Going Down Swinging
Today was one of those days – those days when something makes you so angry that you can’t quite let go of it. I’ve been trying not to have so many of these days – to pick my battles and save my energy for things I know I can change. As Snarkysmachine recently pointed out at Shapely Prose, “You can’t eat all the eggs or fight all the windmills,” and there are some asshats whose minds you just can’t change. Spending your sanity on those people who won’t budge – well, sometimes it takes away the energy you need to fight a bigger battle.
But todayI lost my cool on someone I know I can’t change. I spouted passionate words knowing they were ill spent. I dug for just the right phrase, knowing it would have no impact.
IRL I work as an assistant manager at a retail store in a major mall. Since the economic downturn, our mall (and everyone else, I’m sure) has seen an increase in problems like theft and credit card fraud, so the local sheriff’s office partnered with our mall security team to host a security meeting advising stores about how to handle the increased risks. The meeting itself was handled surprisingly well, from a feminist perspective. There wasn’t nearly the amount of mansplaining and condescension I’ve seen from some L.P. officers, and there was also none of the profiling that I’d feared there might be. The officers provided us with useful information that might actually help us to prevent – or at least deter – thefts from our store.
The most significant moment for us, though, was when the head of security stood up, his arm in a sling, and informed us that the offenders in our area were beginning to grow violent when approached or apprehended. In general, malls deal mostly with small-time criminals – lots of petty theft and a few cases of stolen cards here and there. But according to the officer, more and more of the thefts at our mall were being committed by frequent offenders with other, bigger crimes on their record. Out of fear of being taken in for outstanding warrents or other major charges, they were beginning to fight back against those who managed to catch them stealing. “So above all,” he said, “remember that we’re here to help you. If you see something in your store, call us. Don’t try to apprehend a shoplifter on your own. It isn’t worth the risk to your safety.”
Unlike many of our mall neighbors, we are a locally owned. Our bosses have no problem instructing us to confront shoplifters and ban problem customers with impunity – a practice I’ve always refused to participate in. So it was nice to be able to return to my store knowing that security would be on my side the next time I refused to confront someone alone. My manager and I immediately gathered our employees and let them know that we agreed with security’s findings; attempting to confront a suspicious customer is just too dangerous.
One of the employees – a girl my age (late 20’s), whom I’ve known forever – immediately grew red-faced and said, “I’m not afraid to confront someone. If anybody messes with me, I’ll just grab a vase off the shelf and hit them over the head.” My manager, assuming she was joking, tried to move onto the next topic of discussion, but the girl wouldn’t let it go. She lectured us about how women are “taught to be passive” and how she believed we should all overcome our passivity by being prepared to hit, spit, and stomp, to nut-kick and claw anyone and everyone who might mean us harm. She explained that getting away from an attacker was actually very easy. “Did you know that most women, if attacked by someone with a knife, will immediately freeze up?” she demanded, her eyes growing wide. She explained that getting away from a knife – hell, even getting away from a gun – was actually pretty easy. Anyone who really valued her life could get away. “All you have to do is…”
Her “all you have to do” included every tip and trick ever included in the magazine articles, campus security postings, and self defense courses aimed at teaching women “how not to be victims.” And there are tons of great blogs out there that have fought against these ideas already, that have explained how telling women what to do or what not to do to avoid being attacked is really just another way of telling women it’s their own damn fault if they get assaulted. What made me so sad about this girl’s argument was not just the victim-blaming quality of it (although that steamed me plenty). It’s that I know her well enough to know how she lives her life. Outside the Buffy-girl Ass-kicker persona she put on this afternoon, she is basically house-bound when not at work, afraid to go out on her own. Meeting anyone new is terrifying to her. Men in general are even more terrifying. She’s constrained by many of the very fears she ridiculed, and the cognitive dissonance at work made me want to break down and cry.
It put me in mind of this post at Shakesville. Here Melissa M makes the crucial point that many of the women who victim-blame do so out of “an attempt to disassociate from the ugly reality that there’s no magic strategy to insulate oneself from all possibility of sexual assault” or, in this case, other violent assault. The words I heard from my coworker spoke to exactly this sort of “magic strategy”. What she described was like something out of television or film – a fantasy scenario where the powerful woman defeats the bad guy and saves the day. It was more Buffy the Vampire Slayer than Jane Doe the Mall Employee. And I wish I could have made her understand that she doesn’t have to be Buffy. She has the right to live her life as herself, as a girl without magical powers or uncanny strength. And that if someone uses violence or abuse to infringe upon that right, the fault lies entirely with them. And that her value and her right to life are based on the fact of her humanity; nothing more, and nothing less.