Songs for the Struggling Artist


“You have so many men to protect you.”
October 18, 2014, 12:27 am
Filed under: feminism | Tags: ,

I got on the elevator on the 25th floor. I rode it alone until the 20th when 6 big and boisterous men got on. That’s one woman and six men in the elevator, for those of you keeping score at home. One of them looked at me (once the doors had closed and we proceeded to the lobby) and said, “Aren’t you lucky? You have so many men to protect you.”

And I laughed. Because I think that’s what the comment was designed to accomplish. And it seemed the safest thing to do. But I couldn’t stop thinking about this comment as I walked away. I don’t know whether he really sincerely thought I was lucky or whether he was attempting to dispel a possible fear of being stuck in a small space with a group of men.

It is entirely possible that this guy was sincere. And when he’s out in the world with his buddies, he sees his role as a protector, as somehow defending women against the ills of other men. But what he doesn’t realize is that none of us can ever know for sure which side he’s on. In fact, hearing that a total stranger is there to protect me actually makes my fear radar go up. Probably, he’s a great guy. Ready to do good. But from the outside, it’s impossible to tell a protector from a predator. Sometimes they can be one and the same. This is something that so many women were trying to express via #YesAllWomen. It can take some time to know who we can trust.

The funny thing about this line in the elevator was that it actually drew everyone’s attention to the possible danger of the situation. 6 men, 1 woman? Could be trouble. Before he said anything, I wasn’t consciously worried about the odds. It was the middle of the day. They were coming from some work thing. I felt reasonably safe in that elevator. As soon as he mentioned that all those men would “protect” me – I instantly started calculating all the things I might need protecting from. #1 was being alone in an elevator with a big group of guys like this.

It felt a bit like he was trying to assuage a fear I didn’t yet have. But it had the opposite effect. I can see how confusing it must be for men in this sort of situation. How do you assure women you’re not one of the assholes?

In thinking about it, I feel like I’d have felt safest by just being treated like any human in an elevator in NYC. Ignored completely (it is our way here, is it not?) or acknowledged with a nod or “nice day, isn’t it?” or any other small talk that humans use with each other.

And he’s right, I am so lucky. But not for the reason he said. I’ve (so far) mostly beat the odds on violence and harassment. I’ve not had a lot of reason for needing protection. But if I did, you can bet I wouldn’t count on 6 random dudes in an elevator to do it.

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2 Comments so far
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You’ve observed a small but fascinating moment and parsed it thoughtfully.

I have a theory about what that guy might be thinking, for what it’s worth. I think the reason his intentions seem so disconnected from the effect this comments had on you is that, actually, you weren’t the intended audience for the comment.

When I was 11 a couple of male classmates pulled me aside and told me I needed to be more aggressive and hostile toward girls, or else they would “destroy my reputation.” It was a simple racket. They were watching me, and if I didn’t join them in the adolescent male mafia–specifically by playing the role of sexist, abusive jerk–they would punish me. (Behind that, I now understand, was fear of being punished themselves by other, even meaner, boys.)

I internalized that incident so much that for years I habitually checked my behavior against the standard of “Will guys like it?” That’s why I think masculinity is as much a performance as femininity. Both are put on for the same audience: the patriarchy.

Thus, my speculative inner monologue for elevator guy:

“Wow, I’m in an elevator with a bunch of dudes and one woman. My years of training tell me that this is a loaded situation–I have an opportunity to gain status by demonstrating my superiority to this female!

“I could say something harassing to her, and then look at the guys and snigger. But it is 2014, and I have taken sensitivity training, and I can sort of tell that that behavior is not seen as cool anymore.

“So, I’ll just let everyone know that I see the embedded power imbalance in this elevator. And I’ll frame myself as heroic by not taking advantage of it. That way the guys will see that I’m dominant, and I can still see myself as a nice guy.”

You may have felt like you were not being treated like a human being because he may not have seen you as one. In that moment, the only ones he saw as having agency in that elevator were the other men, because he felt they had power over his status. And they were watching him.

Thank you for noticing this complicated moment. You have surfaced more of the invisible hostility beneath our day to day interactions.

Comment by Colin Stokes

Thank you so much for sharing your perspective of this! And your own 11 year old experience. Wow. It’s amazing it was/is as explicit as all that for you as a kid. Extraordinary. (Or maybe it’s ordinary and since so few talk about it, we don’t know.)

And that speculative inner monologue. . . yeah, that actually seems accurate to how it felt. Like, aggressive non-aggression. I felt strange for feeling so shaken by it but your translation helps me see that that feeling was actually a perfect mirror of what was happening.

Comment by erainbowd




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