Brown River Queen cover art

Sunday, November 2, 2014

On a Serious Note

For the most part, I make a conscious effort to steer away from politically-charged or potentially controversial subjects in my blog.

Today, I'm going to make a rare exception, and talk about something that I saw last week that really bothered me.

I'm talking about the short video a young woman made. It's a simple film, less than two minutes long. She never speaks. She does nothing, in fact, but walk down the street.

Now, let me showcase my social ignorance for a moment. If asked to predict the content of a film in which a young woman wearing jeans and a crew-neck tee shirt just walks around, I'd have predicted she'd receive a couple of random smiles and a hello or two. Because yes, I'm the social equivalent of a hermit crab, and I foolishly assumed that in 2014 people of any gender can just walk around unmolested in North America.

If you haven't seen the video yet, I urge you to give it a look. Less than 2 minutes, but very illuminating. The link is below.

In the space of the film, she is harassed and accosted more times that I could count. One idiot even follows her, side by side, for four whole minutes just because she wouldn't respond to his clumsy come-ons.

What the Hell, people? Every single male portrayed in this video needs what we in the Deep South call a Class II Ass Kicking (Class II because not only must the offending male be beaten, so must at least one other male blood relative, just to get the point across to the whole wretched backward clan).

Let me back up for a minute.

I'm not the most traveled guy around, but I have been a few places. Montana. Arizona. Memphis. Austin. I work on a college campus in Mississippi.

I've never seen behavior like this, and I'm a careful people-watcher because I'm always on the lookout for fiction fodder.

I'm not saying that what happens in the film doesn't happen. It obviously does. I'm not saying the film was edited, or the incidents exaggerated. Neither is the case.

I'm just saying I should get out more, but I'd better retain the services of a competent criminal trial lawyer first, because it is time we men who are NOT dishonorable cretins knock the ones who are back into the gutter from whence they crawled.

Am I advocating violence?

Yes. Quite frankly, I am, because I don't think a carefully-crafted debate on the proper behavior towards ladies is going to carry the same weight with Mr. Hey Sexy Baby that a well-placed face-punch will.

I suppose I've been sheltered. I don't see this lewd behavior here in Oxford. I do know that if someone addressed my wife in that fashion, well, my newly-retained lawyer and his good friend the bail bondsman would soon be very busy, and I would be contemplating the dubious merits of jailhouse cuisine (protip: never eat the meat loaf).

And it would be worth it. There's a scene, alas deleted before the final version saw print, in which my detective Markhat and his vampire friend Evis are discussing an incident in which Markhat broke a stranger's jaw because he insulted Darla, Markhat's then-fiancee. Markhat spends a long weekend in the Old Ruth, a notorious jail with a less-than-100-percent survival rate among even brief detainees. Evis admonishes Markhat to show a modicum of restraint next time, to stay out of jail, and Markhat responds thusly -- "Any husband not ready to spend a night in the Old Ruth on behalf of his wife isn't ready to be handing out engagement rings."

I still believe that. It's not up to the ladies to weigh themselves down with pistols and pepper spray because some men can't mind their manners. I believe it's up to the men to police our brethren, and make it crystal clear that an insult or attempted intimidation to a random woman on the street is an insult to my wife, my sister, my daughter, my mother.

And some of us don't take kindly to such things. Not kindly at all.

None of you men should. It's one thing to smile and say hello to a woman in singles club (do such things even exist anymore?). It's another to shout down a lady on the street. She isn't there to meet you, or make your day. She's going to work or going home, like the rest of us poor slobs.

To the woman in the video, I can only offer my most profound apologies on behalf of my gender, a large percentage of which is obviously unacquainted with the concept gentlemanly behavior.

And to the morons in that video, you should be two things -- first and foremost, ashamed of your inexcusable behavior. Second, you should be bleeding from a broken nose.

To the guys who saw the catcalls and the intimidation happen, you should be ashamed of yourselves too, for not standing up and speaking out.

I'm not stating or implying that women are fainting daisies incapable of taking care of themselves. Far from it.

I am saying women shouldn't have to teach strange men not to be raging arseholes. Women shouldn't be tasked with conveying that sad message one hundred times a day.

No, this kind of verbal assault and intimidation is a man problem. Each of us dudes is either a part of the solution, or an enabler.

So cut that crap out, you idiots. You might just say something around the wrong wild-eyed southern boy. Maybe I'd win, maybe I'd lose, but that's not the point -- there would be a reckoning.

Okay. Deep breaths. I'm putting my soapbox away, because I do have a follow-up question to all this, that I hope one or two of my female readers might be willing to answer.

I write several female characters. Darla, for one. Gertriss and Mama Hog. And then there's Meralda, Tirlin's lady Mage, about whom I have based two novels and a novella. But seeing the video, and then reading about 'gamergate' and the many instances of outright physical assaults against female cosplayers at cons, I have to wonder if I'm portraying my female characters with any degree of realism at all.

Meralda walks around Tirlin all the time, and aside from traffic cops doffing their hats to her and her apartment doorman saying hello, she never gets cat-called. Darla, Markhat's wife, has faced down vampires and murderous witches, but never endured a mob of idlers on a park bench commenting upon her anatomy.

Honest, such things never occurred to me, because, I assume, I'm a clueless male.

Which gives me pause. I want very much to make Meralda and Darla and all the rest as whole and as believable as I possibly can. I want readers, especially female readers, to feel as if they see some of themselves reflected in my portrayals.

So -- by omitting this aspect of being a woman in 21st century America, have I damaged my fictional people?

Conversely, do you women even WANT to see such things pop up, especially since I write fantasy, or would you rather fiction be a safer place, a bastion of reason, if you will?

I am genuinely interested in hearing your thoughts.

So that's it for this week. Next week I'll try to get back to ghost hunting and funny stuff.

But sometimes even hermit crabs should speak out.

Peace out, fellow babies!


  1. I think that sort of thing is more common in certain parts of the country than others, but it seems to be a growing problem. It can also make a difference how old you are and how attractive. It is real, however and to some extent, it doesn't matter what part of the country. If you look the least bit vulnerable, you are in more danger of catcalls than not. To be honest, it was somewhat frequent on college campuses when I attended an engineering school. It was also very common in the work place when I first started working. I was young and therefore considered vulnerable (They were wrong). You have to stand up for yourself and make sure you are very clear that come-ons are not funny, not acceptable and just because you wear a skirt instead of pants, that is not some kind of invitation. If it doesn't stop, you do something about it YESTERDAY before it turns into a very ugly mess.

    It can be portrayed in books, but isn't necessary, but it would be realistic if needed for a scene. Most guys will not step up unless they are certain that the woman doesn't know the guy in question. In other words, the average "gentleman" will assume it's a domestic dispute and none of his business--not a stranger being an asshole. By the time a guy DOES step up, it's usually too late. We've either punched the guy, slapped the guy or gone into outraged screaming--which can be scarier than getting hit. I had a friend who was accosted at a dance, cornered, until she slapped the guy silly. Two other guys then stepped in and asked if she needed help. "Too late" was her answer. And you can't blame the guys necessarily. They were watching the situation, but didn't know whether she knew the guy or not. It's a fact of life if you're young and look unattached. Ignoring a guy bothering you doesn't generally rate. If a particular guy makes a repeat habit of showing up at a certain location, it pays to have a guy (who doesn't look as if he's with you) shadow you--and play muscle. I've done that before and wouldn't hesitate to do it again. Don't get me wrong. If I feel threatened, I'm not going to mess around. I will attempt to defend myself FAST and get out of the situation quickly. Because as a female, you don't know if the guys standing around are going to join in with the guy starting it or if they will defend you. You don't take a crowd and the way it might lean for granted especially if any in that crowd have been drinking.

    The good news is that the average guy doesn't engage in this sort of activity. Yes, there are assholes, but it's one in ten, not fifty percent. You can't spot the assholes ahead of time either. The worst dress in suits and act like they know the rules--until they choose to turn into an asshole. I've never actually had catcalls or problems when passing workers, construction sites or the typical setting where you'd expect it (probably due to movies.) But honestly, those guys roofing that house or putting up the fence are WORKING. They aren't that interested in causing trouble.

    It's there. You can write about it either way.

  2. Thanks, Maria. As I have long suspected, anyone foolish enough to mess with a Texan lady is going to wish they'd slapped a rattlesnake instead. Good for you!

    The most frightening part of your insightful and revealing post? This sentence --

    "Because as a female, you don't know if the guys standing around are going to join in with the guy starting it or if they will defend you."

    That has to be one of the saddest things I've ever read.

    I am gladdened to see that you place the ratio of a-holes to decent men to 1 in ten. That's not nearly good enough, but it's a start.

    Thanks for replying, and sharing your story. I learned something. I hope others did too.

  3. Crowds are crowds. I've seen some females get pretty nasty just because their brethren were being nasty. The people who will stand up and be counted--male or female can be few and far between. I don't put it all on the men. Woman can walk up and stand up for another woman too. It's not necessarily the safest bet, but most bullies/assholes prefer easy marks. They don't like to be told they are assholes so as soon as someone mentions it, some of them will back off.

    But I've also found that women who are regularly abused by their husband/boyfriend do not appreciate having someone stick up for them. They'll side with the abuser just about every time. Doesn't mean they don't need intervention, but don't expect to be thanked for it. And that situation can be even more dangerous for a woman if she is intervening because a man who abuses a woman on a regular basis is a step or three lower than your average asshole. They are aggressive, mean and too stupid to realize not everyone is fooled by their devious, evil ways.

    I think when it comes to writing, I appreciate stories where the women are strong and so are the men. But just because of the vid, don't discount evil women who abuse others--including the men in their lives. It happens. It may not result in pubic catcalls (I wonder what would happen if a guy sauntered down the same route as the woman????) but disrespect is disrespect. I see a lot more women disrespecting men these days, especially on the internet in discussions. Men are no more mere sex objects than women and I don't have any appreciation for thinking it's okay to make crude remarks about them, either.

  4. In NYC this is the norm, unfortunately. I've been dressed in a suit or jeans and a shirt very much like this girl and as you walk down a NYC street, jam-packed on either side with construction workers on break, well, it's a given. You try to keep your head down, walk fast and don't make eye contact and you can usually get through it relatively unscathed, but it is uncomfortable. As for that guy following that girl for 4 straight minutes? Terrifying actually. Maybe she felt safer as someone was filming her? If that happened to me, within about 40 seconds I would have been inside a store where there were people around as protection.

    Now, as for your books, I don't necessarily have to read about the catcalls, BUT, if Meralda is a beautiful young girl, if she has any definable "assets," then definitely guys are looking at her. It's kind of a given. They seem hardwired to look. Maybe a clerk flushes as she's near, a shopper gives her a once over... it can be done without it being a blatant catcall and it can be done sweetly too.

    But, and I might be blasphemous here, there are also girls out there that wear extremely skimpy clothing, heels up to there, hair and make-up sexed up and they walk around the streets in order to be "seen" (you ladies know who you are) and they simply can't play the "offended" card if they get called out on it. I'm not saying women deserve it and are asking for it, but it's like a dark alley - you don't walk down one by yourself, at night, at three in the morning. You need to be smart.

  5. Lyse. Wow. You don't deserve that. No one does. It is now incumbent upon me to pack up both my rocket launchers and head for New York. I honestly had no idea. I have to ask, though -- where are their fathers? Has no one taught them right from wrong? Or is our culture so decayed the distinction is lost?

    Next books, Meralda and Darla will deal with this. Obviously, there are aspects to being female I am a long way from understanding.

    Thanks for your comments. I truly appreciate them. And I am sorry you have to go through such ridiculous abuse.

    1. Most of the time it's not that horrible... You'll walk by, someone will smile or say "hi beautiful" or "wow" and you move on with your day. I'm getting older, so when it happens, I'm sort of surprised and if it's not done in a leering way, I don't get all that offended. Sometimes when you're having a really bad day and feeling particularly unattractive, it's rather flattering - there is a VERY fine line though and as long as that line is not crossed, all good.

  6. Thank you for the rant! Hearing men step up about the inappropriateness of this is comforting.

    Sadly ... it really IS as common as the video suggest, at least in large urban areas. I'm near enough to 50 years old now as makes no difference, and plump, and I dress pretty androgynously almost all the time, so I rarely encounter it much anymore -- though "rarely" isn't the same as "never." But when I first moved to DC, in 1990, I was late 20s, very slim and fit, and this sort of harassment was bothersome enough that I found myself trying to avoid walking down the street, especially alone, more than I absolutely had to.

    I at least had the good luck to be 5'-10" and passably muscular ... I rarely felt physically intimidated by the assholes. Unlike some of my female colleagues who were roughly 5' tall and 100 or so pounds; I give those women credit for a lot of courage in not letting it limit them, much.

    The worst part about it may be there there's no right way to respond. If you react at all, you encourage it, and thereby make it worse for yourself and every other woman dealing with it. If you keep walking briskly, make no eye contact, and ignore it, then you're likely to get more aggressive reactions from the guys -- at the very least, you'll be called a bitch.

    And FYI -- while I have no way of knowing, I'd be surprised if the video of the young woman walking the streets of New York actually showed the worst of the harassment. If there were no more aggressive, overtly lewd comments or gestures than we saw, I'd be pretty astonished. It can get pretty graphic. It's common enough to see men doing things like grabbing their crotches and calling out things like "Hey, you want a taste of this?"

    Back when it happened to me a lot, I was too young and naive to realize how wrong it was; I just knew I hated it. But I'm hoping that, if people continue to speak out, maybe little girls growing up now won't have to face that sort of harassment when they get to adulthood.

    1. When I read your post, Elizabeth, I was wondering what the right way to react might be. Now I see the dilemma -- like you said, there is no right way. If you ignore them, sometimes they escalate. If you respond, same thing. It seems there is no blanket 'Do this and solve the problem' strategy, and that is tragic. The social contract that says words have consequences seems to be unraveling, at least in this situation women encounter. I wish I knew how to reverse that trend.

    2. Me, too! It's an intractable problem, certainly. But thanks for caring about it, and doing so so publicly. It may not seem like it, but it really does help. Every voice that says it's wrong, helps.

  7. As for your question about whether your ladies are unrealistic in their lack of sexual harassment: probably, for all the reasons you and others mention above. It's a thing. It happens.

    But, to answer your question about whether we WANT it to be in the books. For me, that's an emphatic no. I recognize that not having sexual harassment in a book makes it less "realistic" (for a given value of "realistic" in fantasy fiction), but to be honest, for me it is realism I can do without, much like not needing to see characters go to the bathroom. Yes, I know such things exist, and I may even know that such things happen in the world I'm reading about. But it's not something I want to read about, and it's difficult to show it to me without it becoming a depressing focal point. When used in fiction, sexual harassment often feels pasted on, or there for shock value, or just serves to make the female character react in some way or be degraded/humiliated/etc. It's a trigger issue, hitting on the big SEX! button in the reader's brain. And that can mess with whatever else the scene was trying to do...unless you were TRYING to point out how vulnerable your female character is. Because once you introduce sexual harassment, I start eyeing the entire story sideways, because I'm half waiting for the raping to start. Sexual harassment on-page, for me, is one step down that "hey, guys don't take no for an answer in this world, either!" road, and I'm never sure how far the author is going to go, you know?

    So yeah...I like my fiction to skip over such things. Someone who likes grimdark fantasy might tell you differently, but imho, female characters have other things to deal with, plots to unravel, stuff to DO, and that's all much more interesting than street harassment.

    1. Aster, thanks for the reply. I don't have any plans now to incorporate such behavior in my fantasy settings, mainly because the way the societies are designed. Like you said, my people have stuff to DO. Looking back, even my villains don't stoop to such behavior. Yeah, they might try to stab Darla, but they'd probably be polite right up until the knives come out.

  8. Hiya Frank,
    you want some advanced courses in what we women (all ages, races, appearances) put up with routinely, check out the tweets on
    #yesall women. Bring a cup of coffee; there are thousands. The origins of the hashtag are here in Wiki: From what I've seen, the decent guys reading that have been absolutely floored. *shrug* We've been tellin' y'all.

    1. There shouldn't be a space between #yesall and women in that hashtag, sorry.

      Corrected: #yesallwomen

    2. Terry, Keep telling us! Maybe the message will eventually travel from the exterior of our thick skulls to the interior, where it might wander across a functioning neuron somewhere.

  9. Also, have you heard that the actress who appears in the video has since been receiving rape threats online?


    1. I wondered how long that would take. She spoke out, and now she'll be attacked, just like in gamer-gate, by cowards and scum who believe they are utterly unaccountable for their words. She displayed bravery; they respond with cowardice and depravity. Scum.

      And people say a zombie apocalypse that wipes out a significant portion of humanity would be a bad thing...

  10. I am obviously from a different reality--the 1960s and 1970s. Men did do this sort of thing, but not as much. They were usually children of the 40s and 50s where their parents taught them respect for women. That's the thing that is sadly lacking. Our generation has weened our children to believe that they can do anything and be proud of it and that includes inappropriate behavior. We've lost many of the morals we had in the 'olden' days. I'm glad I'm past the age when men do that. Now I have nice older gentlemen with loads of gray hair and wrinkles smiling at me and speaking kindly to me in the grocery store and on the street. My generation has aged gracefully, even if we didn't teach our kids to teach their kids some manners.

    As for reading it in fiction? I don't want any of it. I read to escape. I read for story. If I'm reading fantasy or science fiction, I definitely don't want modern day Earth reality to slip into the story.

  11. From what I have encountered it often depends on where you are. When in a small town in Canada or northern Washington people, both men and women, say hello to perfect strangers. They are just saying hello. In San Francisco "hellos" can feel a lot less benign. I'm 5'8" with a third degree black belt and I am not built along delicate lines. I don't get hassled much because I make it a point to look these guys in the eye and stare them down. This shouldn't be necessary. I like the small town friendly hello, have a good day and everyone goes on their way. This is what I think of when Meralda is out walking. In the Markhat books everyone needs to be careful when out on the streets after dark, not just females.

  12. I agree with those that vote for it not being needed in fiction to make it more real. I personally view fiction as an escape and imagining a world where this doesn't happen makes me happy.

    Some folks have responded to this video saying they've never experienced it or that ladies should appreciate those compliments. I think that trying to describe the fear that pounds in your chest when you are simply trying to walk home from school or to a friend's house and a pack of young men cat call you and maybe follow you a little is difficult. Why do they scare you so? For me it was because they made me feel my vulnerability. Only two blocks from home I realized that if I let them catch me I could easily be overwhelmed. Maybe all instances of cat calling aren't like that. Maybe it's a nice man trying to say hello and, as some have said, appreciate you. But once you have had the kind of encounter where you feel your own mortality and vulnerability it's hard to "just take it as a compliment." I think that in the world I like to think we live in I shouldn't have had to take self defense classes just to feel safe walking the streets of a safe suburban southern California city.