Of Harpies and Crying Wolf

Sheep and Wolves

Cover Image via Getty Images

I was killing time on my break today when I was made aware of the statements posted by #teamharpy on their legal defense fund site. 

First, false allegations suck.

Second, rape culture sucks.

Third, truth is often squishier than the facts.

Since I took Ms. de Jesus and Ms. Rabey at their word the first time around, I feel compelled to do so again. I took them at their word the first time because I live in a culture that tacitly accepts microaggressions of all kinds because that’s how it’s always been. A culture that is so steeped in gender stereotypes (among many other kinds) that it’s sometimes hard for a woman to recognize she’s being slighted or even harassed. I hadn’t been part of the harassment described in their blog posts and tweets, but I had seen it and felt it so many other times. It was a fact of life, not only in our profession, but it my daily life, and I had no reason to question their statements.

Now, since they have retracted their statements and made apologies, my thoughts turn to that larger issue that made us believe in the first place. I don’t know the behind-the-scenes information that prompted the letters of retraction, nor do I imagine they were lightly undertaken by Ms. de Jesus and Ms. Rabey. The facts of this particular incident are only a side item in what is clearly the real issue.

The initial movement to support #teamharpy gained traction fast. This leads me to believe that others in the library field and beyond had seen this type of behavior before. Perhaps not with Mr. Murphy, but with other men and women who make conferences uncomfortable. And we all know that it’s not limited to conferences. A recent chat with a colleague revealed that several members of her staff were “bearing up” under near-daily harassment from patrons at the front desk. Another friend recently confirmed that coworkers just told her it was a compliment when an older man consistently made her feel uncomfortable by commenting on her appearance and apparent singleness.

This is not limited to #teamharpy. Be angry if you want – we all have our reasons for disappointment. But don’t for a moment believe that we are beyond this type of harassment. That we don’t try to silence those who would come forward with veracity. That we are, as a female-dominated profession, beyond this. We see it at the front desk, in the conference room, in interviews, and at conferences. I see it from a rather privileged place, and my stories are tame compared to many that my friends and colleagues have experiences.

I’ve already seen the references to “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.”

There’s the idea that people who are honest about these claims will be less believed now than they have ever been.

But Ms. de Jesus and Ms. Rabey had little to do with that. They were a cry of wolf, and when the people showed up and it wasn’t there, they said not only was there not a wolf now, but maybe there are never really wolves to begin with just a lot of bored shepherd boys. Rape culture works to insidiously discredit victims who would speak out before they are even harassed.  Exceptions are claimed as rules and the experiences of myriad women are swept away as “compliments” or “lies” or “attention seeking.” There’s a wolf out there. Sometimes packs and packs of them. Don’t ignore them because it’s more comfortable.

I have been called a harpy and worse for talking about things that make people uncomfortable. I have been told I’m not telling the truth to the point I started to believe it. I have watched the same camps that are now screaming about this case fight time and time again. #teamharpy was the battleground this time, but let’s not pretend that the fight is over.

The Thor Uproar

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I’ve been trying to figure out how best to approach this topic. Much ink, tears, and maybe blood has been spilled on the topic of Marvel’s character updates this week. Some has been helpful and contributed to it, some has been vitriolic and takes away from the discussion. I’m certainly not passionate about either side – I can see the basic point about being concerned about a major character shift such as gender bending, for Thor. But I am curious about the uproar when comic books have been uprooting, altering, and replacing heroes and villains using the same name for decades.

The list of Thor versions within the Earth-616 continuity (the main continuity of Marvel’s opus, and generally the version of events to which all alternate histories and issues are compared) is fairly extensive already:
Red Norvell. 
Beta Ray Bill.
Eric Masterson.
Dargo Ktor.
Thor.
That doesn’t include the actually alternate versions of Thor.

And then there’s Ms. Marvel, who goes through all sorts of shifts, including the most recent to Muslim New Jersey teenager Kamala Khan (which is a pretty great series). Clearly she’s not tied to one person, or even one side of the fight (Karla Sofen was a super villain sometimes.)

And Captain America. Isaiah Bradley was intended as an alternate version of this, but was eventually rolled into the Earth-616 continuity, where he is a superhero recognized with the African-American community, but unheard of to characters like Wolverine.

Comics have never really been limited, but they have always been hesitant. Much like the call for a female Doctor in the BBC’s Doctor Who series, and the argument against it, it can be hard to separate actual reasons regarding the character/plot, etc from sexism/racism/general curmudgeonry.

I’m just curious as to why this messes with people so much more than any of the other digressions. Is there something about a gender switch that is particularly disturbing?

Even Thor weighs in on the value of anyone who lifts Mjolnir: “When you first spoke to me about your problems, I had doubts…about you. They were quickly erased…when you lifted Mjolnir…for only a man or god worthy — pure of heart and noble of mind — could have done so! … A sacred bond unites all those who have e’er been privileged to wield Mjolnir! A bond which stretches far into infinity!” Sure, he’s talking to Captain America, but the only thing that matters is the purity of heart and nobility of mind when it comes to lifting Mjolnir and wielding the power of Thor.

So, if Thor, as we know and love him, wouldn’t have a problem with it, why should we?

 

Being Smart and Being Good

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I hate running. I don’t get people who love runners’ high (but more power to them). I tried running for a bus once, and I missed it. That’s the kind of attitude I have toward running. It’s been this way pretty much my whole life. I played soccer in middle school, and I dreaded the laps that seemed endless. And it seemed like everyone got done first. Everyone else got done first in gym class trips around the track too. In short, I was slow. And I hated running.  It was a struggle for me, and I didn’t want to try. I wasn’t used to being less than great as an 11 year old.

Turns out, I might not be alone. A few years ago, Carol Dweck did a study of 5th graders and difficult tasks. “She found that bright girls, when given something to learn that was particularly foreign or complex, were quick to give up–and the higher the girls’ IQ, the more likely they were to throw in the towel.” Why on earth would girls who are so smart give up so easily?

The answer, Dweck theorized, was in how girls view their intelligence. Intelligence wasn’t a continuing challenge, rather, it was a static trait. Capable of self-control earlier than boys, relieved adults often praise girls in terms of “being” verbs – you are smart, are a great student, are clever. All true, but static. There is no effort behind it – it simply is an aspect of themselves. Boys, however, are often treated with more explanantion – “if you settle down, you can learn this,” “if you think about it, you’ll understand.” In short, we are constantly explaining to boys that putting effort into learning will yield different – more desirable – results. We teach them that they are in the process of becoming.

Fast forward 15 years, and these 5th graders are starting their careers. Far fewer women are entering STEM fields than men. Men rise faster in leadership positions than woman. Why?

Perhaps because these women, bright girls of the 5th grade, are still stuck on wanting to “be smart.” The struggle of something just out of their reach makes them question themselves, rather than the problem. Women too often bow out, believing that the struggle to learn makes them “not good enough” rather than simply in a learning process. It can lead to frustration, burnout, and underperformance.

Now, this isn’t the only reason that women don’t pursue technically demanding career paths or leadership positions, but it’s something to consider. In a field like librarianship, where more women work than men, this “being smart” syndrome could affect an entire industry, holding people back from potential innovations and learning opportunities.