On Fear and Femininity

By Frances Molina

Early Saturday morning I gathered with a few hundred people to celebrate and support Incarnate Word Academy’s graduating class of 2014. I had graduated from IWA the previous year and wanted to share this proud day with the fellow sisters of my alma mater. Following the procession of the graduates and the lengthy – and admittedly theatrical – baccalaureate mass, the graduates and their guests settled into the pews as the valedictorian approached the podium to give her speech. We listened as she reflected on her high school experience, recalled happy memories from her senior year, and admitted to the excitement and anxiety she felt concerning her imminent first year in college, feelings she no doubt shared with her fellow graduates. Despite the heart-warming tone of the speech, as she concluded with a few verses from Lee Ann Womack’s “I Hope You Dance,” I couldn’t help but feel a certain amount of anti-climax. Maybe it was because I was standing on the other side of my own first year at university, or maybe it was because I thought the speech was too broad for an audience that might have needed a lot more reassurance. But as I watched those young women walk across the altar, smiling for their families, eagerly grasping for their high school diplomas, I began to worry about what sort of world they were crossing into and whether or not they were ready to face it.

The night before I had learned about the shooting that took place in the Isla Vista community at the University of California, Santa Barbra. I was scrolling through Tumblr when the story broke. My initial reaction, like that of many others, was shock and as I quickly learned more about the incident, my astonishment turned to virulent anger. However, as Elliot Rodger’s name began to circulate on the internet, as his disturbing video and disgustingly racist and misogynistic 137-page manifesto came to light, and as news articles began to divert the discussion about the incident with questions about gun rights and mental illness, I didn’t once feel a modicum of disbelief. The shooter was not a complex character. In fact his motivation, like the motivation for most modern incidents of a similar nature, was fairly simple. As he clearly enunciated in his video and his manifesto, the shooter was seeking revenge on his fellow students, specifically female students, for denying him the fun and pleasure he had expected and had felt entitled to receive as a part of the college experience. Each of them had unconsciously insulted him by failing to acknowledge and respect this imagined entitlement.

It was not the violence of Rodger’s actions that horrified me most and left me nauseated for days. It was his motivation, the slow and silent hatred that seemed to influence his every action, thought, and word. And as I dwelled more on his hatred, I fell back into my own fear.

This fear was familiar. This was the fear that many women know and that many women are coming to know every day. It’s the heavy feeling on the back of my neck as I walk alone at night. It’s the keys between my fingers, poised, ready for everyone or maybe no one. It’s the cramped smile at the hand on my waist and the tongue knotted with silence, too apprehensive to object. It’s the dread in the pit of my stomach when I have to suffer another car slowing down to watch me walk to the bus stop. It’s the fake phone calls and the safety precautions; the imaginary boyfriend and the polite refusal, again and then a third time. It’s talking to your friends and having the same horror stories repeated back to you tenfold. It’s the fear to say no, to say yes, to stay silent, to speak out for yourself and for others. It’s the fear to exist as a woman in a culture that so often feels predatory and vicious. This fear, like the shooter’s hatred, is slow and silent and is present in our daily lives whether we are conscious of it or not.

In the simplest terms, if we peel away all the rhetoric and supposition, this fear is the fear that the men in our lives – strangers, friends, lovers, even fathers and brothers – will become violent and hurt us. It is not an imagined or irrational or situational fear, as the USCB shooting can attest to. But where do we learn this fear? Who do we learn it from? How does this fear affect us as women?

I believe there is tradition in this fear, a tradition that has been upheld through word and practice. Just as I learned from my mother how and when to knead the dough when making bread, and how to master Excel spreadsheets, so too I learned from her how to press the panic button on your car keys when you’re being followed in the parking lot and how hard you have to hit a man to break his nose. Just as I learned with my friends how to straighten my hair and apply my eyeliner with graceful precision, so too I learned with them how to recognize the bitter taste of date rape and how to communicate with eyes and expressions our silent signals of alarm and pleas for help. Routines to protect against rape and violence are as common and as numerous as beauty routines, practiced religiously and passed on with ceremony when a woman reaches the age when she can understand. That is why I felt the urge on that Saturday morning to address the graduates with my own words and warnings. Of course, it may have been silly of me to assume those young women hadn’t already heard it all before. It may have been silly of me to assume they had not already been introduced into this covenant of fear and pretense, where our weapons are shields, not swords, and our comrades cannot be so easily discerned from those who would harm us.

But even as the fear seeks to envelope us, to gather all of us women in this knowledge and protect us from pain and harm (because of course, whether we are right or wrong in our particular instances of fear, we can still resolve ourselves to this bond of knowledge, supported as it is by each of us and by years of proof and reinforcement), at its core this fear is alienating and exclusive. I can say for certain this is true, as someone who has many times very nearly allowed fear to modify and restrict my life. Following the USCB tragedy, I felt the flame of fear that had long been dormant inside me begin to spark in the pit of my stomach. The flame quickly built to a razing fury which moved within and beyond me without objective. I waited for the people around me, my male friends and coworkers, my father, even my mother, to say something mildly offensive, relishing the heat of my anger when I snapped at them. All I wanted to talk about was how upset I was about the shooting, the unchecked casual sexism, and how damn tired I was of being afraid. Not very many people wanted to talk to me about these things or even when they did, I exhausted myself trying to prove to dubious people what I believed to be completely obvious. I grew avoidant and irritated and spiteful and I could see the hurt and confusion I caused my loved ones so I crushed this anger into a small hard stone and tucked it away as I watched the window of opportunity to discuss this fear and these prevalent issues grow smaller and smaller as the USCB incident faded from the front pages.

It is not fair that this fear turns women away from the people they trust and makes men into monsters, whether or not that is the case. It is not fair that there are not enough platforms for women to speak on this fear and encourage one another with kindness and bravery, outside of social justice blogs and forums. I don’t envision a world in which the safety rituals and routines become obsolete or a world where women can abandon their fear and exist without apprehension. This world simply can’t exist so long as pain and violence remain permanent fixtures in human nature. So women are burdened with living in a violent and often misogynistic world that simultaneously inspires and denies their fear and distrust. I do, however, envision a solution, one that is just as complex and difficult as the problem. So how do we combat this contradiction? How do we make a choice when there is none?

By writing this reflection, I decided that if I had to choose between the two – my fear or my anger – I would choose the anger. My fear kept me silent, too overwhelmed to communicate how I felt and why. My fear kept me practicing for worst case scenarios and moving through overcautious motions in an unvarying cycle. But my anger gave me a voice. My anger curbed my complacency and taught me not to feel grateful that the men in my life did not rape me or threaten me with violence. My anger encouraged me to show more and say more, whether or not my audience wanted to see me or hear me.

Women have always been ordained a place and a time to speak. We don’t speak too loudly at group meetings and we apologize for asking questions in class. Many women would rather go unheard than be judged and dismissed as a bitch or as irrational or emotional. But if women cannot speak for themselves – in any tone or volume – then we will continue to be spoken for. If a place cannot be made for us, we will carve one out that is inclusive and communicative. And we begin by allowing our anger and raising our voices, especially about the issues nobody wants to address. When the windows of opportunity for discussion about misogyny, rape culture, and violence against women begin to close– force them open or break them. Don’t wait for them to open again, after more lives have been lost. To quote the late and deeply beloved Maya Angelou, who was always a strong voice speaking against the silence, “You should be angry. You must not be bitter. Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. It doesn’t do anything to the object of its displeasure. So use that anger. You write it. You paint it. You dance it. You march it. You vote it. You do everything about it. You talk it. Never stop talking it.”

This fear will always be a part of me so long as I remain an active woman in the world and it has the potential to motivate my choices and my experiences. But I will no longer allow it to motivate my silence. None of us can allow it any longer.

*1 | Image illustrated by Cody Bubenik
Frances Molina

The author

Simultaneously eloquent and foul-mouthed with a seething spirit for life, knowledge, adventure, and good conversation. Enjoys napping with fervor, dancing like Stevie Nicks, talking about women's issues, and celebrating breakfast food.