fiction theory

The artist is not afraid

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We are the knights who say "No!"
books, reading
Right now I'm having a lot of thoughts about gender representation in the media, and it seems like the internets is right there thinking about it with me.

I read this morning: the difference between intention and what actually happened by [personal profile] manifesta (warning: discussion of rape and rape culture, non-graphic) and has a really good bit on intentions vs. results:

This is why intentions do not matter. Regardless of what someone intends, we are the sum of our society. You may not have intended to write a scene that involves victim-blaming, it may insult your very being to even consider that you could have done so, but rape culture is by nature so insidious that it permeates our lives, our relationships, our writing. You may not have intended anything, but intentions fall flat in the face of what actually happened.

Then there was Hot, Creepy, and Movie Physics from ursulav with this quote:

Also attempts to emulate many of the whimsical romantic acts portrayed in chick flicks will get you pepper sprayed, since there are many things that we accept in movies that would be unbelievably freakin’ creepy in real life.

The reason these things were clicking around in my head is because I'm currently typing up my review of Dark Desires After Dusk by Kresley Cole, and I'm at the bit of the review where I look at how gender and rape culture issues were handled in that book (spoiler alert: they were handled so fucking badly I nearly didn't finish the book).

It seems to me that part of rape culture is breaking down women's sense of not just creepy but ability to recognize and react to discomfort in a way that keeps them safe. We're ingrained with ideas of politeness and kindness and hospitality, so much so that we will do these things at our own peril. And when we don't, we face scorn and derision.

I remember an exchange with a male friend of mine in which he was angry that two women in a mall (strangers to him) that he approached were suspicious and not friendly to him when all he wanted was to ask the time. I didn't know how to articulate it then, but now I realize that what angered me about him using this as evidence that "suspicion of men has gone too far in feminism" is the assumption that the women were under an obligation to make HIM feel welcome and happy and well-received rather than protect their safety or react in a manner that was actually appropriate.

Because if you go up to someone you don't know, no matter who you are, you are not entitled to instant politeness or friendliness. You are invading THEIR space, and if they have the ability and the willingness to be friendly, then consider it a gift. Not a right, a privilege, a gift, a generosity extended to you - but not something you were owed.

Rape culture wants to hide that simple fact. They want women to forget that they always, by virtue of being human beings, reserve the right to safety and to disengage from interactions that they don't like. And furthermore, they reserve the right to do so with no explanation.

Maybe the woman in question is unfriendly because she's tired and in pain, maybe she's been the victim of an assault and feeling unsafe, maybe she's having a bad day, maybe you interrupted her thoughts or something she was doing, maybe she just had a fight with her boss, maybe Mars is in fucking retrograde or she doesn't like people wearing blue shirts.

It doesn't matter. Her reasons remain her own and she is under no obligation to run them past anyone or even reveal and explain them.

You can think she's a mean, horrible, unfair person if you like. Your opinions are your own. But what is NOT yours, whoever you are of whatever gender identity, is her space, her time, her privacy, and her safety.

Yet we have hordes and hordes of movies and books and TV shows that tell us differently. They train us not to interpret someone invading our space, our privacy, and our autonomy as a fucking invasion, but rather as a romantic gesture. As something we should accept and welcome, because it's not someone asserting dominance over us, it's someone showing just how much they love and care for us.

We're taught over and over again that we can be desired or respected, but never both at the same time. To be the object of desire must be to sacrifice expectations that potential suitors or admirers will recognize clear, bright lines and keep well away from them. To enforce those boundaries and to reject imposition on them is to be a "bitch", to put men off, to make yourself unwelcoming to men.

That's the lesson after all. You must be desirable to men on their terms, because those are the only terms that matter. And if you don't want him watching through your window at night or standing over you as you sleep or following you around - if you want to be able to conduct your life without his constant gaze and/or intervention in it, if you'd like him to go away because you're not interested, then you're the one at fault. You're not recognizing how romantic and in love he is.

Because you are a woman, you are not entitled to expect that people who declare their love for you will actually show it by not doing things that hurt, demean, upset, or otherwise disrespect you. And when they do these things under the banner of "True Love", you won't just tolerate, you'll damn well like it, you'll tell other women that this is what they should want, you'll give them funny looks and shout them down if they should dare to raise an eyebrow, or worse yet, an objection.

Rape culture is good at putting the burden on the wrong shoulders. The burden is not and never will be women's to stop people from assaulting them. It's on those who approach women to make sure they're not assaulting her.

Which is why I think it's important that we women keep our sense of creepy, icky, and skeezy. I think it's important that the books written by us, for us don't break down that innate sense, that intuitive understanding of when a person is about to go too far, or doesn't show the signs that they're going to respect us.

Because that sense of creepy, when you listen to it, is what tells you to get to a well-lit public place when some person approaches you and something just isn't right, but you don't have time or space to spell it out. That sense of creepy is what tells you that this person is not going to make a good partner, because their behavior on the first date or the first meeting indicates that they're going to cause you a lot of pain down the road, that if they take a little now, they'll take a lot more later. That sense of creepy is an alarm that's been tripped, but like fire alarms in a school building, we've been conditioned to ignore it, to think of it as nothing serious rather than a warning of imminent danger.

That sense of creepy? That's the part of our brains designed to help us survive and thrive telling us that somehow, someway this thing or person or situation in front of us is not going to help us meet our goals in life of not dying, not getting attacked, and being happy.

That's why rape culture wants us to shut that alarm down, to ignore it. Because rape culture, in the end, is about making some human being suffer so that others can be raised up unfairly. That's what all bigotry and prejudice and dominance is about, in one way or the other.

Which, coming back to the literary side of this, is why it's important we stop writing about these creepy behaviors as though they're not creepy. It's why we need to stop giving signals to both men and women (and indeed, every human being of any gender identity) that these behaviors are all right. And I think it's why we need to call it out when we see it in our media, because rape culture thrives best in the dark and in silence, but it hates the cold light of scrutiny and it hates to hear that one little word: "No." Which is why we have to keep saying it, and keep telling others that they, too, have the right to say it and expect it to stick.

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.... Thank you so much for this post. I've been working through how much I hate my fav new pop star's latest music video which features him following some girl around in places she obviously doesn't want him in, and finding the words without getting too personal and angry is hard.

You say true things.

finding the words without getting too personal and angry is hard.

I know this feeling, and I actually did get pretty personal in the book review I just posted, but damn. Sometimes finding words through the rage and the squick is pretty hard. So I'm glad that this post may have helped a little.

What pop star is this, BTW? Out of sheer and morbid curiosity?

Alexander Rybak. He's from Norway, and won Eurovision 2009. I actually do enjoy most of his work, I love his musical composition talents and his lyrics are actually mostly really lovely. I keep meaning to do a blog series applying different interpretations to some of his songs, and in general, he's well-spoken and you know... nice! Like, nice nice, not capital N nice. Then again, I can't follow his life closely because I don't speak Norwegian and all, and I don't particularly feel the need to when I just like his work. Which is why the music video is upsetting, because the previous body of work was mostly unproblematic. Mostly.

Excellent post (great link), and I agree a gazillion percent.

I was born in 1955, and raised in rural/small town culture, and the whole pressure to be polite and accommodating as a girl/woman was stifling-I ended up 20 years old, on my own, literally unable to say "no" to anybody because it would be RUDE.

And that led to some creepy places. I saw my mother struggle to learn to set boundaries too, well after her divorce, and cheered her on (she could act to protect my brother and me, but not herself).

The more points like this are made, the better.

and p.s. LOVE the Monty Python reference!

I was born in 1955, and raised in rural/small town culture, and the whole pressure to be polite and accommodating as a girl/woman was stifling-I ended up 20 years old, on my own, literally unable to say "no" to anybody because it would be RUDE.

I was born in 1984 in Tennessee, same kinda culture and I inherited the same from my mother and grandmother. And I have that same issue. It's taken me a long time to learn that I can say "no" or tell someone I don't like what they're doing or that I don't want to do something. And I still fail all the time, especially in situations with strangers or people I'm not close to.

Like a recent example? I was getting a massage and was too intimidated to tell the masseuse that she was hurting me because I didn't want to be mean, didn't want to hurt her feelings, didn't want to be a rude customer. So I took it for 60 minutes and wound up being sore and in pain for a week afterward.

So posts like this are as much me talking to myself as anything. And wow, sorry for the personal info dump there.


This is fabulous. Thank you!

I'm glad you liked the post. :)

This is an excellent post. (And the link to Ursula V's post was terrific.) Thank you!

Er, and should note that I followed a link here from Hathor Legacy.

Thank you for this.

I'm very fond of my own sense of creepy/icky/skeezy even though employing it, in the past, has made me feel like I was being cold or prudish or bitchy - like I was the one with the problem, in other words. But it's kept me safe... I was on a date with this guy who seemed lovely, kind of dorky, earnest, but something just wasn't right and it all became clear when he said that he thought the fine for owning child porn should be the same as the fine for speeding D: So yeah, got out of that one fast.

Creepy feelings should always be trusted. But thank you for this post, because there's part of me that still feels that leaving him was an overreaction and rude, and I know logically that it wasn't.

I've found it helps to maintain my own sanity if I remember that 'bitchy' is often code for 'not letting myself be exploited'. So when a man calls me bitchy for not letting him bypass company security / not giving him my phone number / not doing his work for him / whatever, it's a sign that he is at fault but he's trying to fool me into thinking it's my fault.

I like that definition.

Here via Hathor Legacy. So much agreement with keeping one's sense of creepy. I have the extra awkward layer of introversion to deal with, something my family tried to harangue out of me from early on, plus the societal pressure to not be a "bitch" or "stuck-up".

I really struggle not to hate myself sometimes, for not just saying no, or refusing to allow all these little moments where I've let other people take up my time and mental or physical space, because I felt I had no right to. It's really not okay, this imposition place across a whole half of the human race to let others take advantage as they will. We need no, no question.

This is a long overdue comment for me: I found the film "Elf" to be really creepy for these reasons. The lovable title character followed his coworker into the shower! And she thought it was cute. Rarr.

There. Now I feel better.

It seems to me that the audience is everything. These stories are written by and for heterosexual men, many of whom are uncertain of how to get on well with the women they want to be with. (Women can watch and try to enjoy these films, but they aren't the stars of the show.) So what we are seeing are the intentions that creepazoids have, but with pleasant results rather than unpleasant. Because these people don't understand boundaries and for some reason never came across any information about why they creep women out, they feel absolutely misunderstood and want their plight splashed across the screen. If only people could just understand!

The good women in these films are often either not pursued by anyone, or they are pursued by people who other men dislike and are clearly not worthy of the coveted, prized lead female. The woman always ends up discovering the guy who didn't know how to interact with women is totally the guy that she should be looking for. I think the writers don't intend to send a message, but they also don't realize that a) everyone is watching, and b) many people don't watch anything but their messages.

My brain is shutting down for the night, so I don't know if I've got a complete thought here or not...oh well...

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