Over the past week, two separate women that I’m teaching self defense to asked me, “what about the eyes?” They had had previous training where they were taught that a good form of self defense is to try and gauge the attacker’s eyes out, but both of these women were concerned that they wouldn’t be able to make themselves do that, if they needed to. One of the women also mentioned she had been told to splay her keys between her fingers if she’s walking anywhere and feels unsafe.
Two days later, my friend Hannah published a beautiful, intense video she had made for the International Day for Ending Violence Against Women, which this year fell on 25 November — which also happened to be Thanksgiving Day in the United States. The coincidence is ironic because, on a day in the US that is meant to celebrate the joining of two cultures and two peoples to build one great nation, one might also point out that Native American women are murdered and sexually assaulted at rates as high as 10 times the average in the United States.
The video is short: only about 5 minutes. And it consists of a series of archival clips from documentaries and newsreels from the 1950s to the 1980s that Hannah juxtaposes brilliantly to a soundtrack provided by Sarah Spencer. The video opens with a photoshoot from the early 1980s on one side, where the photographer tells the model she’s got “not a bad pair of boobs, Tessa”. On the right side of the screen, a baby-faced model from the early 1950s modestly removes her clothing and wraps herself in a satin robe, while the narrator from the 1980s clip points out that comments like “not a bad pair of boobs, Tessa” reduces women to a piece of meat and that what turns men on can actually depress because they are constantly being asked to match up to these images: the sex object on the one side, the virginal innocent on the other.
The video builds, continuing with elegant juxtapositions and narration that applies to both sides of the split screen even though it originates only with one, the music progressing to more and more insistent. The next segment are clips from a 1960s news documentary about women’s prisons, the inmates mostly women of color (who are, bizarrely, still wearing mini-dresses) plays against scenes of a white woman with what appears to be full freedom of choice… as long as she chooses marriage and motherhood, in a nice little nod to Nikki de St Phalle. The narrator in this segment makes the point that inmates don’t learn actual skills to build their own lives, but only the skills to do a service-based “job”, while the white woman in the parallel panel does a “job” that is ultimately still women’s work, no more skilled, and no more free than the inmates in prison.
When I complimented Hannah on her video, she told me that what had struck her most while creating it is how little things have changed. She was talking about attitudes towards women, although I was focused on the scenes from a ca. 1970s clip of women learning self defense.
In the clip, the women have their keys splayed between their fingers; they are drilling strikes with the keys, which segues into clips of women training strikes to the eyes with their fingers. It’s not meant to be funny, but I laughed out loud when I saw it, since it was exactly how my two clients, each independently of the other, had been trained: self defense techniques that are neither physically realistic nor that have evolved since the 1970s.
(For the record, using keys as a weapon only works if you know how to use them, e.g., to scrape as claws rather than to punch. And striking someone in the eyes and/or gauging their eyes out is incredibly difficult to do: eyes are small targets, and in self defense situations everything is in movement. It’s nearly impossible to hit small moving targets without years of training (that’s why militaries train special units to do it) and, when it comes to eyeballs, without desensitization training in order to overcome your own aversion at poking at wet, squishy things.)
The screen on the right side to the self defense training are clips first from an activist addressing the myth of race and rape and the “other”. Both panels transition to vintage S&M footage on the right side, and an interview at a men’s prison with a very articulate group of rapists. The members of the group explain that, for them and the other men in the group, rape was about degradation and humiliation. That the humanity of their victims was never considered, that “they were things”, whether an old car or a woman, at the instant of rape “it was an object” … seemingly unaware that they are continuing to refer to women as “it”.
Early in the video, a clip from the 1960s features a woman explaining that “our problems are all fudged at the edges.” She’s referring to the demands made upon women to fulfil every angle of fantasy: vixen, virgin, mother and maid. The same point the narrator at the beginning of the video makes: that women are reduced to a piece of meat and that what turns men on can actually depress because they are constantly being asked to match up to these images.
Except the narrator doesn’t know he is also narrating the split screen image, the girl next door, the maiden, the mother, the meat.