Tense aggression in the heat of frustration. What to do? My body can’t take this explosion of anger, I’ve got to have a physical outlet. Stupid Barbie, why don’t you do what I want? I hate you. Bite, clench hard. Quickly take a look. It’s all bent. Why did I do that? Now she’s ruined.
She still lives in a large plastic bin of forgotten toys in a basement, frozen smile, frizzy hair, and deformed hand.
School bus. Meekness puts me on the radar, makes me a target.
Get out of my space, get away from me…
Through my geeky spectacles, I’m seeing red. I wish I wasn’t alone on this bus, I wish I had a forcefield of friends to protect me. Body recoils, hotly tense. I hate you. I want your ugly, mocking smile to go away. My fist jumps out like a snake from the bushes, and connects with a hollow thunk. The bully facade crumbles to give a glimpse of his true face: a confused pre-teen boy who desperately needs to be cool.
I escape from the school bus, and soon after I notice small rocks dancing at my feet. Turn around, and he and his friend are throwing their parents’ decorative landscaping pebbles at me. Very tough indeed. I speed-walk home, tail between my legs.
I’ve learned that “no” is a question of interpretation. “Leave me alone” communicates an invitation for more undesired attention. My pathetic defenses have been exhausted. There’s a key to surviving here that I just don’t have. Why don’t I have it; how do I get out of this?
In class. Day after day, explicit sinister whispers chip away at me. I wish I could take my skin off and disappear. One after another, ugly comments meant to do what? Wear me down, violate my comfort; I’m tired of it. What did I do to deserve it? Tension, heart is boiling again. Stop fucking with me. I didn’t ask for this.
Teacher leaves room, and I can liberate the Me that lives inside, vibrant and angry and electric. The current extends out from my hand, slices around to meet his face. Jaw wobble, sharp intake of air, now I’m tingling. I plaster on a smile, eyes forward, like a good little scholarly robot-mannequin.
A student is going on the offensive; they’ve taken constructive criticism personally, which has led to aggression; at least, that’s what it feels like.
Needles in my skin, chest is hot. Voice and hands want to tremble.
I’ve given my professional opinion, and this poor sap feels the need to retaliate, and turn to the typical cheap ploy of ping-ponging their insecurity back onto me. I’m not having it. This time, I’ve got a full arsenal of words at my disposal. With firm professional efficacy, I defend my position and steer this person out of my space.
Same internal response.
Different course of action.
The story begins on the main boulevard of Angers. I’m walking to the train station after a long day of work, and a couple of salty-looking French men are walking my way. They stop, they ooh and ahh, and deliver some uncouth pickup lines. Standard catcalling fare, the kind that women are very familiar with.
T’es bonne! (You’re sexy!)
Oh, là là là, salut ma chérie! (Hey, sweetheart!)
C’est quoi tes origines, là? (Where’re you from?)
Their use of tu is what struck me. In French, the informal tu and the polite vous are clear ways to express distance or familiarity to the person with whom you speak.
I understand; scratching your nuts and grunting at a woman isn’t exactly the time for politeness. But the way these men referred to me as tu indicates a familiarity with which I didn’t ask for, and certainly didn’t need or deserve. Women know this feeling all too well. The way men like this invite themselves into your space, then feel you owe them something while they’re there… How egregious!
Of course, not responding to these terribly suave pickup lines can then invite an alternate ending: some men just have to have the last word, and my ears sting as they throw me one last insult to injury, for the road: Bitch. Conne. Salope.
Now, imagine the presumptuousness of someone stomping onto your front porch and demanding a cup of tea, then insulting you when you don’t comply. The trouble is, we never know if that guy will slither away and retreat, or if he’ll try to break the door down to get some tea. The majority fall into the first category; the rare times you meet someone from the second are those that burn into your memory.
This kind of discussion often comes back to female culpability. The question isn’t “What the fuck is wrong with that creepy guy?” No, the question is “What were you wearing?” In other words, what did you do to invite this onto yourself?
It brings me back to being in middle and high school, right back to those good ol’ days where my bullies understood my silence as tacit consent. Interfering in my space was considered a right, and I had no say about it.
At home, the response I got was “Well, don’t let them do it!” But as a girl, I didn’t understand how not to let them do it; it felt like I was doing something wrong, that maybe it was my fault. I allowed it to happen, so therefore I was the guilty party. The bullying later evolved into sexual harassment, and I learned that my words were ineffective. Others had words that could hurt, but mine were worthless.
I learned that boys were bad. That male attention could hurt. That, given the chance, they’d stomp into your house, drag mud all over the carpet, then blame you for leaving the front door unlocked.
As women, we learn from these lessons and start locking the door. For me, I tried locking the door, barricading it, and pretending to be invisible behind. I couldn’t answer the door to anyone, and I eyed the potential burglar with the same suspicion as the puppy salesman.
With this charming backstory in my pocket, I grew into a woman and started getting the standard societal messages: male attention is GOOD! Male attention is affirmation of your worth as a woman! I was supposed to yearn for male approval while inwardly understanding that they are cunning and untrustworthy. We’re screwed with them or without them when we view things like this in black-and-white.
Fortunately, life brings about the good to balance the bad, and by fostering relationships with the good guys, things become less black-and-white. It’s here in France where I have more hetero male friends than I’d ever had before. It’s through these respectful, trusting friendships that I learned it wasn’t always necessary to blockade the door.
So when some jerkoff on the street invites himself into my space, the 30-year-old Me is simultaneously insulted and annoyed, but also feels a twinge of sadness for those 12, 14, 16, 19, 22, 24, 25-year-old Mes who were silent.
The difference is, I’ve got words now.