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Friday, October 15, 2010

Justice Is A Woman With A Sword (1991)

by D.A. Clarke
The "womanliness" invented by pornographers is a deep masochism, which renders women as powerless to defend self and others as the sweetness-and-light female patience and martyrdom of Christian romanticism. It's but a short step from the ladylike and therefore ineffectual face-slaps of Nice Girls to the "hot and steamy surrender" in the dominant male's brawny embrace. But a woman with a sword, that is a different matter.
"Justice is a woman with a sword"--as slogans go, it is strangely evocative. The sword, after all, is the weapon of chivalry and honour. Aristocratic criminals were privileged to meet their deaths by the sword rather than the disgraceful hempen rope; gentlemen settled their differences and answered insults at swords' point. Women and peasants, of course, did not learn swordplay. The weapon, like the concepts of honour and personal courage it represented, was reserved for men, and only to those of good birth; no one else was expected or permitted to have a sense of personal pride or honour. Offences against a woman were revenged by her chosen champion.
     A woman with a sword, then, is a powerful emblem. She is no one's property. A crime against her will be answered by her own hand. She is armed with the traditional weapon of honour and vengeance, implying both that she has a sense of personal dignity and worth, and that affronts against that dignity will be hazardous to the offending party. This is hardly the woman of pornographic male fantasy.
     In male fantasy, women are always powerless to defend themselves from hurt and humiliation. Worse, they enjoy them. Treatment that would drive the average self-respecting man to desperate violence makes these fantasy-women tremble, breathe heavily, and moan with desire: abuse and embarrassment are their secret needs. The "womanliness" invented by pornographers is a deep masochism, which renders women as powerless to defend self and others as the sweetness-and-light female patience and martyrdom of Christian romanticism. It's but a short step from the ladylike and therefore ineffectual face-slaps of Nice Girls to the "hot and steamy surrender" in the dominant male's brawny embrace.
     But a woman with a sword, that is a different matter.
     The troublesome question of nonviolence haunts the women's movement and always has. We despise the brutality to which women are subjected by men, the arrogance and casual destructiveness of male violence as embodied in domestic battery, gang skirmishes, and officially sanctioned wars. Feminists have traditionally opposed police brutality, the draft, warfare, rape, blood sports, and other manifestations of the masculine fascination with dominance and death.
     Yet like all oppressed peoples, women are divided on the essential question of violence as a tactic. When is it appropriate to become violent? Is the use of force ever justifiable? When is it time to take up arms? to learn ju-jitsu? to carry a knife? Is violence just plain wrong, no matter who does it? Or can there be extenuating circumstances?
     The flow of our debate is muddied by traditional ideas of womanliness with which feminists struggle. Are women really better than men? are we inherently kinder, gentler, less aggressive? Certainly the world would be a better place if everyone manifested the virtues tradition assigns to Good Women. But will gentleness and kindness really win the hearts of nasty and violent people? Will reason, patience, and setting a good example make men see the error of their ways? Is "womanly" non-violence "naturally" the best and only course for feminists?
     Historically, the prospect for peoples and cultures which avoid violence is not good. They tend to lose territory, property, freedom, and finally life itself as soon as less pleasant neighbours show up with better armaments and bigger ambitions. It's hard to survive as a pacifist when the folks next door are club-waving, rock-hurling imperialists: you end up enslaved or dead, or you learn to be like them in order to fight them. The greatest challenge to nonviolence is that to fulfill its promise it must be able to prevent violence. The image of the nonviolent activist righteously renouncing the use of force--while watching armed thugs drag away their struggling victims--is less than pleasing.
     We have also the problem of effectiveness. Non-violence is far more impressive when practised by those who could easily resort to force if they chose. A really big, tough man in the prime of life who chooses to discipline himself to peace and gentleness is an impressive personality. A mob of thousands who choose to sit down peaceably and silently in the street, rather than smash windows and overrun police lines, is an unnerving sight. These kinds of nonviolence make a profound political point. But when women advocate non-violence it may be much less effective.
     Why? Because women are traditionally considered incapable of violence, particularly of violence against men. In the 40's the film beauty used to beat her little fists ineffectually on the strong man's chest before collapsing into passionate tears; in the 70's the ditzy female sidekick inevitably left the safety catch on when it was time to shoot the bad guy. Women are commonly held to be as incompetent at physical force as they are at mechanics, mathematics, and race car driving. The only violence traditionally permitted to women is the sneaky kind: conspiracy, manipulation, deceit, poison, a stiletto in the back.
     And when women do become violent, we perceive it as shocking and awful, far worse than the male violence which we take for granted. There is a self-serving myth among men that, given power, women would be "even worse" than the worst men--which, of course, justifies keeping women firmly in their place and making sure no power gets into their nasty little hands. Many of us believe that myth, to some extent: I can remember my mother (a strong and resourceful woman) retailing to me the common doctrine that the female camp guards of the Third Reich were worse than the men.
     Of course, only a handful of women attained to power in Hitler's Germany; prison-guarding is an unfeminine occupation, also. So female camp guards, of high or low rank, were exceptional and therefore suspect. Their deeds are documented and unquestionably vile, but it's hard for me to say how they might be distinguished as measurably worse, more evil, than those of their male colleagues. What makes them worse in the eyes of Allied historians, I fear, is that in addition to their other crimes they stepped out of women's place.
     This different perception of male and female violence, this double standard, afflicts women at the most elementary levels. When a man makes unwanted social advances to a woman in, let's say, a restaurant or theatre, and she eventually has to tell him loudly and angrily to get lost--she is the one who will be perceived as rude, hostile, aggressive, and obnoxious. His verbal aggression and invasiveness are accepted and expected, her rudeness or mere curtness in getting rid of him is noticed and condemned. One of our great myths is that a "real lady" can and should handle any difficulty, defuse any assault, without ever raising her voice or losing her manners. Female rudeness or violence in resistance to male aggression has often been taken to prove that the woman was not a lady in the first place, and therefore deserved no respect from the aggressor or sympathy from others.
     Until recently, violent women in fiction were always evil. Competence with guns, long blades, or martial arts automatically marked a female character as "mannish", possibly lesbian, destined for stereotyping as a prison matron, pervert, manhater, sadist, etc. On the other hand, cleverness with tiny silver-plated pistols, poison rings, or jewelled daggers identified your "snakelike" villainness whose cold and perfect beauty concealed a heart twisted by malice and frozen with selfishness. Heroines, predictably, fainted or screamed at moments of peril and then waited to be rescued in the penultimate chapter. By the 1920's the Good Girls might put up a brave struggle and kick the bad guy in the shins, but they certainly did not throw furniture, break necks, cut throats, or whip out a sword-cane and chase the villain through the abandoned warehouse.
     Tougher females emerged for a while in the war years, but only in the last 20 years have fictional females arrived who are ready with fists, karate kicks, and small arms. A new genre of Amazon Fantasy has grown up, where previously there were only one or two authors who dared to put a sword in a female character's hand. Warrior women have become protagonists, with books and even epics to themselves. Admittedly, most of them are required by the author (or editor) to Learn to Love A Man Again by the end of the plot, but at least they start out by avenging their own rapes and their family's wrongs. In commercial film (a conservative medium) fighting heroines and anti-heroines are beginning to surface: Sigourney Weaver in Aliens, Anne Parillaud in La Femme Nikita, Deborra-Lee Furness in Shame, and of course there are Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon Thelma & Louise. Even in films with no pretense to social commentary or good intentions, fighting female sidekicks are popping up here and there (Conan the Destroyer, The Golden Child) who previously were restricted to the world of Marvel Comics.
     Americans are beginning to be able to handle the idea of female rage and vengeance, or at least of serious female violence, in fiction. In much the same way, the reading public of the 20's and 30's began to accept the Career Woman long before women made real inroads into the professions. Does this mean something? Is the ability to be violent a prerequisite for equality--as the maintenance of army and arsenal is for nationhood? Are these fighting females a good sign?
     Maybe. In a perfect world, no. In a perfect world we wouldn't lock our doors, and no one would know how to throw a punch or how to roll with one. In this world, alas, perhaps the price of full citizenship is the willingness and ability to defend one's self and one's dignity to the point of force.
     We do respect people who "know their limits", who cannot be pushed past a certain point--just as we mistrust and disrespect those who have no give in them at all and overreact violently to every little frustration. We respect people who can take care of themselves, who inform us of their limits clearly and look prepared to enforce them. Women are traditionally denied these qualities--the "no means yes" of male mythology--and one reason for this is that we are denied the use of force. To put it very simply, little boys who get pushed around on the playground are usually told to "stand up to him, don't let him get away with it," whereas little girls are more usually advised to run to Teacher.
     The bottom line in not being pushed around is our willingness and our capacity to resist. At some point resistance means defending ourselves with physical force. Women, kept out of contact sports, almost never trained in wrestling or boxing as boys often are, taught to flatter strong men by acting weak, are denied the skills and the emotional preparedness required to fight back.
     Men commit the most outrageous harassments and insults against women simply because they can get away with it: they know they will not get hurt for saying and doing things that, between two men, would quickly lead to a fist fight or a stabbing. There are no consequences for abusing women.
     There are several ways to prevent crimes from happening. One is education and reason, and our effort to bring up children to be good adults. Then comes elementary preparedness and awareness on the part of the innocent. Then there is active resistance and self-defence when a crime is attempted; lastly, there is the establishment of consequences for the perpetrator. Every time a man molests his daughter and still keeps his place in the family and community--every time a man sexually harasses a female employee and still keeps his job or his business reputation--every time a rapist or femicide gets a token sentence--there is a terrible lack of consequence for the commission of a crime.
     We disagree as a society about the level of "punishment" or retribution or reparation which should be enforced. We can't agree whether murderers should themselves be killed. Most of us would agree that hanging is too severe a penalty for stealing a loaf of bread or a sheep, but is it too severe a penalty for hacking a woman to death? Some would say yes and some no. Others think we should abandon the concept of punishment or reparation altogether, with their authoritarian implications, and concentrate on re-educating and reclaiming our errant brothers, turning them into better people.
     While we argue about these things, women are steadily and consistently being insulted, molested, assaulted and murdered. And most of the men who are doing these things are suffering no consequences at all, or very slight consequences. The less the consequence of their offence, the more it seems to them (and to everyone) that there is really nothing so very wrong with what they have done.
    When as a society we sanctimoniously clasp our hands and reject the death penalty, letting femicides and rapists free after token jail terms and "therapy", we merely make a callous value judgement. We judge that a man's life--even a rapist's or a murderer's--is more valuable than the life and happiness of the next woman or child he may attack.
     Effectively, when a killer is released and kills again, those who released him signed the death warrant for his next victim, someone they did not know and could not identify: that person's life was the price of their squeamishness and reluctance to sign the death warrant for a man they could name, whose face they knew.
     If the State is not going to step in and enforce severe penalties for abusing and murdering women, then is it women's responsibility to do so? When a woman's dignity, honour, and physical person are assaulted or destroyed, how shall we get justice? How shall we prevent it from happening again?
     If the courtroom and the law are owned by men (if a Clarence Thomas, for example, can be appointed to the Supreme Court regardlesss of the evidence that he routinely insulted and harassed women) at what point are women entitled to take the law into their own hands? At what point can we justify personal vendettas by angry survivors of male violence? What about violent action for political (rather than personal) agendas?
     It's a thorny question for sure. Vigilanteism is so very trendy in our fragmenting culture: in films and cheap novels by the dozen, angry protagonists (almost all male) go out and shoot up the bad guys in a series of solo crusades, for revenge and the justice that a corrupt and ineffectual System cannot provide. America's love affair with flashy violence and alpha-male bravado is so traditional and distressing that one does hesitate to suggest vigilanteism as a feminist tactic.
     Yet--but--on the other hand--sometimes a demonstration of violent rage accomplishes what years of prayers, petitions, and protests cannot: it gets you taken seriously. (On the other hand, it can also get you labelled crazy and put away.) Palestinian terrorists may have done more harm than good to their people's cause--or they may have been an essential part of a liberation struggle. It depends who you ask.
     When we consider violent political tactics such as terrorism and retribution, we have to remember that male implementation of these tactics is all mixed up with the traditions of male amusement and competition. Too often the political cause of the moment is no more than an excuse for a gang of rowdy boys to play about with high explosives and automatic weapons--just another form of blood sport. Often there is more violence, and more random violence, than is called for--simply because the terrorists are having so much fun frightening and killing people.
     Would women succumb to this temptation?
     Another common belief about female violence is that it will only escalate male violence. I have heard from people of widely varying ages and politics the argument "if women learn judo, then men will start using guns." This rather sidesteps the fact that a large number of men already own and use guns, knives, and other portable weapons; but it's a familiar argument from all liberation struggles. What if resistance to the occupier/oppressor only leads to increased brutality, repression, and suffering?
     We can end up in a sadly familiar conflict--some women will hate and fear feminists and self-defence advocates because they anticipate that male anger, stirred up by these uppity females, will be vented on all women, including the "innocent." No liberation movement has ever escaped this bitter argument.
     Will we make it worse by resisting? Feminists who demonstrated publicly and disruptively at the turn of the century were accused at the time of worsening women's prospects by their violent and provocative behaviour; yet today we honour them as the instigators of changes that lifted women halfway out of serfdom. Certainly forceful and loud resistance to sexual assault tends to result more often in escape or reduced injury than "womanly" tactics like tears, pleading, or co-operation.
     If the risk involved in attacking a woman were greater, there might be fewer attacks. If women defended themselves violently, the amount of damage they were willing to do to would-be assailants would be the measure of their seriousness about the limits beyond which they would not be pushed. If more women killed husbands and boyfriends who abused them or their children, perhaps there would be less abuse. A large number of women refusing to be pushed any further would erode, however slowly, the myth of the masochistic female which threatens all our lives. Violent resistance to attack has its advantages all round.
     A backlash is always possible, whether women "behave" or not. The strength and viciousness of antifeminism, and its appeal, have a lot more to do with the prevailing economic and political weather than with anything women actually do. A subject population can be as polite, conciliatory, and assimilated as possible--and still wake up one morning to discriminatory laws, confiscation of property, and all the rest.
     For these reasons the argument that female violence "will only hurt women" or "make things worse" seems irrelevant to me. In fact, female violence that only hurts women is perfectly acceptable. Women have always been given the dirty work of disciplining their daughters into women's place, whether this meant binding little girls' feet or blaming and beating them for being raped. Today, a "feminist community" which claims to find violence of all kinds distasteful is still able to find lesbian sadomasochism sexy and chic. Images of women hurting other women are widely accepted even where images of men hurting women are criticized.
     Now, I am not particularly attracted to images of anyone being hurt, period. But I see potential value in fiction and film on the theme of women taking violent means of vengeance on rapists and femicides. One benefit is the assertion of female personal honour; another, quite frankly, is the shock value. Those who are appalled by the idea of vigilante women hunting down men should be asking themselves what they are doing about this world where images of men hunting down, overpowering, and hurting women surround us. If violence is so terribly wrong when committed by women, then damn it, it is as terribly wrong when committed by men.
     Let's face it, we still live in a world and a century in which a woman who walks (mistake) in the wrong part of town (oh dear) after dark (uh oh) alone (a big no-no) will be blamed by all and sundry if she is raped. People will ask what she expected, doing a fool thing like that.
     It's interesting--amusing in a bitter kind of way--maybe even liberating--to envision a slightly different world. The man limps into the emergency room with one ear half-torn off and multiple bruises. As he gasps out his story, the doctor shakes his head: "You mean you grabbed at her breasts and tried to pull her into your car? Well I mean, dummy, what did you expect?" And he gets no sympathy, not a shred, from anyone.
     If women become more violent, will the world be a more violent place? Perhaps, but it's not a simple equation of addition. We will have to subtract any violence that women prevent. So we will have to subtract a large number of rapes and daily humiliations suffered by women who today cannot or will not defend themselves. We might have to subtract six or seven murders that would have been committed by a latter-day Zodiac Killer, except that his first intended victim killed him instead. Suppose one of the women in the lecture hall in Montreal had been armed, and skilled enough to take out Marc Lepine before he mowed down fourteen of her classmates . . .
     It's not as if we were suggesting that women introduce violence into the Garden of Eden. The war is already on. Women and children are steadily losing it.
     And women are already violent. Women take out the anger and frustration of women's place, and the memory of their own humiliations and defeats, on each other and on their kids, on their own bodies. Would we rather that incest survivors mutilate themselves, commit suicide, abuse their own children--or go and do something dreadful to Daddy? We don't know for sure that doing something dreadful to Daddy will heal a wounded soul, but it does seem more appropriate than doing dreadful things to oneself or any innocent bystander.
     And one last great myth: "Violence never solves anything."
     In the grand philosophical sense those words may ring true. Violence is like money: it can't make you happy, save your soul, make you a better person--but it certainly can solve things. When the winners exterminate the losers, historical conflicts are permanently solved.
Many a high-ranking criminal has lived to a comfortable and respected old age only because a few pesky witnesses were no longer alive to testify. Many a dissatisfied husband has got rid of an unwanted wife. More women than we know have probably got rid of abusive husbands.
     Violence definitely solves some things. A dead rapist will not commit any more rapes: he's been solved. Violence is a seductive solution because it seems easy and quick; violence is a glamorous commercial property in our time; violence is a tool, an addiction, a sin, a desperate resort, a hobby, depending on where you look and who you ask.
     I am not here to lay out a list of easy answers, but a tangle of difficult questions. Violence may be a tool and a tactic that feminists should use; certainly we ought to be putting some serious thought into it. If we refuse it, it should not be because it offends against our romantic notion of morally superior Womanhood, but for some better and more thoughtful reason. If we accept it, we had better figure out how to avoid becoming corrupted by it. Copyright © 1991 by Always Causing Legal Unrest.

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