How a writer saw an opportunist taking advantage and acted by putting the squeeze on him.
How being a writer helped me rewrite a sexist trope…for real.
So a thing happened to me yesterday on the BART as I was coming home from work. (And no, it wasn’t a Sharknado…mores the pity.) Maybe I’m just rewriting history or trying to make a story fit in this the context of this blog…maybe, but I really, honestly think that what happened did so (at least in my case) because I am a writer.
You see, as a writer, I am also a reader–a big crazy, prolific-as-shit reader. I’ve read two or three dozen articles my friends have linked over the years on women’s experience with creepers on public transit–usually with some sort of commentary attached to it by said friend along the lines of “ZOMG THIS!!!!” or “SO FUCKING TRUE!!!!” I’ve read Schrodinger’s Rapist, Rape Culture 101, Jezebel articles by the dozens (perhaps hundreds), and even my own friends’ tribulations on BARTs and busses. I even read that article (which I can’t find now) that lays out a well reasoned case that our culture’s entirely fucked up sense of consent and rape culture exist naturally as an extension of the same mindset that cause women to be afraid of being blunt and honest when they get cornered inpublic by someone they’re not interested in. [ETA- One of the commenters knew the piece I was talking about. It’s called Another Post About Rape.]
And in reading all these things I’ve come to be aware of a narrative. An everyday narrative almost as common for women as “the train pulled into the station, and I got on.” It’s not that no one but a writer could be aware of this narrative it’s just that in a world where tragically few are, that was my gateway.
It is the narrative of how men hit on women in public places. A tired old story if ever there were one. A story where consent is not a character we actually ever meet, and where the real antagonist is not a person, but rather the way she has been socialized to be polite, to be civil, to not be “such a bitch”….no matter how much of a Douchasauras Rex HE is being about not picking up the subtle clues. Yes, a human being might fill the role of the immediate obstacle–and in doing so personify the larger issue, but the careful reader of this tropetastic narrative knows the real villain is the culture that discourages her from rebuking him in no uncertain terms lest she be castigated. (And that’s the best case scenario; the worst is that she angers someone with much greater upper body strength who may become violent.) The real antagonist is a society where she is actually discouraged from being honest about what she wants…or doesn’t want. And the society that socialized him that it’s okay for him to corner her…pressure her….be persistent to the point of ignoring the fact that she has said no.
I saw the heroine of our story sitting on the BART. The train wasn’t busy in the afternoon along the “anti-commute” line, so it was only a few of us spread out far and wide. She was thin but not skinny and wore one of those wispy skirts that always make me want to send God a fruit basket for inventing summer. The kind of woman my step-father would have gotten distracted by and then grudgingly called “a real looker.”
But what is much more important that I noticed, because I’m all writerly and observant and shit like that, is that everything about her screamed “leave me alone.” She had headphones jammed in her ears. Her nose was down in a book (my hand to God, I think it was Storm of Swords). She was pulled inward with body language that couldn’t have been more clear if she had one of those shields from Dune…activated.
But still….he tried.
He sat right behind her–already a warning sign on such an empty train.
The real antagonist may have been society, but our personification of it was well cast. He had a sort of Christian Bale look about him, if Christian Bale were playing a role of a douchecanoe. Revisionist memory is always suspect, but I’m telling this story, and I’m going to stand by the fact that I thought he looked like a creepy guy long before he started acting like one.
He waited until the train was in motion to make his move–a true sign of someone who knows how to make the environment work to their advantage. Then he leaned forward. “Hi.” “How you doing?” “What are you reading?” “What’s your name?” “I really like your hair.” “That’s a really nice skirt.” “You must work out.”
It was painful to watch. She clearly wanted nothing to do with him, and he clearly wasn’t going to take the hint. Her rebukes got firmer. “I’d like to read my book.” And he pulled out the social pressure. “Hey, I’m just asking you a question. You don’t have to be so rude.” She started to look around for outs. Her head swiveled from one exit to another.
The thing was, I had already heard this story, many many times. I knew how it would play out. I knew all the tropes. I probably could have quoted the lines before they said them. I wanted a new narrative. Time to mix it up.
So I moved seats until I was sitting behind him. I leaned forward with my head on the back of his seat.
“Hi,” I said with a little smile.
He looked at me like I was a little crazy–which isn’t exactly untrue–and turned back to her.
“How are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m fine,” he said flatly without ever looking back.
“I really like your hair,” I said. “It looks soft.”
That’s about when it got…..weird.