestones had been met.

I say, “I didn’t know I had any more innocence to lose before that.”

trump

As Americans—we are so removed from our country’s history of imperialism. This fine line we’ve cultivated through a poo-pooing of emotional intelligence and truth in our history lessons, between innocence and ignorance.

I am twenty-five years old and Christopher Columbus still stands like a fairytale character in my imagination. Not as a rapist, not as a leader of genocide, but as some brave little soldier brimming with wanderlust and round-world theories. A Disney cartoon, essentially.

I’ve observed grown men throw mini temper tantrums over credit card machines asking for a preference: ‘English or Spanish?’

My boyfriend tells me he’s hopeful. He says, “Trump will get impeached soon, there’s too many people involved with the resistance—too many people and organizations are being vocal about not wanting this.” And for the first time in my life, I realize: I’m the cynic in this conversation.

I say, “It’s not that Donald Trump getting impeached wouldn’t fix a lot of things. It’s that our country allowed this to happen in the first place. Our qualified female candidate losing to a deluding playboy and what that means…”

trump-4

My boyfriend lights up a cigarette and I remember the time my best friend classified my “type” as “casually dressed white guys who smoke.” I wonder: Why?

I go all self-analytical.

It’s easy to deny a part of myself with the scent of cigarette smoke, like I’m just a grain of Cheeto dust lodged between two carpet fibers in a shutdown roller rink—the disco ball still spinning. A reminder of a ‘simpler’ time when people just ‘didn’t know any better’. My secondhand role in it all serving as a testament to my innocence: I’M NOT THE ONE DOING THE BAD THING!

Contemplating this strange nostalgia shifts my thoughts on American privilege to thoughts on white privilege.

One time, at a Halloween party, over chicken nuggets shaped like dinosaurs, I listened to a conversation between two guys. They were talking about Black Lives Matter, and the election. Both of them were Trump supporters, their conversation playing out like a football being passed back and forth: ‘Not all cops [this]’ and ‘Not all cops [that].’

I stared at a beheaded stegosaurus, bleeding ranch dressing, and gradually lost my appetite.

Everything felt reminiscent of ‘not all men [this]’ and ‘not all men [that]’, and the one wrinkle in my forehead deepened.

I held my breath before I spoke: ‘Just admit that racism is real and white privilege is real; just admit it. The fact that people who were born and raised here are referred to as “black American” while we get to be just “American” is enough proof that white people are the template of American society. We don’t know what it’s like to experience racism as a threat to our lives, just admit that!’

But neither of them gave what I said much thought, and the only response I got was: ‘Well, my uncle’s a cop.’

I feel silly going all lovesick for my boyfriend and his cigarette when I think of how, earlier in the day, I was watching Cristela Alonzo’s standup special, Lower Classy, on Netflix.

She had this joke about how you’ll never catch people of color reminiscing for “the good old days”. She said, “You ever notice it’s only white people saying that shit?” Then she joked about a hypothetical Lamar, and how he spends his weekends cooking and cleaning for free at his neighbor’s house, “like the good old days”. She capped the whole spiel off with, “You never see that conversation.”

Lovesick with nostalgia over my boyfriend’s cigarette, I can’t get that joke out of my head.

White privilege painted over caves used like catacombs by the KKK for lynchings. Replaced 245 years of slavery with ‘heritage’ and ‘states’ rights’. Erased our memory of segregation with poodle skirts and pastel thunderbirds. Rationalized an entire history of racism and genocide with: ‘Well, I didn’t do that.’

My boyfriend puts out his cigarette, and I understand my longing for the past is a privilege in itself. That I’m lucky my historical memories can be categorized with labels as benign and painless as “when restaurants were still divided between ‘smoking’ and ‘non”.

trump-3

Malcom X theorized that peaceful protests were only effective if the subject being protested possessed a conscience.

He said, ‘America has no conscience.’

I tell my boyfriend I’m beginning to believe empaths are like unicorns, belonging to a different plane of existence. I say, “There needs to be more emotional education in our
schools. Too many people think of empathy as a natural feeling, but it’s not. It’s an intellectual process. That’s why so many empaths appear kind of cold—they’re intellectual feelers and emotional learners. They react slow.”

The other night I had a dream I was blowing bubbles through a sniper. They shot out at a rapid pace, in smoky neon colors. They all collided into each other and, as they popped upon impact, made an explosion that took the shape of a multicolored mushroom cloud. After I looked all around me and everyone was cheering, but all I felt was depressed.

My boyfriend reacts slowly.

“Hm,” he says.

The morning after Donald Trump was elected president, I overheard my father talking to my mother in a hushed voice outside my bedroom door. ‘This country is mentally ill,’ he said. And my chest felt like it was on fire with how much I loved him for saying that; like I needed to avenge all those slow and steady tortoises who’d rather lose the race than become a tyrant—

Is there someplace safe, where they can dream?

trump-4

I confess to my boyfriend, “I feel less and less connected to reality everyday, like: Did that really just happen? Is this really real? It’s like millennials are being forced into crippling anxiety and depression because we’re being pressed between the past and the future at all times. What does it even mean to exist in the present?”

At my parent’s house, a show about the universe was on National Geographic and some scientist said that parallel universes exist. He said it in the sense that, every impossible thought is possible in some other dimension. Therefore, every dream you’ve ever dreamed, every fantasy you’ve ever had, every future that didn’t come to fruition, is actually happening someplace else.

I complain to my boyfriend about a common breadcrumb of human understanding, “So many people say if they could go back in time, they’d kill Hitler. And every time this comes up I feel like asking: What else? What else would you change?”

I was thinking of parallel universes as I watched a talk with Neil deGrasse Tyson.

He said the only evidence of time travel that he could conceive of is found in the great geniuses and artists of the past. People like Einstein, Picasso, and Newton. People who, he said, ‘had a vision of the future better than we even understand ourselves.’

I thought of Anne Frank and, without much warning, she sat down beside me on the living room couch. She told me she was a time traveller, too; that it wasn’t as hard as someone like Newton would have you believe.

She said, “Anyone can time travel.”

She said, “You just have to pull people forward somehow…”

She went on to explain that, in order to pull people forward, you don’t have to come up with a new law or theory—not necessarily.

She said, “You can do it with a feeling.”

Then she slipped out of The Now, caught a wormhole back to her better universe.

My boyfriend says, “Stalin killed more people than Hitler, a lot of people seem to forget about that.”

I Google “Stalin vs. Hitler”, and find an article titled: “Genocide: If Stalin or Mao killed more people than Hitler, why is Hitler considered the worst?”

I click on the link and I’m led to a chart of illustrated dictators with their corresponding names.

Depending on who I’m looking at, there are one or multiple red drops beneath each name.

One drop symbolizes one million people.

I don’t read the article; I just stare at the chart—taking in the drip drip drip of it all. (Our understanding of evil as an accumulation of deaths, and my knowing that it’s so much more than that.) I want to be worlds away from this psychopathy that condenses the dehumanization of millions to a drop in the ocean: It’s all in the past; It wasn’t that bad; We don’t talk about that.

I hope I’m not appropriating the anger of others, but I resent being part of a world where whole individuals are erased—drip—just like that.

trump-7

In my tiny hometown, a part of the rust belt, I’ve often felt like Van Gogh—seconds away from cutting off my own ear. Seconds away from sending it to a Trump supporting ex as a reminder of what I’d rather do than accept his president’s spineless rhetoric as truth.

There are TRUMP – PENCE signs at the ends of driveways, advertised in front windows and on the backs of pickup trucks.

Sometimes, I get the feeling that they’re watching me. That they’re creeping up on me, like some vague shape of a man I don’t know, in the night.

Talking about this feeling seems fruitless, like playing a rigged game of rock paper scissors: Capitalist Patriarchy covers White Woman and—therefore—covers everything else.

I ask my boyfriend, “What’s the term for feeling responsible and powerless all at once?”

America, I have a dream.

(Which is to say: I have contributed to a parallel universe where everything I’m about to describe is possible.)

I collect every TRUMP – PENCE sign from sea to shining sea, and walk to a field—out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing.

I color over all the names, and lay down every sign to form a template that stretches on for miles.

I take a permanent marker and, starting with the first sign, write: ‘Hillary Clinton, first female president of the United States.’

Then I move on to the next sign and write the same thing with my mother’s name, shortly followed by the names of my sisters and grandmothers—my female friends and peers.

On each sign, I write the names of every American woman I know followed by ‘first female president of the United States.’

trump-11

I do this until I can finally start writing the same thing with the names of all the American women that I don’t know, who are not like me.

I do this until every American woman is accounted for, illegal immigrant to transgender.

And, in this universe, I don’t care how flowery my efforts look; no one gets to call me vapid or unrealistic here.

I’m free to imagine better places where each sign is a reality, rendered absolutely possible
because someone wrote it down somewhere.

And once my work is finally done, I’ll lay in my bed of unrealized dreams.

With my head resting against the pillow of my name, I’ll put my hand over my heart and pledge allegiance to the sky.

Whispering, ‘United Dreams…’

Meanwhile, I set up dinosaurs between parallel universes as my boyfriend muffles the sound of the clock’s ticking.

trump-2trumptrump-3