Here’s to Strong Women

When I was thirteen years old, I started to get into comic books. At the time, I was particularly partial to superhero comics. And as a young girl, I heard all the jokes about how, of course I was so absorbed in a genre that followed traditionally handsome, muscular men dressed in skin-tight clothing. It didn’t seem to matter much if I said that that wasn’t what drew me to the genre; everyone was simply convinced that that must be what it was.

I had a hard time convincing people that, when I opened a Batman comic, I didn’t do it for the sad, rich boy with abs; I was there for the tragic cat burglar who wanted love, but never at the expense of her freedom or independence. I wanted to read about the clown girl who fell head-over-heels for the wrong man, and then learned to recognize the abuse, and, with the help of her best friend (another woman who had faced mistreatment from an entitled and careless man) she got herself out of that situation.

I am, of course, talking about Catwoman, Harley Quinn, and Poison Ivy, respectively. Three fictional characters who are not only strong, capable, and fiercely independent – they are, quite simply, unapologetically female.

When I was thirteen years old, these were the sorts of fictional characters that I was attracted to, in all forms of media: power fantasies. More specifically, feminine power fantasies. I loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer, because she was allowed to (un-ironically) love shopping and make-up and gossiping, while still being able to kick some demon ass and stand up for herself. I loved Wonder Woman, because she was fierce and strong, but nurturing and loving all at once. I loved Xena, because she could be both warrior and princess without question.

When I was sixteen years old, my attention began to turn a little bit more toward celebrities, because I suppose that’s what you do when you’re a teenager (or, it was what me and my friends did, at least). The celebrities that I sought out were much the same.

I loved rocker chicks, like P!nk and Joan Jett, women who weren’t afraid to challenge what was expected of women. I loved celebrities like Lady Gaga, who insisted on expressing themselves in the way that they saw fit. I loved Emma Watson, and any woman who was willing to brand themselves a feminist or stand up for women’s issues.

I loved female celebrities who will go unnamed here, simply because there is not time and space to mention all of them.

When I was eighteen years old, I became more aware of the women in my own life, in my family (as you tend to do when you’re facing the possibility of moving out and moving on).

I heard stories about my maternal grandmother, and how much of a firecracker she had always been. I heard about this five-foot-tall woman, growing up with nothing to call her own and having to build her own life from scratch. I heard about the time that her own brother made fun of her until she could stand it no longer, and she stabbed him in the hand with a fork.

I remembered growing up with my mother, who was covered almost head-to-toe in tattoos and dyed her hair a new colour every week. I remember her pictures being published in tattoo magazines, her name being made as a small-time tattoo model, even when she had two fully grown daughters. I remember her telling me that the people who thought she shouldn’t be who she was at her age didn’t matter. I remember her telling me how important it was to be true to yourself, and to be proud of who you are, no matter what that means.

I remember growing up with my sister, who has never once considered not speaking her mind. No matter what, even if what she says is considered rude or incorrect, she will say it. If others tell her that she should be humble, then she will climb to the highest rooftop just to scream out how much of a gift she is to the world. If someone tries to hurt or slight her, then she will do precisely what she needs to do to protect herself, because that is precisely the sort of strong, independent woman she is.

Now, I am twenty-two years old, and I am more aware now than ever that strong women are a gift upon this world.

As women, we are too often told to be something very particular; we are told to be soft, humble, passive, sweet, whatever – my point is, whenever a woman does not subscribe to this limited definition of what a woman can be, the effect can be truly inspiring.

Because the fact of the matter is, women don’t have to be one thing. Women shouldn’t be one thing; there are millions and millions of us, and we are all different. We all look different, act different, think different, love different, and we should reflect all that in how we live our lives.

A woman who does not perfectly reflect society’s definition of beauty, and yet still loves herself and owns what she has, is a rare and beautiful thing – specifically because society tells women that they shouldn’t do that.

A woman who unapologetically owns her quote-unquote ‘unfeminine’ traits, like ambition or assertiveness, is, again, a rare and beautiful thing.

A woman who is, quite simply, herself, regardless of what that might mean, is a rare and beautiful thing.

And the reason why am I writing this, more important than simply reminding the world that strong women are a gift, is because we need to remind the strong women in our lives that they are strong, that they are amazing, that they inspire us. We need to support our fellow women, to encourage them to continue being themselves. Because we exist in a society that sometimes seems intent on tearing them down, but if we can remind them that what they do is important, then maybe they can find the strength to continue.

As women, we need to build one another up. We need to be there for one another, to make one another better, instead of constantly trying to prove that we are better than them. On top of telling women what they should be, society has also tried to trap us in a constant cycle of competition with one another: we must be the pretty-est, the most loved, the best mother, but the truth is, we don’t need any to accept any of this. We have the option of supporting our fellow women, of helping them to become stronger. Because we all deserve to be and feel strong.

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To The Men Wondering “What Can I Do?” #MeToo

Let’s create a scenario here: you’ve been hanging out with friends. It’s about two in the morning, and it’s time for you to go home. You didn’t plan on driving home, and there’s a short walk between the place that you’ve been staying and the bus stop. It’s late, dark, and none of your friends are planning on accompanying you to the bus stop because it’s only about five minutes away and no one else is heading in that direction.

So, you head out. As you’re walking, you become aware of how empty the streets are, so late at night. At some point, however, you become aware of movement behind you. You look behind, and there’s a man following you. No, not following you; walking behind you. He’s just another human being, on his way home like you are. You continue walking, but the knowledge of that figure behind you has not left the back of your mind.

You turn a corner, and just out of curiosity, you glance over your shoulder. The man turns the same corner, still walking behind you.

Your mind flees off to the stories you have heard before, of the girl who got off of work late at night, pulled into an alleyway and beaten. Of the man who was stabbed on his way home from the bar, and had to drag himself, bloodied and weak, to get help.

You become aware again of the fact that, if this man were to do something to you, help would be a long way away right now.

But, of course, something like that won’t happen to you. He’s just walking behind you. There’s no proof that he wants to hurt you.

Still, just to be safe, you reach into your jacket pocket and slip your house key between your middle and pointer finger. Just to be safe.

The man is getting closer. Your chest tightens. But nothing is going to happen. You’re going to be fine.

He’s getting closer.

He’s beside you now. Your breath catches, but he keeps on walking, going on with his business. You release your breath and, in your pocket, your house key.

Now, this man could be literally anybody. Maybe he was just walking home. Maybe he has a wife, a daughter, an elderly parent who he’s caring for. He could be a student, an off-duty cop, an activist who campaigns for the rights of the homeless. So, if that’s the case, were you wrong to be afraid of him in this scenario? Were you judgemental? Cruel? Should you have acted differently?

This is a question that I’ve seen asked from time to time, particularly in discussions around street harassment and feminism. I mean, I didn’t give a gender to the ‘you’ in the scenario, but many women, in the wake of the recent “Me Too” campaign, have come forward admitting that they do not feel safe in the streets. Heck, the scenario that I have just described has happened to me on multiple occasions, partly because of stories that I have heard, regarding horrors that have have happened to other women, and partly because I have had men yell at me in the streets, harass me, or make unwelcome comments, and the possibility that all it takes is one man to take it too far remains at the back of my mind every time I walk alone at night.

But in response to these women coming forward, there have been some men (or, at least, I’ve mostly heard men making these comments), who ask, “well, what are we supposed to do about it? Can’t you understand how bad it makes me feel, to see women afraid of me when I’m not going to hurt them?”

Every time I have heard these comments made, the intention behind them seems to be less, “what can we do to make you women feel safer in the streets?” and more, “don’t you realize that not all men attack women? You shouldn’t be so afraid of us; we’re not all going to attack you”. And, on the one hand, yes, not all men attack women in the streets. That is a fact. No one is saying otherwise. There are men who are genuinely good men, who actually do wish that women could feel safe in their presence and on the streets.

But there are also men who do attack and harass women in the streets.

According to a survey from 2014, 65 percent of women in the United States report being harassed in the street. Twenty-three percent report being sexually touched, twenty percent report being followed and nine percent report being forced to do something sexual. This is compared to twenty-five percent of men who report being harassed in the street, the majority of which are LGBT men facing homophobic or transphobic slurs. The organization that conducted this survey, however – known as Stop Street Harassment – admits that street harassment is an under-researched topic, so exact statistics are difficult to discern for certain.

And all that I know from my own empirical evidence is that I have been cat-called, insulted, followed, and screamed at by multiple men, simply because I happened to be in public at the same time as they were.

But then, this poses another question: although the majority of women are harassed in the street, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the majority of men are harassing. I mean, we don’t even know the statistics of how many men engage in this behaviour, and who would admit to it for the purpose of a survey anyway? Perhaps the majority of men in the street are perfectly innocent, and if that’s the case, is it fair to punish the innocent because we’re so afraid of the guilty?

Well, in my personal opinion, in this scenario, we have to think about what, exactly, is meant by ‘punish’. How are the innocent punished by women who fear being harassed? In the majority of cases, they are punished by women refusing to speak to them, looking away, reacting rather generally with fear.

And why do women react this way? Because, when you’re on the street and interacting with strangers, it’s difficult to tell for sure who is going to harass you and who isn’t. Maybe the man walking behind you is perfectly innocent. Maybe he isn’t. End of day, you don’t want to take the risk, because if you do engage with him, then you run the risk of him thinking that you’re ‘inviting’ his inappropriate behaviour, or fixating on you more than he might have otherwise.

And, I mean, yes, it is a shame that women cannot be open and friendly with every single man on the street, but statistics and empirical evidence give a very convincing reason for why we shouldn’t. And men should not be angry at women for reacting this way; they should be angry at the society that forces them to react.

So let’s go back to the original question: “well, what are we supposed to do about it?”

If we want women to feel safer in the streets, then there are actually things that we can do, believe it or not.

We can not react with anger or offence when a woman does something to protect herself, even if she is doing it completely without immediate reason.

We can respect boundaries, not touch people who have not given us reason or invitation to touch them, and treat them like our equals.

And if we are already doing all of this, then we can keep an eye out for the people who aren’t. When our friends decide to make loud and unwelcome comments about a woman’s body, we can tell them to stop. When we see a man groping a girl in the subway (and she isn’t making any indication that she knows the guy, or she obviously isn’t into it), we can ask her if she needs help. We can walk with women who look like they are being followed, we can offer ourselves as company to make them feel just a little bit safer. The majority of the time, women who are feeling vulnerable and threatened will be grateful for your help. Even something as seemingly insignificant as watching out for a girl who is being yelled at, or walking up to her and striking up small talk can make a world of difference.

The problem is not women’s reactions to harassment. The problem is the harassment itself, and in an ideal world, when women stop having reason to be afraid on the street, they will stop being afraid. So this is what we need to focus on.

The Difference Between Catcalling and Complimenting

A while back, I made the comment that catcalling is linked to misogyny, perhaps without adequately explaining myself. In response to this, I had someone tell me something that I’d heard before, something that I frequently hear used to explain and excuse catcalling:

“Catcalling is not about misogyny. Catcalling is a compliment.”

I thought about this comment today, when I was catcalled on my way to the gym.

Now, my walk to the gym is not a particularly long one – about ten minutes on a nice day, which today was. I was coming up on the gym’s parking lot, when I noticed a man standing a little bit ahead of me, watching me. Once I got close enough for him to speak to me, he yelled out, “look at this sexy lady with her awesome hair!” I half-smiled, already offended by a complete stranger referring to me as a ‘sexy lady’, but I kept walking, not wanting to start anything. He continued to follow me, yelling at me all the way through the gym’s parking lot, and though I stopped listening at a certain point, I heard enough to know that he compared my hair to his underwear.

Walking ahead of me was a man that I had seen at the gym before, though we had never really spoken. He kept glancing back at me, as though to make sure that the man who was following me never crossed any lines. I was grateful for him and his presence there, because I was fully prepared to yell at him to get help or call the police if it got to that point. As it was, I was just trying to ignore the man, just trying to get to the gym where I knew there would be people and I would be safe.

Sure enough, the man stopped following and yelling at me once I got to the gym.

This is not even the first time that something like this has happened to me. And I know for a fact that I am not the only woman who has experienced this.

And the thing is, I have been complimented before. I know what compliments are, and I know how they make me feel. Truth be told, my hair is pretty unique, so I receive so many compliments on it that my coworker has joked that I should take a shot every time I do.

I have been told by many strangers on the street that they “like my hair”, and then they either move on or start a polite conversation with me, which I am happy to continue. That is a compliment.

I have been told before that my hair reminds them of Storm from the 1980’s X-Men comics, and that since she’s pretty badass, I must be pretty badass too. That is a compliment.

I have heard these from women, and I have heard these from men. These do not offend me. These are not the comments that I am calling out when I say that catcalling is linked to misogyny. But this was not what the man was doing as I was walking to the gym.

Because the distinction here is how I feel coming out of these two scenarios. And perhaps this is part of the reason why so many people get ‘catcalling’ and ‘complimenting’ confused: it is difficult to comprehend the way that one party feels when they come out of a scenario, especially if you do not take note of the grimace and the quickened pace that they are intentionally hiding to protect themselves.

Because when I receive a compliment, it makes me feel happy. I come away a little bit lighter, a little bit more proud of how I look. It endears me to the one who complimented me, because they went out of their way to be polite and make me feel good about myself. They didn’t cross any lines. They didn’t make me feel uncomfortable. They just wanted to let me know that they liked something about me, and that was their sole intention.

When I am catcalled, I feel uncomfortable. I feel violated and a little unsafe. I might know logically that this man is not going to attack me, but I make sure that I don’t do anything that might displease or encourage him, like telling him to fuck off (which, by the way, is what I want to do), because there is a part of me that is worried that this man might actually hurt me. When I am catcalled, I do not want to continue a conversation with this man. I do not want anything to do with him. All that I want is to make sure that I am in a safe space, surrounded by kindly people with access to phones.

And I cannot imagine that those who catcall intend it as a compliment, because they have to know that the things they are saying and doing cross lines. I cannot see how a man can  meet a woman in broad daylight, out in public, knowing absolutely nothing about who she is or why she’s there, then instantly describe her as sexy (not beautiful, not pretty; sexy) and not expect her to bristle. I cannot see how a man can follow a woman across a parking lot, yelling anything at her, and not expect her to quicken her pace. And I most certainly cannot see how a comparing a woman’s hair to the man’s underwear is even flattering.

The purpose of catcalling is not to compliment; the purpose is to sexualize. The purpose is to establish that he is a great, big, impressive heterosexual, cis-gendered man who can say anything he wants to the small, delicate, passive, submissive presumed heterosexual and presumed cis-gendered woman. If she is not flattered by it, or if she does not accept it, then she is a bitch, quite possibly one who deserves harm done to her (and this is why so few women challenge catcalling when we are faced with it; not because we are secretly charmed by it and playing coy). If the purpose of catcalling was to compliment, then it would not turn into threats and insults at any point, but it commonly does. I can attest to this, as a woman who have had men scream “fuck you” to me for no other reason that walking on the street in broad daylight.

Catcalling does not take notice of the woman who feels threatened by it. Catcalling does not even take notice of the woman as a person. Catcalling is not meant to make the woman feel good about herself; quite the opposite, really. Catcalling is meant to make the woman feel like she could have avoided this harassment if she had dressed a little bit more conservatively, while it makes the man feel that much more masculine, having publicly proven his aggressive heterosexuality to everyone.

When I say that catcalling is linked to misogyny, I am not at all saying that a man cannot tell a woman that he likes her hair or her eyes or her smile without it being offensive; that is not even remotely the case. Catcalling is linked to misogyny because the men who do it do not realize and do not care that the woman in question is a person, or that she feels threatened by him; they merely feel entitled to a certain level of power over the woman, the power to say and do anything they want without question. Catcalling is linked to misogyny because it contributes to women feeling unsafe in the streets, which lends to this cultural idea that women should not be allowed to go in certain spaces, at certain times, with a certain amount of company or dressed in a certain way, because if they violate any of this, then clearly they are ‘asking’ for ‘something’ to happen to them.

There is a difference between approaching someone respectfully, and following them and/or yelling things at them that make them feel unsafe and demeaned as a human being; that is the difference between complimenting and catcalling. And personally, I find it surprising when people do not seem to understand the distinction between these two approaches. Because, to me, as a woman, the difference seems stark. There is absolutely nothing wrong with treating someone as your equal, walking up to them, and verbally appreciating something about their physical appearance. In fact, this is something that we should do more often, because it makes people feel good about themselves, and we don’t have enough of that in our society. But if you are making them feel uncomfortable, if you are clearly crossing lines and/or reducing them to a sexual object rather than a person, then it is no longer a compliment, and it is no longer about them. At that point, it is entirely about you, and your entitlement to be heard taking precedence over their comfort.

The Status of ‘Woman’

Sometimes I wish that I could escape the status of ‘woman’.

I don’t necessarily wish that I could be a man, or any other gender. That isn’t what I’m trying to say. I’m satisfied with the gender that I was born into it, at least enough that I have no problem being referred to by it.

What I mean is, I wish that I could do something publicly, pretty much anything, without having multiple men try and hit on me, or reduce me to my physical appearance. I wish that, every once in a while, I could just be intelligent, rather than ‘hot’ or ‘ugly’.

I wish that, when these men hit on me, they would take me seriously when I say “no”.

I wish that I could make a statement about something without being told that I was a bitch or deserving of some sort of violence. I wish that I could believe in my own rights without being accused of hating men.

I wish that, when I explained things that I’ve studied and researched, people would just take it for granted that I was right. I wish that, when I explained things, men wouldn’t explain them back to me as though I didn’t know what I was talking about.

I wish that I was the one with a ‘bright future’ ahead of me, rather than Brock Turner. Instead, when people look into my future, all they seem to see is babies. They tell men that they have a glorious career ahead of them, and they tell me that I’ll someday have to put aside my passions in order to raise a family that I’ve said, time and time again, I don’t want.

I wish that, if I were raped by a man, they would listen to my voice, rather than take his side without question. I wish that they wouldn’t automatically assume the worst of me, and the best of him.

I wish that I always had the final say in what happened to my body, even if I was pregnant. Even if I decided that I never wanted to get pregnant.

I wish that I took myself seriously. I wish that I could say things with confidence, with the knowledge that I was allowed to have an opinion, and that there were, in fact, many things that I knew how to do better than the average person. I wish that I knew how to express the entitlement that I’ve seen in many heterosexual, cis-gendered men. I wish that society hadn’t beaten that out of me.

I wish that there weren’t people out there who would reduce me to my genitals, or my body.

These are the things that simply make being a woman exhausting.

I am a woman. And I think I speak for all women when I say that that should not diminish who we are. Being women that should not mean that we are taken any less seriously, or that our future is paved in stone by the biological urges we are expected to have.

Because, before we are women, we are people. We are as diverse as any group – intelligent and ignorant and courageous and cowardly and emotional and stoic and nurturing when we need or when we want to be. Our gender does not dictate who we are as people. Just as a man’s gender does not dictate who he is as a person.

And we as a society need to stop seeing gender, first and foremost, when we interact with others. There are too many other things that we can be.

The Threats and Harassment Women Face Online

Before I started talking about feminism and feminist issues on the internet, I’d heard horror stories from the women that did.

I think that we’re all aware that the internet can be a very polarizing place, and the possibility of anonymity can sometimes bring out the worst in people. People say things that they might not necessarily mean, or things that they would never actually say to someone face-to-face, just because they can get away with it when they’re hidden behind a username.

But that being said, there is a very specific pattern when it comes to the type of threats that are given to a specific type of woman.

This morning, I awoke to find a comment left on one of my articles, where I talked about the dangers that are present in over-sexualizing a woman’s body (the comment has since been deleted, for I did not want to risk the wrong person coming upon it). In this article, I mentioned that I developed early, and felt uncomfortable with my body because at the tender age of twelve, I thought that the people around me would view me as a sexual object as a result. The commenter started out by assuring me that the men in my family did in fact get aroused by the sight of me as a child. He then proceeded to graphically describe a rape scene, wherein I was the victim. I did not read the full comment, for the first half of it made me feel sick.

Now, I do not know this man, and more importantly, he does not know me. He does not know if I am, in fact, a rape survivor. He does not know if his graphic details will trigger me or send me into a panic attack, and he does not care. The commenter in question does not see me as a person, merely as an empty vessel on the other side of his computer screen, and yet he tells me that I deserve to be raped because I dared to proclaim myself proudly as a feminist.

And the funny thing about this comment is that, about a year ago, I had told myself that I would never speak out about feminism despite identifying privately as a feminist, because I knew the sort of threats that feminists face regularly.

When the online forum the Guardian examined comments that have been blocked by their writers, they found that eight of the ten writers who received the most blocked comments were women who had been harassed, mocked, and threatened for talking about gendered issues – including, yes, threats of rape.

Feminist author and columnist Jessica Valenti was forced to take a break from social media when she found that she couldn’t handle the constant threats of rape and death that were targeted toward her five-year-old daughter.

Feminist writers are not the only women who receive threats of rape or even murder for speaking out about feminism either. In Australia, the University of Queensland came up with the idea of doing a bake sale to raise awareness for gender inequality in the workplace, particularly the wage gap, which somehow prompted an onslaught of cyber bullying directed toward those arranging the bake sale, including comments such as, “females are fucking scum, they should be put down as babies” and “I want to rape these feminist c*nts with their f*cking baked goods”.

Heck, the year that I started taking classes on gender studies at my university, a university neighbouring my own, the University of Toronto, received online threats that some unknown assailant would walk into classes teaching gender studies with a gun and began shooting any feminist they saw. I still remember that first day of gender studies, sitting in my seat and glancing nervously at the door, hoping that the gunman wouldn’t decide to come to my school instead.

So, please, tell me again how rape is about pent-up sexuality, because I have heard it used, again and again, as a threat alongside violence and death to try to establish dominance over me and women like me when we speak up.

Before I started talking about feminism, I told myself that I would never talk about it in public, because I didn’t want to face these threats of rape and violence that feminists live with. But that is the entire intention behind these comments. These comments are not made because the women who receive them deserve them. These comments are made because the women who receive them have stood up and said something that they believe in. They have stated that there is a problem within society that needs to be fixed, but the thing about this problem is that there is an audience that doesn’t want to fix it. Maybe they don’t see it as a problem, or they simply don’t want to admit that they’re wrong, but the fact of the matter is they get offended whenever a woman speaks up and tries to change this patriarchal society that we live in. So their response is to try to silence them, to make them feel uncomfortable and unsafe until they shut up and stop trying to fix the problem.

These threats of rape and violence on the internet are not meaningless “trolls” just having a laugh. These are men who genuinely want women to stop fighting for equal rights. These are men who hate having their view of the world challenged so much that they would rather tell a woman that he never met that she deserves to be raped or killed.

And I don’t think I even have to say that nobody deserves that.

So to the women that receive these threats: keep doing what you are doing. I know it may be scary, or triggering, or unfair, but you are a strong woman who deserves to see the day where a women can speak up and not be threatened for it. And the only way we will achieve that day is by fighting for it.

To the women who will not speak up because they are afraid of these threats, I understand your fear. You are not wrong to feel it, but find comfort in the fact that these men are bullies, hiding behind their computer screen in an effort to perpetuate an outdated ideal of what women should be. They think that we should be silent and passive, when that is not what we are. And, hopefully, you will someday feel safe to speak up.

And, lastly, to the men who make these comments, please ask yourself why you feel justified in doing it. What is it about women who fight for their own equality that makes you so angry? What is it about feminists that makes you forget that they are people, with thoughts and feelings and families and experiences? And the next time that you go to write such a comment to a woman who you have not met, who is merely trying to argue her perspective and change the world for the better, stop and ask yourself if you would ever say this to a woman face-to-face with a sound conscience.