The past few days, I’ve read story after story about woman-on-woman pseudo-violence. There’s Jennifer Weiner’s recent New York Times piece about how the model on the cover of the new Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, with her swimsuit bottom pulled way down to there, is setting a new standard for bareness that no lady I know could ever attain, let alone maintain. Then there’s the Humans of New York photo of a teenaged girl, to whom it was told on Instagram that she is a slut and should kill herself. (No proof that another girl made the suggestion, but I’m going with my female intuition here.) And the Huffington Post piece detailing how Beyoncé ripped from fellow songstress Ledisi the right to sing “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” at the Grammy’s, when it was Ledisi who recorded the song for the movie Selma. “No one says no to Beyoncé,” confided a source. Ledisi said she was “disappointed” not to get to sing at the Grammy’s but “had to look at the positive and empower women. We have to empower each other.”
Her devotion to empowering other women — in this case, Beyoncé — is hard to swallow when the favor is clearly, and ultra-ironically, not being returned. Female empowerment is a tricky-ass concept because as much as we women try to empower ourselves, improving our odds of mind-body-soul survival in a man’s world, we also enjoy stripping away each other’s power. We’re those female lobsters clawing each other to death in the pot of boiling water. It’s one step forward for womankind, and one giant step back.
I read each of those news stories on my iPhone 4s. First-world problems, etc., but my phone is terrible: The audio doesn’t work unless I place calls on speakerphone, the headphone jack doesn’t work at all, and the phone shuts down at will, even if I appear to have 50% battery life left. I frequently have to apologize for my stunted ability to communicate because of these things, which is to say I look like a person who doesn’t have her shit together.
I’m using this phone because my old phone, an iPhone 5s, was stolen. It happened a few months ago, when I was still living in San Francisco and waiting for the bus after work. I was listening to headphones, which I don’t usually do when it’s dark out, but I was in a certain mood, you know, feeling buoyant. I started typing out an email to the friends I was meeting downtown, letting them know I was on my way, when I noticed a guy in a hoodie enter the bus stop. My inner alarm instantly went off, but I relaxed when I saw he had a woman with him. She had a plain, friendly face and wore glasses. She looked smart and kind, like a woman I’d want to be friends with. We briefly smiled at each other.
Comfortable now, I looked back at my phone and finished the email. Just as I was about to hit “send,” something wet splashed my face. “What the fuck?” I said, not understanding, and then the pain of pepper spray hit me. I looked up — the girl was standing in front of me, spraying. Then, the guy in the hoodie grabbed me from behind in a choke hold and pulled me to the ground. She grabbed my phone, the guy released me — thank god — and they were gone.
“Who cares about the phone,” I’d say to people when telling the story, assuring them I realized how lucky I was to not be seriously hurt. But here’s the thing. After that incident, when I was trying to sleep, it wasn’t the sensation of a man tackling me that haunted me. It was that woman’s face and the brief eye contact we made. What I’d taken in her eye’s glimmer for friendliness was actually her realizing “I got this bitch.”
She did get me, got me good, and I’m reminded every time my terrible new-old phone (pulled out of retirement) shuts down, leaving me unable to communicate with a professional contact I’m supposed to be meeting for lunch. Every time I have to conduct a phone interview on speakerphone. Every time I feel inadequate and not on top of things when I realize I don’t have the money to buy a new one.
What that woman stole from me is more than my stupid phone. She stole my feeling of security. She stole my belief that I am smart. She stole my belief that I know how to navigate this world. She got her cut of the $100 or so from one of those phones-for-cash drop-offs at the mall (WHY do they exist?), but that glimmer in her eye — and the fact that she pepper sprayed me at all, when my misguided trust in her left me perfectly robbable — tells me that robbing another woman of these things was its own reward.
She, like so many woman before and since her, was empowered by another woman’s powerlessness.
We women need to stop preying on, and start truly empowering, each other. We bully, we slut-shame, we create impossible body standards for each other, we crank up the heat in this boiling pot of a world. It doesn’t matter whether we’re bogarting the Grammy’s spotlight, propagating a ridiculous and spirit-crushing idea of what the female body should look like, or allowing each other to be physically assaulted. When we women look each other in the eye, we need to stop thinking “I got this bitch” and start thinking “We got this.”