Bitchslap: A Column About Women and Fighting
Self-defense instructor, black belt, and generally cranky person Susan Schorn trains at Sun Dragon Martial Arts in Austin, Texas, where she learned karate from a second-wave feminist who could snap people’s bones like breadsticks. She is also the author of the memoir Smile at Strangers, and Other Lessons In the Art of Living Fearlessly. She has been hit in the head more than most McSweeney’s columnists.
Arms and the Man.
BY SUSAN SCHORN
According to my father, if 19th-century Poland had allowed women to inherit titles, I would be nobility, and could wear black armor.
I take this as conclusive evidence, if more were needed, that the patriarchy has ruined my life in every possible way.
It’s ultimately Poland’s loss, but it still stings. And I don’t know what it is I feel cheated of, exactly. I’ve never aspired to the ranks of the aristocracy, and I have no practical reason to covet black armor (though it’s fun to think about wearing some the next time I have to go down to the Tax Assessor’s office). I do look good in black; maybe that’s what I’m upset about.
There’s just something irresistible about the idea of armor. I think if I had some, my life would be very different. Not in the obvious ways; I can’t imagine myself going to war in it or anything useful like that. No matter what you dress me in, I’d make a terrible knight. I can’t take orders and I hate to travel. But I can think of all kinds of other situations (in addition to the tax office) where a suit of black armor would really come in handy.
Like the encounter I had a few years ago on my way home from the grocery store, when I came upon a moving van blocking our street from curb to curb while a team of very relaxed-looking movers loaded a whole houseful of furniture into it. When I parked my car, hunted down the supervisor, and pointed out that he was preventing people from reaching their homes, he told me, “We won’t be long. You just need to be sweet about it.”
Well. I was very sweet to the police dispatcher, who thanked me for calling and promptly sent an officer to inform the movers that in fact they had no right to demand sweetness from me, or any woman, while they illegally obstructed a public thoroughfare.
I managed to resolve that situation without breaking the supervisor’s jaw (I thought that was sweet of me), but I can’t help feeling that the whole thing would have played out differently if I’d been wearing hereditary black armor. I have a hunch that when you wear black armor, people don’t tell you to be sweet. They don’t brush you off and dismiss your concerns—even if you’re female, and they’re sexist. Which leads me to wonder what it is that a suit of armor conveys with such force (other than “I am invulnerable provided you only attack me with edged weapons and do not tip me over”). Whence springs its authority? What makes it so damn cool?
There’s an impressive suit of armor on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City that once belonged to Henry VIII of England. Over six feet in height at the top of the helmet, four feet around at the waist, weighing fifty pounds, it’s a giant barrel of etched, blackened steel. The king probably wore it to besiege Boulogne in 1542 (and/or 1544—the siege didn’t really take the first time and he had to go back). Standing lifeless on its museum display the armor looks like the cast-off skin of an enormous, belligerent cicada. But if you were to install the warm engine of a human body inside it, you’d have a perfectly articulated, powerful fighting machine. The first battle tank, really.
King Henry’s armor is constructed of innumerable plates of steel, each firmly riveted to the next, forming a continuous, impenetrable metal shell. The graduated plates that once curved over the sovereign’s shoulders, cascading across his chest, belly, and thighs, form an unbroken succession. Each piece is connected to those before and after it, and the connections must not be broken, or else the defense fails.
It’s an apt metaphor for the generations of patriarchy, each male individual meticulously linked to those before and behind by certified bloodlines, reinforced with inherited titles and wealth. The custom forms a kind of armor that protects the power it encloses.
Armor, like patriarchy, is a finely engineered, highly evolved system, tested and refined over centuries, that exists to safeguard male power. Both also allow the power they preserve to concentrate and mobilize itself; to go forth and project itself onto the world. To invade France, if you like, which is what Henry VIII did, just as his father Henry VII had before him, and Henry V before him, and even, way back in the day, Edward III, who was something of a trendsetter in this regard. Henry VIII was just upholding the family tradition.
Poor Henry. At the time he besieged Boulogne he was fifty-one years old. He had gout, and a sickly male heir whose hold on the throne would be brief and ineffectual (Edward VI never even got around to invading France). Henry went through a total of six wives trying to satisfy the insatiable demands of primogeniture, and he still failed. His daughters Mary and Elizabeth were left to pick up the slack in the line of succession—which they did with different degrees of success but plenty of style on both counts.
I’ve been denied the benefits of both patriarchy and armor, and I can’t help feeling a little resentful about that. I can’t help wondering, for example, how the supervisor from the moving company would have reacted if, instead of approaching him in my usual regalia of jeans and a Spiderman T-shirt, I had paced solemnly up the ramp of his truck (clank, clank) in a suit of black armor like Henry VIII’s. I doubt I would have needed to say anything to him. If I had simply confronted him, silent and faceless behind the unrevealing slit in the visor, and raised my gauntleted hand to point to the blocked street and the stalled traffic… what would he have done?
I’ll never know. But I’ll bet he would have thought twice about telling me to be sweet.
That’s one of the things about armor; it forces people to stop and think about the power relationship between themselves and the person inside all that metal. It focuses their attention on their relative vulnerability. This is something I’d like to have happen more often when I interact with people. I’m thinking, for instance, of the young man I ran into one rainy day while walking the dogs at a nearby creek, who told me, “I’m sorry, ma’am. The park’s closed. I’ll have to ask you to leave.”
“Excuse me?” I asked, not because I hadn’t heard him clearly but because I didn’t know who the hell he was or what he was talking about.
“It’s a new Parks Department policy,” he said. “To reduce erosion on the footpath during significant rain events.”
That seemed reasonable enough; the ground was quite muddy. But I was still confused. “Do you work for the Parks Department?” I asked him.
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied, humoring me in a most professional manner.
“I see. Well, you know,” I said, scrutinizing him as we stood there in the rain, “you’re not wearing a uniform. And you don’t have a badge or an I.D., or anything indicating that you work for the city. Don’t you think it would be a good idea if you identified yourself and your employer before you start giving orders to women you’ve never met before?”
“Uh,” he said.
“Because I teach women’s self defense,” I went on, plunging into a speech I make far too often and never manage to keep as short as I should. “And one of the things we stress when we talk to women about avoiding dangerous situations is that they should never just do what someone else tells them to do, especially if the person giving them orders is a stranger, and especially a man. Don’t you agree that that’s good advice?”
He looked at me, wet and panic-stricken. “Um,” he said. “Yes, ma’am. That’s probably a good idea. I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault,” I told him, as I collected my dogs and prepared to obey the rules. “You might mention it to your supervisor though. It’s the kind of thing they really should include in your job training.”
It was rude of me, I know, but the encounter pissed me off. Not him, personally (I can forgive someone for calling me “ma’am”). It was the way he deployed his authority. I know I’m hypersensitive about this kind of thing, and I try to be more circumspect in my responses than I used to be, but it still chafes me. This very nice young man didn’t think twice about giving me what amounted to a direct order. He felt entitled to do so, in part, because he was a city employee and I was a citizen. However, I’m positive that another factor in his sense of entitlement was that he was a man, and I was a woman. I doubt he was even aware of this power dynamic. But I sure was. Once you’re aware of it, you can’t stop noticing it.
Even when they don’t tell me to be sweet, men are notably likely to regard me and other women as people whose behavior they can direct. I’m generalizing here; obviously, not all men are like that. And I’ll go further than that: Plenty of men are perfectly entitled to tell me what to do, because they know more than me, or they’re more responsible than I am. But men don’t, in my opinion, earn that privilege by virtue of their gender alone. They need some form of qualification.
Unfortunately, the world doesn’t operate according to my rules. Instead we have a system where the male half of the population has gained control over the bulk of the resources not by virtue of their wisdom and skill, but through primogeniture, propaganda, and brute force. From my vantage point as a female, it’s as if each male member of the species has a suit of invisible armor they’re entitled to wear all the time, and everyone is expected to acknowledge the status it conveys. It protects the man inside it, and by the same process, excludes the woman.
Our culture acclimates men to authority from the moment they’re born, teaching them that the exercise of power is their birthright. Many of our laws and customs reinforce that notion, almost invisibly, from the cradle to the grave. Men seem to walk through life shielded by their gender, immune to many of the outrages and indignities women have to endure. Men, if you disagree, consider this: When was the last time anyone told you to be sweet about something? Not asked—told. As a woman, I’m given those kinds of orders all the time, and expected to obey them. Do you see why I get irritated?
Historians disagree as to whether Queen Elizabeth I wore armor when she addressed the troops at Tilbury. She wasn’t the son her father wanted but she did beat the Spanish, and she managed to stay on the throne for forty-five years, which is a considerable accomplishment no matter what one wears. She was her father’s daughter, after all, and didn’t stick at executing her enemies (or her friends, if they became inconvenient).
My ancestors left Poland because conditions under the Russian Tsars had become unbearable (“God damn old country can go to hell,” my great-grandfather was fond of saying). I’m glad they left. Much as I may covet black armor, my family is better off in a place without hereditary titles. And we’ll be even better off when our sons and daughters all inherit equal value and authority in society’s eyes. I’d emigrate tomorrow if there were a country like that to move to, but I don’t think it’s been discovered yet.
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