On Bluebeard

This blog post is really about how differently men and women can perceive certain things, but I didn’t think that would make a very good title. And Bluebeard does come into it, as you’ll see.

Some time ago, a friend of mine whom I will call Nathan, because his name is Nathan, and I were having a conversation. Nathan is a big, strong guy, about twice my size. He told me that when he had lived in New Orleans, he had loved walking around the city alone, late at night. I said to him, “Nathan, I’ve never walked around a city alone late at night.” There was a moment of silence, and then he said something like, “Oh, right. Sometimes I forget how different it must be for a woman.”

I’m writing this post in part because there have been conversations recently, in the media and on the internet, that have made clear how differently men and women can perceive certain words and actions. Some of those conversations have been about the literary world I live in, particularly the fantasy and science fiction corner of it. And the point I want to make, centrally in this blog post, is that something that may not seem threatening to a man may seem profoundly threatening to a woman. I’ll give you an example.

Scenario: A woman passes a man on the street. He says, “Hello, beautiful.”
How the man perceives this: “I paid her a compliment.”
How the woman perceives this: “Is he going to attack me?”

I don’t know if this is true for all women, in all circumstances, but if I’m the woman in that scenario, particularly if I’ve been walking down that street absorbed in my own thoughts, as soon as I’m spoken to I will immediately check my surroundings. What time of day is it? Is there anyone else on the street? How threatening does the man seem? (Although I have to add, if I am completely honest, that I never walk down a street lost in thought. I used to when I was younger. I’m smarter now.)

Bluebeard

When I teach my class on fairy tales, I ask students about the moral of “Bluebeard.” Charles Perrault gives us a moral, clearly marked “moral,” at the end of the tale: “Curiosity, in spite of its appeal, often leads to deep regret. To the displeasure of many a maiden, its enjoyment is short lived. Once satisfied, it ceases to exist, and always costs dearly.” I ask my students, is that really what we learned from the story?

No, they tell me. That moral doesn’t make sense. If Bluebeard’s wife hadn’t been curious, she would never have known that he had killed his previous wives. And although he tells her that he’s going to kill her because of her curiosity, and we can infer that he killed most of his other wives for the same reason, what about the first wife? Why did he kill her? Clearly this is a man who simply likes killing his wives, and will eventually think of a reason to kill again. So, I ask them, what is the moral? And eventually we come up with something like this:

“Make sure you know whom you’re marrying, because your husband may be a serial killer.”

Bluebeard 2

If you’re a woman, and you’ve lived for a while in the world, you’ve learned to be cautious. You’ve learned that you don’t know who people are, or what they’re capable of, until you’ve known them for a long time, and sometimes not even then. If a man is bothering a woman, it’s easy for another man to say “Ignore him. He’s just a creep.” Or “He lacks social skills.” But the woman in that situation has to approach it by thinking, what is the worst case scenario? What is the worst that could happen? And then she has to act based on that supposition. Often that means acting swiftly, decisively, with maximum effect. Because you have to establish, definitively, that you are not to be messed with.

She will be told, “You’re overreacting.” But she will also know that if something does happen, if there is a worst case scenario, she will be told, “You should have paid attention to the warning signs.” Either way, she faces the possibility of being blamed.

Bluebeard 3

Let’s go back to that first scenario, with the woman walking down the street. If the man who thought he had paid her a compliment knew that she was assessing him as a potential attacker, he might blame her: he might say, why didn’t she realize that I was trying to be nice? What he wouldn’t know is how many times she had been approached on a street by a man who said, “Hello, beautiful,” and then continued with a sexual proposition. For an average woman, it would be a least once, but probably more than once. After a while, if you’ve been living while female, you get a sort of PTSD. Most women have been through assaults of various kinds. (I once looked up from reading a book in the public library to see a man masturbating on the seat across from me. I think I must have been about fourteen?) Most women have dealt with some sort of silencing or discrimination. (When I was at Harvard Law School, there were male students who argued that women who were going to take time off to have and care for children were taking up space that should go to qualified men.) This history conditions how they respond, whether to a compliment on a street or to male writers who talk about them with a lack of respect (see the latest SFWA scandal). (It’s also worth knowing that women talk to one another: we know when a male writer regularly hits on young female writers at conventions.)

“Bluebeard” has been interpreted in a variety of ways, but its simplest meaning is a cautionary one, to women. What it really says is, be curious, be bold, protect yourself. Considering the things women have to deal with, it’s scarcely surprising that they have learned this particular lesson.

I know I’ve put a lot into this blog post, and parts of it may not fit together with perfect logic. But it represents a series of things I’ve been thinking recently about differences in perception. If you’re a man and want to work or socialize with women, it’s probably worth considering how their perception may be different from yours, and what may lie behind that difference.

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43 thoughts on “On Bluebeard

  1. Such an interesting post. I often went walking around the city at night when I was younger and actually found it a safe and comfortable place, I only once felt as if I was in any danger, as a suspicious looking person seemed to be following me, and even then I knew I could go up to any stranger and they would help me. My feeling is that women are in more danger from men they know – as witnessed by the Bluebeard story. But you really have written so many layers into your post, and I want to comment on them all but then I’d be writing an essay of my own :-)

    • Sarah, which city? I think that does make a difference. I live in Boston, and we get regular updates on assaults in our area. They do happen with some frequency. There are places I would walk if I needed to, and places I definitely wouldn’t. But I do agree that women are generally in more danger from men they know.

      • Cities in New Zealand and Australia. Which actually aren’t all that safe for women – domestic violence is rife, and child abuse is a huge problem. Nowhere in the world is safe for women really. Nor for men or children. I do think I was lucky to get home unscathed from the city at night.

  2. See, i know many women (and men) whom walk round cities late at night. Perhaps they just suffer a little less paranoia?

    • Wes – 1 in 4 women will be the victim of a rape during their life, which may influence how men and women view walking around a major city at night alone differently (as the saying goes, it’s not paranoia if they’re out to get you)

      • There is a problem with your statistic. The majority of cases, it is someone the victim knows, not a stranger who stalks in the middle of the night. Perpetuating this stereotype is actually more dangerous.

  3. You write as if women are the sole receivers of discriminatory and sexist treatment. Is this not discriminatory and sexist. Perhaps using the word ‘some’ in front of the word ‘women’ this piece of writing may have more relevance to the realities.

    • Wez, you’re a jerk.

      I walked around cities late at night. Why? Because I was TRAINED. And because I wanted someone to give me an excuse. That doesn’t mean others will or should, as anyone raped will be blamed for the time of night they are out on the street,

      ALL women receive or witness sexist treatment. Not all *see* it. (re:Hillary Clinton’s campaign in the US.)

      SOME men receive sexist treatment. Most don’t. Even more than that never understand the difference.

      • ‘Won’t someone please think of the men’. Wez, you might want to look into the power differentials between genders in most societies and general prevalence of sexualised violence against women as against men before firing away with the poorly considered, inane commentary.

    • Agreed in full, Wez. Don’t let the dismissals of Theodora’s followers deter you from speaking reason.

      • Dear “Reason Prevails,”

        Please do tell me where the “reason” is in the following:

        “You write as if women are the sole receivers of discriminatory and sexist treatment. Is this not discriminatory and sexist. Perhaps using the word ‘some’ in front of the word ‘women’ this piece of writing may have more relevance to the realities.”

        I really am curious, as a logician myself, how you actually call this “reason.”

        Wez first declares his evaluation of Theodora’s post as if it were fact:
        to be specific, that she is indeed writing as if women are the sole receivers of discriminatory and sexist treatment. This, in spite of the fact that nowhere does she make any such declaration. She very carefully deliniates that she wishes to speak to this specific type of discrimination. The very act of doing that should clue a “reasonable” reader into the fact that she is well aware of other types of discrimination. (Yes, I am using the word “fact” here in this paragraph several times, since those pesky little elements seem to be overlooked by you and Wez.)

        He then puts forward, as if it were “merely” a question, the proposition that Theodora is herself discriminatory and sexist, with the implication that she is so against men. This is an unsupported implication, with no evidence to prop it up. The fact that he choses the rhetorical device of putting the idea of her attitudes forward as a question is also dismissive, implying that he has greater insight into her motives than she does herself. This, even though she took a considerable number of words to explain her choice of blogging on this specific topic at this time.

        He then presumes to instruct Theodora (an established writer of quality, whose works are readily available for scrutiny) on her word choice, for all the world as if he had the authority to evaluate it. Mind you, he does this from behind the veil of a screen name that gives us no means of putting his own command of the language under similar scrutiny.

        But this you declare “reasonable”… simply (it would seem) because he is a male voice using a supposedly moderate tone reprimanding a female writer who is expressing an issue that ought to be considered by all.

        I find Wez’s dismissal of the issue simply because it does not cover all discrimination and sexism to be foolishly limited and far from reasonable. But then, I’ve studied logic and philosophy, so what do I know about it?

  4. Wez, I don’t think the point of Theodora’s musings are that this afflicts either “some” or “most” women. The point is that it happens at all.

    • I tried to be quite careful with my language, because recently anytime someone has written about this issue, the criticism has been intense. My point is that women can have a very different perspective from men, and that it’s a good idea to take that into account. I would say that most women have dealt with things, whether assault or discrimination, that have shaped their perspective, but that’s based on what I’ve heard from friends. Almost all of them have stories . . . And I know that my friends are among the privileged: generally highly educated, creative people who have the ability to shape their own lives. I would expect it to be even more true for women who have less economic and social power. My point is certainly not that only women deal with issues such as discrimination and assault, but that women do in general deal with them, and it shapes how they perceive and respond to the world.

    • Well said, Sarah, however I might deviate slightly (not sure if you agree, this is simply my opinion) by simply saying that when this blog suggests (not that I disagree) that women should assume the worst it is slightly (only slightly) sexist. However, as Theodora says, it is necessary.
      Not being a woman myself, I cannot fully understand how it is that a woman is interpreting my actions/words, I can only do my best to not do/say something that causes her to become wary of me. It is the job of the men (however sexist it may seem), to use their own discretion when interacting with women, and avoid engaging interactions after dark, as this is when it is natural to assume the worst. He must also gauge her reactions to his actions/words so as to better know how to possibly diffuse the situation, or to know when enough is enough.
      Whereas in a situation after dark, a man may be able to intimidate/muscle his way out of a bad situation (and will therefore subconsciously expect a woman to do the same), a woman (by the physical nature of the gender, not meaning to be sexist) will not be as able to do so, and as such must always be prepared for the worst.

      –I do not mean to offend anyone or to state as fact, only my opinion is stated here.–

      PS. It wouldn’t let me reply to your reply to “Reason Prevails”

      • Thank you, Jacob. Actually I do not disagree with you on that very much. But then it is because I have made a very conscious choice to my my default reaction to people a positive one, as much as I can. Even so, there are times when I inwardly cringe a little at encountering dubious male personages. So far, I have been very fortunate in not having disasterous encounters. And it doesn’t mean that I don’t do a situational evaluation either.

        I regard myself as perhaps atypical in the matter, having started out as a tom-boy and being moderately ready for rough-housing on occasion. I proceed at night (when I’m out alone) with bold assurance, but keeping my radar awake and active. But as you can see — even though I’ve chosen an unbiased mode of behavior, underneath that is a consciousness and readiness to fight if it becomes necessary.

  5. Also, your point about the “safe walking late at night” should not be regarded as the be all and end all of your post. *sadsigh* As someone who lived in Brooklyn and loved walking around at 3 am? I should note I never went into the park.

  6. Something like this happened to me recently. I was at a farmers market, and one of the vendors said to me “I remember you from last year. I remember your smile.” Although I knew he meant it as a compliment and was in no way threatening, my first reaction was alarm. I hadn’t bought anything from him last year. My father had, but he remembered me, and not my father. Me and my smile. I know he was trying to be nice, but an innocent compliment had me feeling almost like I’d been being stalked.
    It hasn’t stopped me from going to the Farmers Market, though.

  7. I agree with the part of being cautious because it’s hard to really know someone (serial killer or liar)…even after spending a long time with them.
    That said, I live in a place where I can take a twenty-minute walk to the supermarket at 8:30pm without worrying about my safety (thank God). There are usually some dudes who smoke at a certain area and when I first came here, I was always scared passing through that route (it was the only way to the supermarket).
    But I’ve learnt that they don’t bite, matter of fact, they rarely even say hello.
    That is, unless you look at them.
    However if any of them says hello, I nod or smile because I’m scared of appearing harsh.

  8. As a kid, I was so used to being told by everyone around me (friends, parents, my sisters) to be careful on the street, don’t take any chances, etc., so much so that it became second nature and I rarely gave it conscious thought. When I moved to Singapore, it was immensely liberating that I could just walk anywhere at any time of day. That was the time I noticed how different things actually are in places where your safety is being threatened just for wandering out alone.

    • Elaine, I think you’re right that we respond differently to different places. There are places where I would feel save in the middle of the night, places where I wouldn’t. But I would always make that determination–the question would always come up. That may have to do with the fact that I was raised in large cities where it was basically always an issue.

  9. I’m amazed there’s still someone out there who doesn’t get it. Women, despite waves of feminist consciousness raising, and some women having broken through the glass ceilings in most professions, are still, as John Lennon sang in “Women Are The Niggers of The World”, the penultimate universal victims through time and across cultures. That the Feminine aspect of human being is both feared and held in awe, is simply a fact, born out by history, and illustrated in literature of every genre. This dichotomy is the deep, primal flaw that makes each individual less whole. It is not incurable for those willing to delve deeply into the psychology of their constructed selves and discover their true selves. Self knowledge is the key. We can, so long as we live and breathe, work on ourselves. On the practical level, both women and men might simply be aware of their surroundings, educate themselves about the specifics of other cultures, and commit to remaining conscious in the world. As an elder, but still fit woman, not as pretty nor as naive as I once was, I get a lot less of that random intrusion sort of street interference. But I’m also less mobile, so I think about where I’m going before I agree to travel, even in this city where I’ve lived since the Sixties. i maintain a friendly, sometimes even chatty attitude when out, often make instant short term friends on trains, and buses, and in public spaces. Most folks are lonely out there, despite all the devices that give them the illusion of being connected, and welcome personal contact of the simply ‘fellow traveler’ sort. Genuine friendliness is a good attitude to exercise once discrimination (the better part of of all commingling) has been mastered.

    • This was beautifully written. As a woman in recovery, dealing with issues of shame around sexuality lead me away from AA and more towards finding my own way. I was assaulted during the time of my active addiction and it was never an appropriate place to delve into that particular aspect. Women’s lives are very different…

  10. Interesting read. Reminded me of when I was in Dublin, on the ghost tour. The last “stop” of the night was at a church three blocks from the apartment we were renting. The bus was returning to the Dublin Bus headquarters, a mile away, where we’d been picked up. It was after 10 at night, and dark. We asked the tour guide if it was okay if we left the tour there, and one of the guys on the tour looked at us as if we were crazy. He didn’t see a problem with going back across town, staying for the rest of the tour, but we were two women, alone, and we didn’t want to walk in those conditions any further than we had to.

    I will admit that I was never afraid in Dublin, but I also wasn’t *stupid*. I live in an area where, twice in two years, a man preyed on women along a river walking trail not too far from my house. Both times, he dragged his victim into the bushes, raped her for *hours*, and beat her nearly to the point of death. This was in a town of 110k people. Dublin has over one million people. The chances there of being assaulted are higher due to the higher population. A lot of men don’t understand that we’re conditioned through these events, even if they don’t happen to us, to worry that someone will come out of the shadows and do us harm. For most, it doesn’t happen. But the chance is always there. And yes, there’s a chance that a man will be assaulted, that someone will want his wallet. I wouldn’t call myself a “feminist” (I’m more of a humanist, really), but it’s achingly apparent that woman’s natural predator is man. And that needs to stop.

    • “Woman’s natural predator is man”. Powerful words. Sadly, true words. In my original comment, I mentioned I felt safe walking at night (I live in New Zealand and that will probably tell you alot) but for years I helped women who were not safe in their own homes. Bluebeard was always an unreal, faceless monster to me as a child. As an adult, I know he is real, and have seen what happens to women who open that door – or drop the keys, or look in the wrong direction, or say the wrong word. Or just exist when he’s in a bad mood.

      I should also mention that I knew men who had been victims of domestic abuse, sexually assaulted, etc, and in many ways they had it harder because the (male) police sneered at them. People hurt people. It is a tragedy.

  11. I think this is an excellent post, Dora, and if it makes some readers uncomfortable, that’s their problem, not the fault of the post. Those who don’t believe that street harassment, and worse, is a problem for large numbers of women, and thus informs our experience of being in the world, might have a look at the Everyday Sexism project run by Laura Bates here in England: http://www.everydaysexism.com/ (Bates herself regularly receives emails threatening rape and death simply for creating this site.)

    • Thanks, Terri! I think it’s terrible that women who talk about these issues are threatened. It helps all of us, men and women, to know what women experience and how it shapes their perception of the world . . .

  12. In “The Gift of Fear”, Gavin de Becker theorises that the difference between men and women is that men fear women will laugh at them, and women fear men will kill them. It explains a lot in the interaction repeated over and over (see the Everyday Sexism project for numerous reports) that goes like this:
    Man – “Hey sexy.”
    Woman – *Hurries away*
    Man – “Bitch! Hey, you’re a fat ugly slut!” etc. etc.

    See also the Schrodinger’s Rapist post on differences in perception of danger between men and women: http://kateharding.net/2009/10/08/guest-blogger-starling-schrodinger%E2%80%99s-rapist-or-a-guy%E2%80%99s-guide-to-approaching-strange-women-without-being-maced/

  13. Brilliant post, Theodora.
    It is different for men and women. Period.
    (When I was in London by myself for a weekend last year, I remember thinking how I’d love to have gone walking to see parts of the city by night, but I didn’t. I was very much aware that were a man, I would have done.)
    What you mentioned about blame is, sadly, correct. A woman is either “overreacting” if she tries to avoid a situation; or she “should have known better” if she ends up in one.

    It is an unfortunate reality, to put it mildly.

  14. As a man, I am baffled by what a fair number of men say to, and about, women. This kind of behavior angers me. I feel a sense of despair about the issues addressed by this post getting better. The bad men slander all men by what they do. When I pass a woman I don’t know on the sidewalk, we may both smile, nod, or even say “hi.” I walk on, preoccupied with one thing or another. But she, I imagine, glances over he shoulder to see if I’m as bad a some men are. What a shame–for both of us.

    Malcolm

    • Malcolm, I wouldn’t be bothered by that sort of mutual acknowledgement. I think it’s really when a comment is intrusive, when it breaks the personal barrier we each have around us, that women tend to react. But it depends on context, doesn’t it? If a man walking down a street said Hi to me at 11 p.m., after dark, particularly in an area that was not well-lit, I would wonder why he was talking to me and make sure I was aware of my surroundings.

      • Yes, context matters in a lot of ways. “Hi” at night isn’t “hi” in the daytime on a well-travelled street. It’s hard for me to imagine any context where it would be appropriate to say “Hello beautiful” to a stranger.

        Malcolm

  15. I suggest “Wez” find a clued -up person to dress him convincingly in women’s clothes. Then he can go for a walk alone in the centre of his nearest big city at night and see how he gets on.

  16. Dora is stunning and I am not. But even as an “invisible” 74 year old woman, I walk with fear as a night companion (and I am NOT a fearful person). We women carry along in our genes a her-story of violence against us–friends who have been assaulted (one as she walked into her hotel room, one as she got into her apartment house elevator and neither of them stunning, just ordinary-looking women). Or in the latest news stories blared at us from the Internet, from the television, from the gossip lines. I worry about my daughter, my two daughters-in-law, my five grandaughters in ways I don’t worry about my two sons, my grandson.

    It just IS.

    In the genes.

    In the consciousness.

    In the old tales and the new ones.

    We live it, walk it, feel it, get it.

    And you Wez and others, simply don’t,

    Jane

    • Thanks for commenting, Jane! I would guess that appearance has nothing to do with the frequency of assault: it’s not young women, beautiful women, women dressed provocatively. Just vulnerable women, of any age, dressed any way — women who are perceived to be in a vulnerable position because they’re alone, etc. But it would be interesting to see the research on this. Yes, I worry about my daughter as well . . .

      • That really was my point as well, Dora–that stunning or not or in-betweeb, young or old, even with martial arts training, we women walk with that genetic fear-link of after dark spaces and men who take a strange inappropriate interest in us.

      • I used to be a police officer on a small Indian reservation, and I had to keep abreast of information like this. I think the thing we forget is what the studies prove – “sexual assault” is something of a misnomer. It isn’t about sex – it’s about power, about control. It’s merely using the sexual organs to inflict it. It’s about a man proving that he is bigger and stronger than a woman and showing that he can force his will on her.

  17. My wife once told me, “A man’s greatest fear is that a woman will laugh at him. A woman’s greatest fear is that a man will kill her.”

  18. When I was ten on up, living with many relatives and such, I wandered around by
    myself a lot. At ten I had a bad encounter with a’kindly’ old Santa Claus looking man
    who told stories to us in a park. Suddenly I realized I was alone with him and he
    grabbed me. I tried to figure out how to get away. I saw a young man walking
    rather far away and said, “Oh, there’s my friend. I’d better get going.” The old guy
    let me go and I ran like the wind and felt victorious as I ran by the young man who
    didn’t notice me. Since I was worried about scaring my relatives I did not tell them
    anything but I did tell all the kids in the park. Since then, I felt I cannot always be
    safe but I can use strategy and spot what’s around me, shops, groups of people,
    places to go to if necessary. After being taunted by a weird guy on a bus, and the
    driver just laughing about it, I got our where I saw a man on the street-corner and
    pretended I knew him, which, alas, kind of scared him, But it worked.

  19. This topic certainly stirred up comments, which is a bit worrisome as I’m working on writing something myself on violence and people’s reactions to it. What I was thinking as I read your post and the comments is that the level of fear a person feels may also depend on their life experiences. If you weren’t raised in a safe home, experienced bullying, rape, unwanted sexual advances, etc. over your lifetime, you are going to end up VERY cautious. Or you can end up blaming yourself and putting yourself repeatedly in danger. I’m not sure why both can happen. But no matter what, women are generally more vulnerable than men. I realized that when a man held me down and I could not with every ounce of strength I had, get free.

    • Maery Rose, it seems as though anytime someone writes about these issues, it stirs up comments and criticism. But I think it’s still important to write about. So good luck, and let me know if you do! I’ll certainly read whatever you write . . .

      • I have a post today, although it’s more about violence coming from someone you know than the fear of strangers. But also questioning reactions to violence in general and how difficult that makes it for the victim, which is why the post itself was so difficult to write.

    • Maery Rose, I too am writing a memoir with some creepy encounters and scary moments, tho my story is; for nine years I
      lived in a loving home and then my mother died when I was nine. and I had to puzzle out a patchwork life, living off and on
      with some really weird people, often separated from my Dad,
      and had to more or less raise myself up. It is this kind of vulnerable state that attracts those who thrive on bullying and
      harming. I think I was lucky in one way. It just made me angry
      and crafty. A kind of ‘don’t let them see me cry,” and how to
      remain a good responsible person and how to manage anger.
      Write freely. Tell our stories. A kind of good revenge.

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