Vividly, I remember a Sesame Street hand-puppet rendition of Beauty and the Beast.
On the floor between our casual dining table and the kitchen in our open-plan den, we had a small television housed in a cabinet that, when closed, looked like a dresser. After elementary school, I sat in front of it on the brown tile to eat my snack.
In my memory of this particular Sesame Street production, a hand puppet crafted from brown shag carpet with glued-on googly eyes imprisons a girl in place of her father, torments her, and then manipulates her into falling in love with him.
At which point, they kiss.
The moment their puppet faces touch, he screams in agony, his shag-carpet tendrils shake with violence, and he disappears below the platform. A moment later, he pops above the stage as a “handsome prince.” (Of course, all handsome princes have white skin and blond hair. Even—or especially—the plastic ones.)
I had nightmares for weeks.
Bad enough that someone will trap you, harass you, manipulate you, and damage you psychologically. Adds insult to injury that, when you kiss him, he transforms from what you loved into something else entirely.
I don’t want the human, nonfairy-tale equivalent. What sane person would?
The tale, I believe, aims to teach kids that a person’s insides matter more than a person’s outsides. Instead, it shows the opposite: A prince-as-beast uses a woman to turn back into his old self—which, as far as I can tell, simply has a prettier coating on the outside for a horrible person on the inside.
I remembered the Sesame Street segment and its aftereffects when I read an op-ed by Jessica Valenti in The New York Times about what a lifetime of leering, jeering, manipulative men do to women.
Valenti’s essay reminded me of how many ways I’ve modified my own behavior to protect against personal, professional, and reputational fallout from male misconceptions. And I felt sad that I’ve had to coach young women to do the same.
Once I started to develop into a woman, I hunched my back to hide my chest in voluminous blouses and wore baggy shorts and pants to deflect attention from the boys, teachers, and assistant principals at my junior high who stared and commented and groped me anyway. (Yes, even the “adults.”)
For years, I wore pants to work because I felt a need to avoid femininity in a business setting, my goal to remove from the substance of the discussion as much of my female aspect as possible. I still tend to avoid anything form fitting for work even now, when wearing dresses.
I have my reasons. I’ve had to playfully tell men in business “no” and laugh off their advances, from the married client who sexted me without encouragement to the unmarried client who interrupted my presentation to comment on my ass. (His term, not mine.)
A business-owner friend took down her fitness company’s website because, though pictures of her in athletic wear felt appropriate for the purpose, she had too much harassment and too many expectations from men who called to “use her services.”
Another friend, an independent consultant, talked to a client’s human resources department about one staffer’s continued advances, despite her requests that he stop. The company fired her.
Oh, I’ve got more.
I've sucked up walking into a board room and having one of the men say I look “pretty today” in a you-cute-sweet-silly-little-thing tone. I bite my tongue when male contacts ask if I have kids. (Men acquainted only professionally never initiate small talk with other men through questions about children.) I've ignored when men in a business setting refer to me as a "girl."
I've grown accustomed to men trying to make me feel small.
I’ve coached my younger female colleagues on how to defend themselves. I’ve taught them phrases they can use, explained clothes they should wear and not wear, and demonstrated ways to position their bodies to minimize groping opportunities. We've role-played responses to demeaning and belittling comments. I can prevent and penalize harassment and discrimination in my organizational ranks, yet these young women will venture into the world to business events and client offices where I can’t always take disciplinary action. (Although, yes, I have fired clients for mistreating my team.)
Again, I could go on. Yet… enough.
I’ve learned not to trust a man until he earns the trust. I’ve learned to stay on high alert. I've learned to slough off the sleights. I’ve learned to ignore, dodge, and parry and to do so as gently as possible to save the guy’s feelings, minimize awkwardness, and avoid angry backlash. (What about my feelings?)
In elementary school, watching Beauty and the Beast on Sesame Street, I couldn’t understand what upset me so badly.
I get it now.
I just wish that it had stayed a fairy tale.
Though I’ve learned to expect and deal with men behaving badly toward women, entrapping them, preventing their advancement, and stopping them from fully inhabiting their womanhood, I feel sad that I had to do so. Sad that other women have had to do the same. And many have had far worse experiences than mine.
I feel sad for the men who society has raised to think this behavior okay. Men miss so much when they don't make genuine connections with women. And I feel sad for the men who know better and who suffer the fallout from those who don’t. I know and love so many men who would never, ever do this to another human being.
Most of all, I feel sad for my niece. Sad that only time divides me and the younger females of this world from the rude shock of their first encounters with the Beauty and the Beast's truth. And yes, yes—experience it, they will.
Your thoughts? Your experience?