“I assert that if and when the females of our species could learn how to stop violence WHILE it’s happening to them, we’d see a transformation of women’s potential and participation in problem-solving on the planet within a remarkably short amount of time. The adage ‘Think Globally, Act Locally’ is perfect. There is nothing more local than one’s body, and if a critical mass of women could protect their own bodies, the globe would benefit.” — Ellen Snortland “My Unlikely Life Mission, Self-defense as Physical Literacy,” Women’s International Perspective, April 2008
My book Beauty Bites Beast, and subsequent documentary of the same name, owes its existence to a burglar in a ski mask who surprised me at midnight as I crossed the threshold of my home. Knife held high, a street light glinting off his blade, I responded to a little voice in my head which said, “Do something, do it now!” So I screamed so loudly the man dropped his knife, grabbed his ears and ran like hell!
The next day, I started my obsession by exploring “WHY?” As in, why was I so clueless about what to do if I encountered violence? I had all the advantages of a white middle-class American life: I was well-educated, well-traveled, well-read, had a loving family and I was athletic. And yet … not once had anyone in my life said, “In case you encounter violence, here are some things you should know or consider.” Why was that?
For a while, I thought my ignorance about “how to respond to violence” was a flaw on my part. However, as I took a deeper dive into the issues surrounding women’s personal safety, I realized it was not a flaw — it was now my mission in life. I had to write about this, and continue to do so: how women and girls are, for the most part, raised to be inconsequential and powerless in the face of bad behavior. My “cluelessness” was not an anomaly. Generally speaking, we women do not prepare ourselves to deal with behavior ranging from rude to criminal — statistically most often from males — and we are also trained almost from birth to believe at least three things:
- Men are supposed to be gentlemanly and behave themselves
- If that doesn’t happen, there will always be a male around to protect us so “don’t worry your pretty little head about it”… and
- If a woman tries to defend herself, she’ll just make the situation worse and will probably be injured (or worse) in the attempt
That is a paralysis-producing set of beliefs!
By focusing on individuals, the “trees” in the forest so to speak, we can’t see the forest itself. These individuals are usually comprised of “helpless” women and out of control men. This singular view results in a society making rules (often unspoken, but commonly believed) aimed primarily at individuals and ignoring a policy that could deal with the bigger picture – the forest. For females, some of these rules are “don’t walk alone,” “don’t dress a certain way,” “don’t participate in male-only pursuits.” Males are taught rules such as “when a woman says no, she really means yes,” “women who dress a certain way are ‘asking for it,’” and “if a woman is out at night, she deserves what she gets.”
But it’s the forest we all live in that needs altering. Beauty Bites Beast, both the book and the movie, examines the forest — the climate or environment that gives rise to violence in the first place. Our laws, our customs, our ways of raising daughters and sons lays the foundation for gender-based violence. It’s no-one’s fault per sé, given that these attitudes are inherited from generation to generation of unexamined beliefs about “proper” female and male behavior and attributes. These ideas do not come from biology; they are based on a domination system that says men are superior in all ways, including physically.
While there is some truth to “superior” male upper-body strength, that is no longer a reason for men being at the top of the heap. In fact, everyone is poorer for women’s lower numbers in all pursuits, whether that is in government, science, education, sports, you name it. In truth, women are just as good as men at almost everything except for ditch-digging and — oh, right — insemination. We do need each other for the human race! But not with one gender automatically dominating the other.
The pervasive and unspoken threat of force underlies so many things, whether it’s in the streets, at dinner parties, or even in science classes! I met an 18-year-old budding astrophysicist who said she was getting threats for studying astrophysics from formerly mild-mannered male colleagues in her male-dominated classes. She was afraid and cowed by these guys! I know that the knowledge we have as empowerment self-defense providers could give her thicker skin and a means to relate to herself as a potentially dangerous mammal, rather than being at their mercy.
Personal safety is not all or nothing. You don’t need to go ballistic on someone to protect yourself. If I knew then what I know now, I could have easily taken the groping hand I found on my inner thigh at a dinner party and grabbed it, put it back on the table while loudly saying, “Hey, I think you lost your hand. I’m going to put it up here on the table where you can keep track of it.”
That is in line with the Scout motto: Be Prepared. Be prepared for people to cross boundaries. Spend as little time as possible with “This can’t be happening!” The millions of women who responded to Kelly Oxford’s Twitter campaign to report their first sexual assault prove that, indeed, assaults happen and to pretend otherwise is a truly bad and often dangerous idea.
Human beings, women and men, are both predator and prey; we all have both Beauty and Beast within us.
And that is why I wrote Beauty Bites Beast, and the movie. Beauty has teeth too. And the more “beasts” who feel her teeth, perhaps the fewer times they will proceed with their beastliness without consequence.
* The feature-length documentary version of Beauty Bites Beast opens in New York on November 4, 2016 at the Cinépolis Chelsea, and in the Los Angeles area on November 11, 2016 at the Laemmle Pasadena Playhouse 7. For more information visit BeautyBitesBeast.com.
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“Safety Godmother” Ellen Snortland is writer, director and producer of the new documentary “Beauty Bites Beast – Revealing the Missing Conversations about Ending Violence.” An author, actor, attorney, radio and TV personality, she’s worked for decades empowering women and girls to fight back [...]