While delighted to see the New York Times publishing a piece on women’s self-defense (Abby Ellin’s November 14, 2015 piece “Using High Heels for Self-Defense“), I take serious exception with the media’s overall reluctance to embrace the data on the efficacy of women’s self-defense and self-defense training, their overlooking of the real stories of real girls and women thwarting rape and sexual assault, and their courting of the “Yes, but…” chorus who is always right there to chime in with the dangers of women serving as their own bystanders.
Unless it’s pretty. And ladylike. And feminine. In all the highly stereotypical, culturally-driven ways in which we use those words.
So it’s no fluke that when a media outlet like the New York Times publishes a piece about self-defense that is less apologetic, less gloom-and-doom, less “don’t try this at home”, it makes sure its readers know that these women are still following the rules of appropriate gendered behavior. They are still ladies.
Now, lots of women wear high heels. I, in fact, have several pairs in my closet, a number of which I can actually even walk in. Could they be used as a weapon? Sure. (They can also be used as a hammer. Or a door stop. Or a dog toy.) Could I fight while wearing heels? I don’t see why not.
But I’m not going to suggest to women and girls that in order to train in self-defense, or to fight back against an attacker, I must do so with all the trappings of femininity intact and in place. In fact, the scholarship on self-defense suggests that good feminine socialization is part of what gets unlearned in self-defense training, so that women have a full range of behaviors and options available to them to keep themselves safe.
I’m not going to fault Avital Zeisler for teaching women to fight in high heels, or even for suggesting, as she is quoted in this article, that women shouldn’t have to “compromise their femininity” in order to fight back. Whatever gets them in the door is more or less okay by me. And from what I gather from this article, high heels are not required equipment for the course. So I’m assuming that means that women don’t have to perform a particular type of femininity to take the class, either.
I am, however, going to fault the New York Times for its selective reporting. News flash, New York Times: rape and sexual assault are not pretty. So don’t suggest I have to be in order to fight.