I have always struggled with gaining a proper amount of self-esteem. Just enough that I could gaze at my image without scrutinizing every inch. And not so much that I would belittle others in any way. Along those lines, I had a bizarre want: I wished guys would notice me on the street. I know, I know. Melisa, isn’t that catcalling? Isn’t that street harassment? Isn’t that what women DON’T want?
Yes. It was a very simple way to validate something that as a young, naive woman, I found to be a marker of value: my appearance. This very thing is a strong indicator of low self-esteem. I was seeking attention from without, when I wasn’t valuing myself from within. I have since outgrown any sort of want of attention from strangers, or men I am not romantically involved with.
That said, tonight an individual tried to forcefully implant his lips upon mine. Two things flashed across my brain:
1) What the hell? [surprise!]
2) Did I bring this onto myself? [why? how?]
Some context of this situation is that this is a man I would see 2-4 times a week at a place of employment, I informed him of my relationship status (as if I had to!), and would joke as friends regularly. Some triggers for this event may have been that I told him I would no longer be seeing him at work in the near future, that I playfully splashed him with water (and he may have misconstrued that as flirting) and that he flirts with me quite often and I roll my eyes and go on my merry way.
Tonight, he grabbed my arm and pulled me close, I instinctively pulled away and asked him what the hell he was doing? He seemed coy and asked me why I was so scared. He then seemed to move closer so I disengaged and walked away. Later in the evening he moved closer again and I asked him what he wanted to do and he responded by simultaneously moving in and telling me he wanted to kiss me.
Now. In novelas or Kdramas or any pop programming this could be seen as romance tactics. Forceful invasion of personal space. For me, it was a huge disrespectful gesture to myself as a woman and to my relationship. I told him no. I repeated that I was in a committed relationship and that his behavior is out of line. He apologized, twice over and has vowed to not try anything again. Cool.
But why did he feel inclined to in the first place? I didn’t say “kiss me.” I didn’t say “I like you.” I didn’t make myself “extra” attractive through use of makeup, clothing or accessories. I may have joked about being perceived as attractive. I may have joked a lot in general. I was appreciative of his work and told him so. I was under a lot of stress and seemed worn out at the edges, could he have instinctively seen that as a moment of weakness? Subconsciously? Was he so brainwashed by how media defines romance as to believe that I would passionately meet his expectations?
He was forceful and almost expectant. He apologized and for that I am grateful, but I also happen to be a strong girl. If I had been weaker, in any sense of the word, could he have kissed me? Even groped me?
The truth is that I can’t live in fear of walking on a thin line of friendship thinking that all men are like this and that I should be cold and reclusive and shut any chance that I could be perceived as a flirt. Honestly, I don’t flirt well. I say inappropriate things, I tell poop stories and I complain about how crazy my cat can get to my significant other
I think the solution is to define how to really approach another human being. Words can delve deeper than any touch. Only fools rush in and create a world where everyone must build barriers to feel safe. Part of the solution is how pop culture defines romance:
1) The Notebook (novel adaptation): Noah is rash. His first feat for Allie is perching precariously from a ferris wheel forcing her to agree to a date. Noah wins Allie over in the end, even though she is engaged. Lesson: A woman likes a man who perseveres. Truth: A woman likes a man that respects her decisions and communicates without coercion.
2) Twilight (tween fiction): Bella and Edward end up together despite all the wrongness about the pairing (see necrophilia, pedophilia, stalkers). She tries to kill herself for his attention. He saves her at every turn. Lesson: A woman needs to be protected, even from herself. Truth: A woman can take damn good care of herself and she knows what is best (except Bella).
3) Romeo & Juliet (classic brought to life on the big screen several times): Romeo sneaks into Juliet’s room. Oh, he also kills her cousin. Lesson: Women can handle crazy. In fact, they love it. Truth: No.
4) Boys Over Flowers (Kdrama/ Korean Soap Opera): Girl is pursued by two male characters: the bad, ultra rich lead and the less rich but oh so sensitive and nice second. The big bad leader turns out to be sensitive and loving and the one she loves. Lesson: If you love him enough, he will change. Truth: No and it is no woman’s job to improve a man, it is his own damn business.
5) Muñeca Brava (Novela/ Latin American Soap Opera): Poor girl goes to rich boy’s house. They fall in love. They get married. She is now also rich. Lesson: A woman requires a man’s aid to rise out of poverty. Truth: There are privileges to being a cis-gendered man in our society, but women have come a long way and are perfectly capable of overcoming remaining barriers on their own.
These are just a handful of ways that “romance” is portrayed. It is imposed on women, not shared, nor defined in any meaningful way. It is about lavish lifestyles: Noah builds Allie a house, Edward is ultra rich, Romeo and Juliet come from wealthy families, in BOF the lead is from one of the richest families in the country, and in Muñeca Brava the lead is wealthy. It is about THE end goal: finding a woman or a man and hopefully getting married. One or both need to change: yes, growth is healthy, but the catalysts for change appear to be each other instead of some inner catalyst. Some people never change and some people are always changing but it is not something that should be expected. More often than not, it involves jealousy: Noah steals Allie away, werewolf guy momentarily digs Bella then later goes for her daughter (yep, sigh), Romeo and Juliet are so freakishly enamored that if they can’t have each other they can’t have anyone else (even though they were each others’ first love and they really had nothing to compare it to), in BOF, as in most Kdramas, there were several love triangles and in Muñeca Brava both leads are involved with other people despite being interested in each other all along. Jealousy is normal, but as a modicum for strengthening or forming a relationship it is a manipulative and selfish approach. It questions your partner’s value (as it measures up to the extraneous threat) and in that moment of doubt, heightens your own worth in their eyes.
So much of our education comes from movies, music and print that the lines of decency are blurred. Ultimately, it is our job as researchers, educators, and most importantly, as human beings to educate each other on what is allowed and what is not. And how to approach another in a respectful and mindful way.
Disclaimer: I don’t hate novelas or kdramas or popular programming. I just believe that if you can’t take 20 minutes of your day to reinforce positive standards and teach children how to interpret media then they are growing up to make a lot of mistakes, some that can potentially harm other people.
[Image: “Arm Bokeh” protected by a Creative Commons license belonging to Seniju]