On Damsels In Distress

Sleeping-BeautyYesterday, a situation occurred that put into sharp relief for me the lingering inequality between genders in Western culture. Of course, it was not a new realisation, nor a sudden conversion to feminism or egalitarianism, but it proved to me on a personal level – it reiterated, I suppose – just how ingrained the sense of women’s inferiority is. I’ll explain…

I walked into a métro station on my way to work and, despite it being a Friday afternoon and one of two stations ideally situated to visit the Eiffel Tower, there were only three people there: two men and me, a solitary, young woman. One man was walking ahead of me to the ticket barrier, another was attempting to recharge his Oyster card Navigo. The latter turned to the passerby and asked him something but I had my headphones in and wasn’t really paying attention. The man ahead of me couldn’t or wouldn’t help the asker so he – the asker – turned to me. Despite having some film soundtrack playing (okay, fine, it was Frozen – yay, girl power) at a volume from which a doctor would recoil in horror, I understood that he was asking me for change to pay his fare. Being an au pair in one of the most expensive areas of one of the most expensive cities in Europe and having given money to two homeless people throughout the day, I shook my head and carried on walking, only to find he had taken hold of my sleeve and was trying to pull me over to the machine.

Before I continue, I will point out that he was pulling rather tentatively, his grip was pretty light and I easily broke free. But that isn’t the point.

The point is that he didn’t grab hold of the 6ft something man in front of me but he thought it appropriate to grab hold of me. Now, let’s initially give him the (slight) benefit of the doubt. Let’s say that the reason for which he didn’t take hold of the other man’s jacket was solely based on the fact that he knew his chances would not be good if things turned ugly, given their respective builds. However, that would suggest that he would have grabbed anyone he deemed physically inferior to him, be that a smaller man, an older man or even a child. Try as I might, I can’t see him doing that. Nor can I imagine him taking a handful of an elderly woman’s coat or that of a woman who was walking with a man. The only reasoning I can see was that, consciously or not, he saw me as unable to defend myself, unable to make a fuss about him grabbing my sleeve, just because I am a woman. With that in mind, he wouldn’t have done the same to a woman accompanied by a man for obvious reasons, and there are different boundaries to observe with the elderly and the young.

It’s the other side – the darker side – to the ‘damsel in distress’ coin: because I am a woman and had no man to come racing to my rescue, he could do anything he pleased.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this was assault or that he would have attempted anything more serious. I’m not exaggerating this tiny incident into anything awful and I wasn’t frightened for my life nor of being hurt. He let go when I turned and glared, telling him in (not very good) French that I didn’t have any change. However, it was, in my opinion, indicative of an attitude lurking not very far beneath the surface of our society.

His small action, one I doubt he remembers, less than a day later, made me feel horribly insecure. As an 18 year old living alone in an apartment in the city I’ve pretty much always dreamed of, I have the cliché, teenaged difficulty in seeing myself as anything less than immortal. Of course, logically, I know I’m not but I have one million and one plans and ambitions to fulfil before I even think about kicking the bucket. Said tiny incident shattered the illusion of my invincibility for a minute and left me having a bit of an internal crisis on the métro (I did, however, feel very French). I hate to be dramatic (that’s a lie) but it really made me question my own safety as a lone woman in a city; I found myself eyeing men very suspiciously for the next hour or so, as though behind each face was some monster determined to take advantage of my feminine powerlessness. I was also angry that a stranger had made me feel this insecure and so wore a scowl my pubescent self would have been proud of.

Some might now take a moment to point out that it was one man in one station that briefly held my sleeve and that I shouldn’t generalise men in a way that I would be outraged if the situation was reversed and some teenaged boy with a blog was generalising women. This incident, however, did a hop, skip and a jump over to another issue I’ve been brooding about for some weeks now. The connection might seem tenuous at first but bear with me.

The Foreign Secretary for the UK, William Hague, recently tweeted about the massacre of Rohingya people in Myanmar (Burma). I do not dispute that the entire situation is absolutely horrific and the UK needs to do everything it can to put pressure on the Myanmar government to stop it’s systematic persecution of the Islamic group but that is a discussion for another time and place. The relevant issue for this blog post is the wording of his tweet:

He said he is sickened by the massacre of women and children. Not men. Women and children. With one tweet of fewer than 140 characters, one of the UK’s leading politicians tied women and children together in their vulnerability. The especial shock at the killing of a child over that of the death of an adult is something that has always occurred and I hope always will. Children are symbols of innocence and are inherently defenceless. Women are not. Perhaps in the past, when women were expected to stay at home, when they were not allowed to join the armed forces, when they learnt sewing and cooking at school in single sex classes, the murder of a woman was allowed to be more shocking than that of a man. But nowadays? Surely nowadays we have reached a level where we at least admit that women are able to fight back, where women are not as vulnerable as a child? Some might argue that the Myanmar culture, or that of the Rohingya people, still stipulates that a woman is a more fragile being than a man and thus the response was culturally appropriate – I would not be able to deny that as I must admit to knowing very little on the subject. However, Hague’s tweet was to a predominantly British and Northern Irish audience. By referring to only the massacre of the women and children, and not that of the men, Hague was, I strongly suspect inadvertently, only serving to reiterate the ‘damsel in distress’ view of the feminine sex. The wording smacked of Victorian Britain, where women were fighting (and dying, I might add) to even have a say in who the (male) politicians representing them were.

Every tweet such as Hague’s, every incident like my métro experience today, shows again that we still have a long way to go in gender equality. A friend of mine believes that feminism is redundant in the 21st Century West: women have suffrage, women can work where they want, in short, women have the same legal rights as men. I would argue that these two instances are evidence to the contrary. Whilst legally we might be equal, there is still this idea being perpetuated even by our Foreign Secretary that women are defenceless. Of course, Hague meant no harm by it and was instead expressing his deepest sympathy towards the atrocities currently being committed by the government and citizens of Myanmar in the name of a peace-loving religion (do not get me started on whether or not these people deserve the title of ‘Buddhists’. [hint: they don't]) but, as I said earlier, the two incidents – the one sympathetic, the other potentially dangerous – are two symptoms of the same illness.

A post on blogging site Tumblr introduced me to some interesting information. Margaret Atwood once wrote that she asked a male friend why men feel threatened by women and his answer was they feared women would laugh at them. When she asked the reverse question to a group of female friends, the answer was that the women were afraid the men would kill them. Similarly, a commenter on the post mentioned an (unsourced) article about heterosexual online dating. The greatest fear for men when it came to online dating was that their date would turn out to be fat. The women’s was that their date would turn out to be violent and kill them.

This is yet more proof of the way women are viewed, consciously or not, and how it leads to women feeling unsafe around men – the said view leads to the murder, rape and abuse of women. Now, please don’t get me wrong, I’m in no way saying that men being murdered, raped or abused, or that woman on woman rape and abuse either doesn’t happen or doesn’t matter. But this view which is so ingrained in our society goes some way to explaining the high rates of male on female violence.

In fact, that brings me on to another point. The ‘damsel in distress’ image has yet another dark side to it. If women are subconsciously seen and portrayed as fragile roses needing strong men to protect them from the world around them, men are seen as needing to be ‘manly’. Hence, much rape and abuse of men is written off, ignored, or the men are simply too ashamed to come forward. Boys from a young age are told to ‘be a man’ when they are hurt, to ‘man up’ when they are sad, for fear of being called ‘gay’ or ‘a girl’ when they show emotion. How stifling that must be. I could write a whole blog post on the benefits of feminism / gender equality for men so I won’t go into that now but I just wanted to point out yet another aspect to the thought (thoughtlessness?) behind a stranger grabbing my sleeve in an almost empty station.

I do recognise how small the incident was and how I’m sure I would be scoffing if a French existentialist had written this but I must admit to having felt just a little less secure and invincible since, though perhaps that will wear off in time. Writing this blog has been a good way to explore the feelings it brought up in me, though I do hope it has a less selfish purpose of highlighting the issue to just a few more people. I risk sounding overly grand but I genuinely do have faith in the upcoming generations that we can continue to fight against inequality in all forms; it is only by becoming aware of these ingrained ideas that we can challenge them.

Ronni Blackford, signing out.

Disclaimer: I might not have been so thorough with getting the permission of the twitter accounts I have quoted as I was with my last post but it’s the Foreign Secretary so I thought I’d let myself off this time.

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