Sunday, March 23, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: Threat Assessment

Some days you're wiped for no particular reason and just not feeling it. And that's all right - nobody can be "on" 24/7, 52/365.

But the whole point of this blog is that ideas are easy. And sometimes, you do in fact have to perform, whether you're "on" or not. So let's see how I do starting from a place of "meh, I'm crashing."

I bet there's something in Fortean Times. But that's a bit of a crutch, isn't it? Not that there's anything wrong with a crutch, used properly - great things, crutches, when your legs aren't reliable. But if used in the wrong way, you make your problem worse instead of better; curl your whole body around the problem point until your whole body is a problem, instead of reducing the weakness to its smallest possible area and strengthening the adjacent muscles. It's possible I go to FT sometimes when I could do better by going to my own life.

Okay, what's the last serious conversation I had?

That would be the one about dealing with threats, last night. Specifically, girls dealing with threats from other girls.

Because girls are freaking scary. We don't have rules about aggression (except for the one that boys and authority figures must be kept in the dark about our capacity for it), and when your average woman gets into an altercation she is no more to be restrained by considerations about fighting "fair" than a cat is. Because fighting "fair" means "fighting in a way designed to sort out who is physically superior" and the heck with that. By the time a girl's in a physical altercation, she's past all considerations of "fair."

The conversation featured two true personal stories of physical threat. My friend T's story involved the time a bunch of girls who did not live near her got off at her bus stop, followed her, and surrounded her. So T wrapped her book bag (she'd just come from the library) around her arm, wound up, smashed the ringleader's face hard enough to take her down, and went on her way.

My story involved the repercussions of the only time I was ever not the worst performer in a team game. In women's basketball, if you're guarding, you don't have to catch, dribble, shoot, or even touch a ball; you just have to keep between one person and the ball, within a narrowly defined space. All guarding requires is mental focus, patience, and stamina - all of which I had (unlike the hand-eye coordination, muscular strength, etc. etc. ad nauseum amen which I did not have). Which meant that even good players would find themselves failing when pitted against the acknowledged Worst in Class . And somehow (I'll never know whether this was an aggressive move on the part of the team captain I wound up with, because I wasn't paying attention enough - I was just trying to survive to the end of the period and go do something real) I wound up on the same girl several days in a row. A girl who, if I recall correctly, didn't have much going for her except that she was good at team sports, an extremely high-status occupation in our shared regional culture. So one day after a game that I suppose must have been particularly frustrating for her, she walked up to me, took hold of my upper arm, put her face up next to mine, and informed me that she was going to beat me up.

I blinked at her and responded: "Go ahead. I can't stop you." And she walked away and never threatened me again, instead devising a strategy that worked against me - namely, standing still on the court till I got bored, lost focus, and she could get around me when I looked inward for something interesting to pay attention to.

(Men I tell this story to are always incredulous. Sometimes they tell me that this could not possibly work. And of course it wouldn't work in an exactly similar situation with guys - because the stakes would have been different.)

At first glance, our responses to these situations seem to be impossible to reconcile, but T and I agree that they were alike in that we both responded without conscious thought. T did not think about using her bookbag as a weapon - she just did it. I did not think about surrendering - I just did it. If we'd had to consciously think about how to respond we probably would have been paralyzed, but we went with our guts and our guts had, in each case, recognized the underlying motivations of the threats and enabled us to respond appropriately.

T, as a loner, had been identified by a pack as a weak animal, game for hunting. Packs seek victims - taking them down bonds the members together and reinforces internal and external hierarchies. She demonstrated that she was not victim material and could take down the alpha, and they backed off to look for easier prey. I, on the other hand, was the acknowledged omega in a shared, but temporary, hierarchy; I was nobody in gym class, beneath contempt - and I was fine with that, for a certain value of fine, because gym class was irrelevant to my real life. So it must have been beyond humiliating for this girl to find me suddenly stealing status from her - as well as interfering with her enjoyment of the game, which any gamer knows derives from an equal contest within a framework of equitable rules. Being paired with an inferior who nevertheless beats you - no wonder she wanted to hit me! By acknowledging my physical inferiority I handed her status back to, reminded her that I was by no means a worthy opponent, and also possibly gave her space in which to realize that the consequences of beating up a passive little white girl (yes, this was a cross-racial incident)who couldn't hit back effectively, and couldn't be forced to try, were likely to outweigh the satisfaction of seeing me bleed.

T and I were both lucky in that we were capable of the correct responses, too. It would be problematic in the extreme for me to physically take down anybody even with a full bookbag; while T, though loner enough to be identified by a pack as a potential victim, did have a stake in her school's hierarchy system, which I never had.

And here is where we get down to the story idea. Both of these stories are incomplete. They belong in a larger narrative dealing with aggression, social hierarchies, status, and physical threat.

So now we start asking, What if?

What if I'm in T's place, or she's in mine? What do our guts tell us, then?

What if T and I are the same person, faced with both these threats, and others - negotiating a high-threat environment that presents a new challenge nearly every day? And by high-threat environment, I don't mean a "bad neighborhood;" I mean the real, soul-crushing threats that nice neighborhoods pose to nice girls. The threats that authorities consistently fail to recognize as serious. Given that each threat poses a different problem that requires a different solution, how does she get through each school day, and how does this affect her strategy in the wider world?

What if the racial element is highlighted - and reversed? What if the physically incompetent girl is also a member of a lower-caste race? Physical helplessness is a white female prerogative - a low status one, but a real one. That's an issue worth exploring.

What if girls did have fair fight rules? That implies an entirely different surrounding society.

What if boys don't? Ditto.

What if a girl tries to implement a male strategy or a boy tries to implement a female one?

What if the protagonist is intersex or transgender? How does that change available strategies? Does it change the nature of the threats? (I posit that it would; and that a bullying story centered on such a character would pack quite a wallop and highlight a lot of gendered issues that tend to get overlooked.)

What if?

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