Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Book Review: Beauty Bites Beast

Sometime around the year 1970, my mother wanted to learn martial arts. Her father discouraged her from doing so, ridiculing that she might become one of those "disgusting muscle women" whom men would not like. (I think "disgusting muscle-women" was code for a certain type of woman, if ya know what I mean). In this not-so-subtle way, my grandfather encouraged my mother to remain weak and unable to physically defend herself should she ever need to. Whenever I think about this, I wonder how different my mother's life could have been had she learned that it was okay for her, a woman, to learn that it was okay for her to be strong.

What if the most important man in her life had told her that strength and the ability to defend herself was more important than being able to snag a man, rather than the other way around?

I wonder, in what other, less obvious, ways are women culturally trained to remain weak?

In her book Beauty Bites Beast: Awakening the Warrior Within Women and Girls, writer, activist, blogger, and attorney Ellen Snortland makes her case that, because female humans are culturally trained to "delegate our personal physical safety to the men in our lives," all women and girls need to learn how to defend themselves (vii). Whereas "the females of every other species on the planet are fierce, regardless of size," female humans rarely "think of themselves as potentially dangerous to an assailant" (Ibid.). (All quotations from Beauty Bites Beast, unless otherwise indicated).

The short answer to this problem, of course, is to blame the patriarchy. And really, that answer suffices for most feminist readers of this blog.

The longer answer, that Snortland aptly details, is as follows. For one, self-defense instructors who have studied gender-based violence learned that "men attacked women in predatory ways, often from behind, whereas when men fought men, there was more of a 'squaring' off" (11). Given that, as men's rights advocates never fail to remind us, men are on average larger and stronger than women on average, it is interesting that men take these sorts of cheap shots when engaging in violence against women. Taking cheap shots enhances male success against women and reinforces the idea that women are inherently "unable" to defend themselves against men. The myth of female incompetence thus becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Two, "society has forced women to believe that they can't fight back; there is no use even to try" (32). Every one of our cultural and social institutions indoctrinates us as to what proper masculinity and femininity are. In our society, "women literally have been domesticated to the point of pathological notions of femininity" (32). To be a Real Woman, for instance, complete with heels, skirts, and obsessive thinness, already puts a woman at a physical disadvantage against a man in his much-more mobile pants, flats and his socially-encouraged entitlement to have a strong, large body that takes up space (171). And, whereas boys are given much leeway to set boundaries with other people, girls are "instructed to 'let boys be boys' or to give in to their force" (32-33). In short, men and boys are culturally entitled to force, violence, and anger, while women and girls who display the same traits are branded pathologically un-feminine.

One of the most important institutions justifying the domination of women, Snortland argues, is religion. I would go as far as saying that religion is the single most influential institutional instrument of power. Within this institution are a religious people's notions of absolute morality, the afterlife, god, and their social and familial connections- in other words, the very meanings of life. Thus, Snortland's citation of Merlin Stone, the Adam and Eve myth, and the gendering of god as male were highly resonating with me with respect to the way religion perpetuates female domination.

A third reason girls and women are culturally trained to remain weak is because "women and girls are assaulted verbally at every level of society simply because they are women" and this violence is rarely, outside of the feminist channels, identified or acknowledged as such (65). Men commit gender-based murder, sexual assault, and violence against women all the time but these acts are rarely constructed as the gender-based hate crimes that they are. Instead, when the media isn't hiding the perpetrator behind the passive voice, the media frames men as Otherwise Nice Guys who just happened to snap that one time, as though there aren't larger cultural reasons for the fact that men commit the vast majority of violent crimes.

And aside from the invisibilization of gender-based hate crimes, Snortland recounts the many ways that people verbally attack women who stand up for themselves. These verbal jabs are highly familiar to anyone who tracks the feminist blogosphere, wherein women are regularly told things like they should be "flattered" when their breasts are ogled by strangers, told that they hate men, and are reprimanded as being "humorless" for not laughing at misogynistic "jokes."

The message is clear, women who stand up for themselves are to be patronized, mocked, and minimized. No matter what, we learn, the concerns, safety, and boundaries of women are not to be taken seriously.

To wrap this up, Snortland goes into detail offering strategies for reminding women that they possess strength and power despite what many of us have learned to believe. Other than the advice to take a self-defense course, the biggest takeaway for me was that if you're going to be an assertive woman, you have to be okay with people thinking you're a bitch. Like "dyke," the word "bitch" is "a way to keep 'uppity' women in line or to keep women who are thinking about being uppity from opening their mouths (112)."

As a feminist blogger who has gotten into quite a few arguments and conversations with anti-feminist types, I have noticed that many of my male (and sometimes female) opponents will scold me for swearing, will make amorphous criticisms about my "tone," and will claim that they can Just Psychicly Tell that I hate men because of what I write. Meanwhile they expect their own anti-feminist, misogynistic, and homophobic rants to go unchecked, just because such aggressive tones are the default in our society.

While I believe that we should treat others respectfully, even those who treat us with disrespect, I also know that our anti-feminist/anti-gay opponents often mischaracterize our assertiveness as aggression. It took me many years to un-learn my fear of being called a bitch and to understand that anti-feminists use this fear to silence women and other "Others" who are assertive. Like Snortland, I know that as long as I am blogging about the issues I blog about, there will always be people who will accuse me of being a man-hating bitch, or some other uninspired variation thereof, no matter the subjective qualities of my "tone." This isn't some huge Feminist Revelation, but when people are crossing your boundaries, you have to be okay with appearing Not Nice.

My personal favorite anecdote of Snortland being a bitch (and I hope she would accept the compliment) is as follows. At a party, she and two female friends were discussing reproductive rights, pornography, and the related constitutional issues thereof when a certain Mr. Windbag approached the conversation. Perhaps being one of those proverbial Men Who Knows Things, sir Windbag:

"plopped himself down and proceeded to attempt to dominate the conversation. He didn't listen long enough to know what we were talking about but, hey, that didn't stop him. He was taken aback when we didn't stop and defer to him.... He hated it. Finally, he announced that he 'would play devil's advocate.'

Before he could hold forth, I took a deep breath and said "Who do you think you are? Do you have any idea of the years of study, the number of pages of reading, the sheer commitment of purpose that is sitting around this table? We don't need you to play devil's advocate. You seem to think that you can help us, as if we are ignorant school girls who haven't given these issues a lot of thought. You're going to help us be objective, to be thoughtful, to take things that we haven't considered into account? What are your credentials for being able to do this?" (86)

That shut him up.

And oh my, what feminist lady hasn't longed to do that to those fauxbjective, feministically illiterate dudemen who find her wittle feminist blog and believe the existence of their penises serve as a beacon capable of enlightening the silly feminazis who just haven't yet seen the error of their ways?

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