Being a Woman In Public

Inspired by one wonderful thing and one awful thing, this week’s post is in two parts.

When I left for a recent trip, I had a plan for what this blog post would be. I was headed off to spend a week and a half in Italy, first going to a silent film festival to provide some context for the book I’m writing and then on to Venice for three days of absorbing art and beauty. All travel alone, blissfully away from kids and day-to-day work. My plan was to write a blog post about the importance of taking time alone to recharge with art.

I still believe in the importance of taking time alone for creative renewal, but this can’t be that post.

As I was traveling alone in Italy, two things happened. First, I was sexually harassed at the film festival. Second, my husband sent me an amazing video of my older daughter singing and dancing to cheer me up.

I can’t stop thinking these two things together.

I like being alone in public. Especially in cities. I like reading and writing in coffee shops, walking city streets, visiting museums, seeing music, and going to the movies. Alone. I like doing these things with other people, but I especially enjoy the heightened way I can process my world, and especially the world of the arts, when I am by myself.

Unfortunately, being alone in public means a fairly continuous level of interruption. When I was younger, it often meant being asked on dates by the singer-songwriters twenty years my senior who also worked in Nashville’s coffee shops; when I went to see Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen, it meant an acquaintance of an acquaintance plopping down next to me and talking incessantly; and sometimes it has meant scary things, like my most recent experience at the film festival.

Whether it’s because I am now middle aged, because I have a wedding ring, or because I’m often with husband and children in tow, or simply because I have so little time to myself to be solitary in public these days, I had forgotten that being alone at the theater required being on guard.

I won’t belabor the details, but the gist of the story is that an older man whom I did not know struck up a conversation, the details of which he used to determine what films I would be seeing and where I’d likely be sitting in the theater. He used this harmless but annoying chit chat–it’s less stuffy in the balcony–to target me across two different screenings during which he rubbed his elbow and his feet against me in what I can best call an unrelenting and disturbing way. As I have explained to friends, when he started doing this, I initially thought I was being crazy or weird. And because I doubted myself, I kept politely moving away from him. And so over the course of the hour I sat there, kept moving further into my seat, rubbing his elbow against my arm and my torso, pressing his leg against my leg, rubbing his foot on my foot. The first time this happened, I left the screening with polite excuses.

The next day at the festival, I tried to avoid him, but he sought me out and did the same things again. As we did our horrible dance of his elbow coming across the seat, me shrinking, him coming, I realized that I was very scared and got up abruptly. Although it sounds grandiose, the best way to explain my feeling is as a kind of existential fear—I had gone into the theater thinking I was one kind of person only to find myself pursued by an aggressive and insistent assertion that I was something else entirely. I left the theater shaking and in tears and walked across the plaza to report him to the festival office.

As this was happening, a strange thought kept floating through my head, I’m too old for this.

What a horrible thing to think.

As best as I can unpack it, what I meant is that I had already done my time being young, vulnerable, and scared. Enough is enough.  But I hate the idea that I see being vulnerable and scared as a natural part of a young woman’s development to be outgrown along with dubious fashion choices and fad diets.

And, among the many things I hate about cultures of sexual predation, is what being vulnerable and scared might mean for a young woman’s developing creativity.

After my incident at the film festival, I still had several days of travelling alone, even though I was desperately ready to come home. To cheer me up, my husband sent me a video of our young daughter singing and dancing her heart out. She was standing on the coffee table, wearing her underpants and a t-shirt, shouting “Love is an Open Door” at her baby sister, all the while bopping her on the head with mylar Paw Patrol balloon.

The performance was wonderful, heartfelt, and silly. And I don’t want anyone else to see it.

Even though Eloise is three and a half, I know how her silly, wiggly bottom and weird little hip juts might look to different eyes.

What most breaks my heart is that someday she will know this.  Or, in a careless moment of bad parenting, I’ll make her feel it. And the knowledge that other people have designs on her body will constrain the way she expresses herself.

I don’t know whether my daughter Eloise will want to act, sing, or dance, or whether she’ll be like her mother, typing away in coffee shops and scribbling notes in dark movie theaters. I know that in my own world, I won’t go back to that film festival. A man has ruined it for me. I want to build a better world for my creative daughter.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Sorry that this happened and helped to ruin what should have been a great experience–and I entirely understand why you’d keep that video private. I hope that the festival is able to bar the harasser from future activities.

    Like

  2. hollynewman says:

    Jesus. “Young, vulnerable and scared.” I have to think more about this.

    Like

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