Saturday, June 21, 2014

Smile, And Other Things

I went out to a birthday dinner with my friends. We sat outside, along the canal, enjoying the weather and the breeze. We ate and laughed and talked as people walked by along the canal. I noticed a man walk by us, then walk by us again. When he walked by again, I began mentally writing the details into my memory: white, about 6 foot, buzz cut, brown eyes, crooked nose, blue shirt with logo, and so on. Why? Because I am a woman. Because men hovering around me can be a potential threat.

When he walked by a fourth time, he stopped by us, on the otherwise of the patio railing. He flashed a grin at us four women, and promptly demanded, “Smile!” My three friends gave him nervous smiles, smiles that clearly read If we smile, will he go away? I hope so. I stared at him, stony faced. He turned his attention to me, and flashed an even bigger grin. “Smile! I bet you’re so pretty when you smile!”

“This is a private conversation. We are having dinner. I do not smile for men on command. Please leave.” I said it all very flatly, no trace of menace or bitchiness in my voice. His grin turned to a snarl and he turned and left. My friends stared at me. I couldn’t tell if they were aghast at my refusal, or his audacity.

Make no mistake, it is rudeness and audacity that fueled him. He thought, just because we were women out in public, that he could come up to us; interrupt our dinner; insert himself into our private conversation; demand our time for his pleasure; make demands that we do something for him; demand for us to be pretty for him. He thought that because he is a man, and we are women.

I looked at my friends and shook my head. “I don’t smile on command for anyone, especially strange men who think they have the right to demand something of me, just because I am a woman who is in public.”

“Cheers to that,” one said, and raised her wine glass. We clinked glasses, and that was that. Or that was mostly that; you better believe that I was on the lookout as I walked back to my car.

I learned an interesting thing in law school, something I routinely put into practice as a lawyer: when someone gets aggressive with you, especially if you are a woman and the other person is a man, the best move is not to back up, but to step forward into that person’s space, making him back up. I routinely see male attorneys take steps towards other attorneys, male or female. Oftentimes, the other attorney will step backward, and the dance continues, until the “aggressor” has backed the other attorneys into an uncomfortable space, whether its physical, in a corner or against a wall, or mental, that he or she has a pattern of backing up and submitting.

I never, ever take the first step forward. It’s rude. But, come hell or high water, if another attorneys starts getting verbally or physically aggressive towards me, I take that step forward, and invade their own space. It’s amazing how quickly that will de-escalate the aggression, 99% of the time. I will not let you intimidate me.

I had a trial where one of the people was a thrice convicted violent sexual predator. He was in between attorneys, and asked to speak to me, an attorney representing another party in the same case. “How can I help you?” I responded. He motioned to the door, leading to a small secluded hallway within only one exit. “Can I talk to you out there?” he asked. “No,” I responded. “We can talk here, in the courtroom.” He stared at me for a minute. “I’m not gonna hurt you, honey. I just want to talk somewhere private.” I stared back at him evenly. “We are in private in the courtroom. There is no one else here. There is no need to go into that hallway,” I told him. He got frustrated, and demanded that I talk to him in the hallway again, and said, “You asked how you could help me! You said you would help me!” I took a step towards him, and repeated, “No. If you need to talk about your case, we will do it here.” He never challenged me again, but I saw him do it over and over to every other attorney that crossed through the case.

I have a backbone, but oh God, it is a hard won backbone. I went through hell to get it, and then I tempered it in more and more. All my life, I had been taught that I asked for it, it was my fault, it was my sin, it was temptation I was offering, just because I was a little girl who could later become a woman, just because I am now a woman, just for existing. No; no more. I know now that it isn’t true, and what’s more important, I stopped believing that.

How do I give this backbone to Lis? Can I gift it to her, as an heirloom, a treasured thing passed from mother to daughter? Or do I have to let her make her own? Can I give her my own experiences to help forge her, as a way of learning how to build her own? I cannot, will not accept that the answer is that she has to experience what I did in order to be able to stand up for herself.


Queen of Hats said...

There will come a time when she will see you stare back, when she will hear you say, "No, I don't smile on command," when she will see her mother not taking crap off of anyone--and it will make a huge impression.

I didn't have that mother. My husband did. She's been dead 24 years, but the lessons he learned from her about what is okay to tolerate and what is not never faded.

With luck, she'll never have to learn those lessons the hard way. BUT when the time comes, she'll have you as her template.

Anonymous said...

Given your post from the previous day, I'd say your backbone is at least partly genetic. ;-) I hate when people ask me to smile too, I never do it. There is a picture of me in kindergarten for school pictures, where I'm making a face. It is in response to the photographer asking me to smile. My mother has it framed in her living room.

Grace said...

That's awesome!

Grace said...

That's both comforting and disturbing, you know? Parenting, man. It's no cake walk.

CM said...

I love that advice to step forward when someone gets aggressive with you, and your story about standing up to one of those assholes who commands you to smile. (One of my pet peeves.)

I agree with Q of H, Lis will learn by example, and I'm sure there will be plenty of teachable moments as she grows up where someone encourages her to be more pretty, passive, sweet, and feminine, and you can help her sort that out.