Surviving Horror: Self Defense In the Era of #MeToo

We enjoy the escapism of horror films because it’s a form of control in the face of violence by seeing and escaping something fearsome with no consequence. The slasher film genre popularized the now-common trope of the Final Girl of the horror film, the young woman who manages to outsmart and quell the killer after anxiety-inducing chase scenes and jump scares. It’s not a coincidence that man has almost become conditioned to seeing terrorized women as entertainment; as a patriarchal society that continues to steady strip away women’s rights and autonomy-- a society that finds ways to humiliate its woman and girls the more powerful they become-- we cheer for women fighting back against abuse when it’s fictional, but when it’s real, it’s a different story.

As seen with the recent success of Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning “Get Out,” some of the best horror films are also allegories for social problems, with inescapable oppressions that seems almost conquerable because they are disguised as evil adversaries or even literal demons that can be extinguished. It’s triumphant to watch someone like Buffy Summers, Laurie Strode, even Beatrix Kiddo always come out on top in the end as the audience experiences every battle scar alongside. We praise strong female figures for surviving and defending themselves in the face of obvious evil. But in real life, when everyday women attempt self-defense from violent abuses, the ending frequently does not have a victorious resolution. In many cases, when women and girls who defend themselves from violence, typically as received from men, they are punished, often resulting in jail sentences and ostracism. In an era of #MeToo and #TimesUp that sees some of the world’s richest and most recognizable women rising up against the tide of sexual assault, culminating in a movement to force prolific abusers and systems that are complicit into accountability, we have to take into account the average women so often unseen who face gender inequality, poverty, and bigotry who endure abuse without recourse because society says that their lives don’t matter, that they have no selves worth defending. As NYXT honors Women’s History Month this March, we spotlight some of the many invisible women subject to unspeakable horrors and have survived, and the advocates who work to bring them out from the darkness.

As #MeToo gained momentum, Egyptian activist and writer Mona Eltahawy, who has documented women’s oppression in her country, began #MosqueMeToo on social media to archive Muslim women and girls’ accounts of sexual assault within places of worship, and #IBeatMyAssaulter, wherein she recalled a recent instance where she was groped at a dance club, and in retaliation, began hitting him back, unleashing years of rage as an assault survivor. Eltahawy admirably promotes women using rage to propel them forward in societies that tell them to be invisible, to use anger as a tool to fight back against oppression, but many women know that striking back against abusers often leads to severe consequences.

By 14, Bresha Meadows and her mother had endured years of abuse at the hands of her father. When Ohio’s law enforcement and child protective services failed to intervene, Meadows killed his father while he was asleep, and was subsequently imprisoned in juvenile detention center, facing a threat of a maximum penalty of a life sentence.

Cyntoia Brown made headlines recently when her story of familial neglect led to a young life of coerced sex work and the subsequent murder of one of her solicitors in self-defense at 16. Celebrities rose up to rally for the now 29-year-old for whom life had presented so few options, and yet faces a life sentence for choosing to survive.

Amidst a tumultuous relationship with her estranged husband, in July 2010, a 29-year-old woman in Jacksonville, Florida, gave birth to a daughter. Nine days later, mother Marissa Alexander was confronted by her ex, Rico Gray, whose physical abuse was well documented, in the home they once shared. Unable to escape as her truck’s path was blocked, Alexander grabbed a gun she legally owned from her glove compartment and fired a warning shot at the ceiling above her ex to force him to relent in his violence. While no one was hurt, in retaliation, Gray dialed 911 and framed Alexander as the aggressor, and days later Alexander was charged with aggravated assault in a Stand Your Ground state-- the same state that let Trayvon Martin’s killer go free on his claims of fearing for his life-- and after a grueling trial where Gray even recanted his statements about Alexander’s alleged antagonism, was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

From Marissa’s plight and the many women in her situation, the Survived and Punished movement was born to bring attention to the unseen women around the world who survive abuse and assault and are criminally punished for defending themselves. The high rates of women in mass incarceration and their involvement in domestic violence is correlated, with upwards of 90% of women in prison are also survivors of abuse. It’s also not a coincidence that all of the aforementioned survivors are all women of color, who are disproportionately incarcerated for self-defense against abuse, with 66% of imprisoned women and girls being Black and Latina. We must also consider the disproportionate violence against the LGBTQ community who are targeted for sexual violence because of their otherness, face humiliation and dismissal if their crimes are reported, and if arrested for self-defense, can be mis-gendered upon incarceration, as documented by OutRight Action International and more human rights groups.

Airwoman Ciera Bridges was a military brat who wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps by enrolling in the Air Force. But after reporting a sexual assault by one of her fellow soldiers, instead of receiving protection and justice, she was punished for speaking out. Her claims were initially dismissed and her assaulter was allowed to continue, business as usual, with impunity. As retaliation, her superiors purposely assigned her humiliating tasks, sometimes alongside her abuser, creating a hostile environment that enabled further emotional and physical violence. According to Human Rights Watch, officers who experience sexual violence in the military are 12 times more likely to receive retaliation for holding abusers accountable. The military threatened to discharge Bridges before it was revealed that her account was truthful, and while they rescinded threats, Bridges still lives with the trauma of surviving as anxieties grip her from partaking in everyday life.

LadyKathryn Williams-Julien spent years in an abusive relationship for 18 years until she decided to fight back… and landed in prison for defending herself. Imprisoned women are commonly survivors of rape, incest, and interpersonal violence, circumstances that are difficult to escape as many must choose between abuse and homelessness. LadyKathryn found an ally in Correctional Association’s Violence Against Women Committee of the Coalition For Women Prisoners. This organization advocates for the overwhelming amount of women in prison who have endured violence and trauma, and are working to change policies that criminalize women instead of offering resources to unchain themselves from abuse. CANY is fighting for the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act to pass, currently languishing in the New York Senate, which seeks to commute imprisoned survivors acting in self-defense. Their goal is also to raise awareness of the close ties between violence against women and female imprisonment, which only seeks to tear apart families and disrupt futures.

Advocates and organizers from local New York community groups are uniting in April 2018 to put pressure of Governor Andrew Cuomo to free these prisoners, as he has the power to release these survivors immediately, and to invest in communities and not the jails that cage them. What are other solutions to ending violence against women? Tony Porter, co-founder of A Call To Men, an organization aimed at promoting respectful behavior towards women and confronting the role of toxic masculinity within our society, says foremost, we—men especially—can no longer stay silent about the abuse of women and that we must hold each other accountable for women’s oppression. Society is socialized to dehumanize women, to the point that violence against them is one of the leading causes of their deaths, and there are far too many amongst us who are complicit in our silence on abuse.

When horror heroines succeed in vanquishing their attackers onscreen, rarely do we see the aftermath of being terrorized. Life is precious, but far too often, marginalized survivors in real life rarely have access to resources needed to heal from the past and to be able to start again. The boogeymen of the movies are able to be slay, at least until the next sequel, but systemic physical, sexual and emotional violence against women is much harder to kill.  Unlike the movies, there is no such thing as a perfect victim—it isn’t just the “good” girls from the suburbs worth defending-- and we must stand up for all survivors of violence from all walks of life because all life must be preserved, especially those the most at risk.

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