The first time I read virulent online misogyny, I was angry, of course. But I also felt a very specific fear, one that included an unconscious undercurrent of shame: what might I have done to create such hatred in the eyes and hearts of men? This, my friends, is the lesson of Eve: our bodies are our selves, and our selves invoke the fear and loathing of men. The Men’s Rights Movement relies on this collective fear. Its proponents claim to be championing men, and indeed they do appeal to the frustrations and angers of men—the ones that patriarchy, via its neverending game of prove-yourself-as-a-man, engenders. Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs) claim not to hate women, while blaming them for the problems of a sexist society. They believe women should pay for these problems with our bodies and minds.
Elliot Rodgers, the 22-year-old who went on a misogyny-fueled killing spree near Santa Barbara last week, was vulnerable to such messages. I was not surprised to learn that Elliot had posted a video detailing his feelings of hatred for women to whom he felt entitled, and the men they dated. Nor was I surprised to learn that he was involved with the Men’s Rights Movement—I have read enough of their rhetoric to know it could incite violence. I doubt many people were surprised, by either the fact of another mass killing or the fact that the perpetrator expressed hatred for women. And yet, as Jessica Valenti pointed out in an article for The Guardian, the media focused on Elliot’s pathology rather than the elements of our culture that support that pathology. The people who engaged with the cultural elements of this tragedy were ordinary women, taking to Twitter with the #YesAllWomen hashtag to discuss their fear of male violence. The discussion was necessary and vital, bringing feminist ideas into mainstream conversation. In time, this collective awareness could lead to change.
The will to bring about change—and the faith that it is possible—begins with staring our fear in the face. Not our fear of Elliot Rodgers or MRAs and other hate groups—that fear is what it is, and we have stared at it for centuries. We know where it leads: acceptance of the destruction of women and the men who love them. No, the fear we must stare in the face is quite different entirely. We—women and men alike—must get comfortable with feminine power and sexuality, contained within and for the woman herself.
Every woman who goes through a feminist awakening must contend with this power and her fear of it. For many—myself among them—the symbol of the serpent becomes vitally important. In The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, Sue Monk Kidd discusses the importance of reclaiming the serpent for herself, and the power of the snake in her dreams. Shortly after I read this book, I had my own serpent dream—a black snake, which I knew to be harmless, was a pet of mine, sleeping next to my bed and resting her head against the side. Though I knew she wouldn’t hurt me, I was worried: was it OK to sleep next to her?
The serpent became a religious symbol of female fault because it was associated with the Goddess—in ancient Palestine, Ashtoreth. All over the world, women and men alike worshiped God as a woman, and the serpent represented both feminine wisdom and rebirth. The story of Eve tells us to shun the serpent, to shun female wisdom and generative power. Oh, how we fear the serpent—and how this symbol embodies and legitimates patriarchal hatred and fear of women, which justifies our deaths in the eyes of angry men.
The other day, I was walking in my neighborhood when a woman stopped me, pointed across the street, and said, “Are black snakes dangerous?” I saw the snake she was pointing to, winding its way down the sidewalk in front of her house, but I couldn’t tell from that distance if it was a black snake or not. Automatically, I started to cross the street to get a closer look. I wouldn’t have gotten too close, but I needed to see if it had any markings. “Don’t cross!” The woman said, touching my arm.
I stood with her and offered information, solutions. “Black snakes aren’t dangerous,” I said. “I grew up around them—we even had some as pets once.”
The woman looked at me like I’d lost my mind.
After some discussion of who to call about a renegade snake, I continued on my walk. As I did so, I thought about Elliot Rodgers, his feelings of disillusionment and entitlement, and the way our culture made misogynistic violence so very easy for him. This violence didn’t only affect women—for Elliot’s victims included three men, who Elliot believed enjoyed the women who shunned him.
The threat, my friends, is not feminine power: it is the fear of it.