THE CATCH-22 OF BEING A WOMAN
I’ve been dealing with ongoing sexual harassment from an older customer at work the past couple weeks. Though he swears his comments are innocent, I feel more and more agitated every time he comes in because I don’t know what the correct – but really, the safe – response is. I read an article once that said women at bars tend to treat the creepers more nicely than the regular guys because they’re afraid to set them off. The creepers interpret this as romantic interest rather than terror, and freak out anyway when the women finally refuse their advances.
I feel like those women at the bar. I work in a customer service field and it’s generally my responsibility to be nice. But when that generosity of spirit is interpreted as genuine interest by people who ask if they can work there “just to look at you,” I’m left without a clear exit strategy. On the one hand, I absolutely have the right to tell him to bug off. On the other hand, what if that makes him angry and he parks his car next to mine at closing then kidnaps me?
That might sound crazy, but it isn’t really. Even if women aren’t naturally aware of our surroundings, we’re told from childhood not to walk alone or stay outside when it’s dark. We’re told to keep our phones and our keys in our hands, and our finger on the pepper spray. We have to be vigilant if we want to avoid harassment, assault, and death.
But let’s say this man’s behavior will never escalate to violence. I’m still left dealing with the discomfort of having to publicly assert my right to not be sexually harassed at a potential cost to my shop’s reputation. Will other customers think I’m overreacting? Will he post a negative review on Yelp? I’ve been pushed into a corner I have to get out of without kicking and biting and saying nasty things. Because I have a reputation to uphold. It all falls on me, and I hate him for it.
WE DON’T NEED TO BE TOLD TO BE BRAVE
In the past year or so, I’ve seen the phrase, “Be Brave,” tacked onto everything from posters to t-shirts to devotionals. It’s a recurring marketing theme for a couple of women-centered social enterprises I follow, as well. However well meaning the call-to-action may be, I’ve found myself rolling my eyes every time I come across it.
Frankly, I don’t think women need to be told to “be brave.” Women are forced to navigate an impossible set of expectations every day, straddling harmful patriarchal values and an increasingly rigid form of feminism that leaves little room for personal expression. The last thing we need to be told is to be brave.
We’re already sorting out the details of identity formation in the context of societal and relational expectations, and I think we’re doing a pretty good job. We’re already advocating for ourselves when we feel we have the space to do so. If we’re silent, it’s for our own protection. If we’re too nice, it’s because we know that sometimes that’s what it takes to have our voices heard.
WHAT IS BRAVE?
I’m also disturbed by the adulteration of the word, brave, in the context of female “empowerment.” Male bravery conjures images of knights, soldiers, and public figures. Female bravery as its contextualized in the circles I’m in only serves to reinforce traditional female virtues like hospitality, generosity, and meekness. We’re told that it’s brave to say sorry and write letters. We’re told that bravery is being nice when no one’s watching.
I’m here to tell you that none of that is bravery! Lovely qualities to have, to be sure, but we might as well adopt the coercive, polygamist-Mormon phrase, “Keep sweet,” if we’re really only concerned with women staying in their place. I’m not interested in “reclaiming my femininity” or discovering “authentic womanhood.” These terms only serve to further limit acceptable ways of being a woman. I want more space, not nicer throw pillows!
I’m ready to keep being whatever I am in the world. Sometimes sweet, sometimes confrontational, sometimes fearful. But always brave.
We are brave by default. We have to be.
This post still feels unfinished, but I’m publishing it anyway because I want to hear your stories. What’s your take on the “Be Brave” trend?
Most women fight wars on two fronts, one for whatever the putative topic is and one simply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being. – Rebecca Solnit