TW: rape, sexual assault
In the jigsaw puzzle of culture, feminism and fairy tales do not fit together well. Damsels in distress, dependent on dashing Princes on noble steeds charging to their rescue, do not provide the kind of role models we women wish for ourselves or the whip-smart, brave girls surrounding us. But if you read carefully beneath these chauvinistic tropes, there are some other lessons that these tales tell well, lessons that are glossed over in the sugar-coated corporate veneer applied to them. The near universality of some of the plots across different cultures provides clues to the resonance of the dangers and truths they contain, some of which keep coming to mind in the midst of the storm of allegations of sexual assault and harassment in which we are currently immersed.
Our modern tales of rape, as told on screens of various sizes and pulpy novels, are an endless nihilistic parade of beautiful, battered bodies, brutalized by a terrifying stranger in the literal and metaphoric darkness. This kind of “legitimate” rape is drawn as a serious crime: the bad guy is eventually found and punished by the good (usually) guys and the city is made safe again, at least for a while. But now, the secret truth is out: most sexual assaults and harassment come from those we know, and sometimes those we trust, respect and like. The dark alley we should have known not to enter turns out to be in the midst of our everyday lives where the nexus of power and sex meet.
The story of Red Riding Hood (of which there are over fifty permutations across cultures) is one of a young girl setting out on a familiar path to a place of safety and love. She doesn’t recognize the danger the wolf poses when she first encounters him, and he takes advantage of her politeness and willingness to please to disguise himself. Even though she recognizes something isn’t right, Red Riding Hood isn’t able to see the ugliness hiding beneath the façade until it’s too late. To the reader or listener, it seems obvious: how could she not see, how could she not know that this ugly wolf in the bed wasn’t her grandmother? We often ask a similar set of questions in the wake of a sexual assault, questions that are really about diverting blame onto the victim. Through this process we exonerate those who do harm, and build a flimsy feeling of safety for ourselves out of the notion that we would have made different decisions that would have protected us. Think about all of the men currently being identified as perpetrating harassment. Is their true nature obvious, or is it, like the wolf in grandmother’s clothing, hidden and disguised behind accomplishment, talent, humor and likeability? Who has the actual or perceived power in these encounters? What is our ability to hold and act on the truth that people who have accomplished many things, who are our friends or people we admire, have also inflicted great harm on others?
Like Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel found things were not at all as they seemed. Our culture’s spoken beliefs and laws governing abuse and harassment of women and children are, like the walls of the witch’s candy house, appearing to be what we need, but hiding something rotten inside. Unlike the characters in fairy tale, we are not going to be able to quickly wrap this moment of uprising into a happy ending. There is a real danger of backlash in shining this intense of a light onto the behaviors many in power take as their right and that the rest of us should just accept. Those who are considered as a “risk” in bringing a future accusation may find themselves excluded from the places in which they could reach their fullest potential and to effect the positive change our society so desperately needs. The system will attempt to protect its own. We may look around in ten years and see a whiter male power structure than we do now.
This moment has, however, shown us the possibility of a shift. Like the young child who called out the Emperor’s nakedness, the voices raised collectively in sharing our experiences have forcefully pulled the curtain back on the dynamics that have enforced silence and acceptance. For all their archaic faults, these tales illuminate the truths we know in our bones, and paying attention to these truths can perhaps lead us to a better place. Not a land of princesses and rescuers, but a society where decent behavior towards to others is expected, and harassment and abuse are no longer shrugged off as normal occurrences to be silently endured.