“So Beautiful It’s a Curse” Trope

My favorite historical figure is Hannibal Barca-the Carthaginian general who marched elephants into Rome during the Second Punic War.

File:Map of Rome and Carthage at the start of the Second Punic War.svg

Carthage is on the tip of modern Tunisia: look to the right of Numidia and up toward Sicily. Carthage (the city) is right at the star. 

Hannibal was a military genius and even though he lost the war against Rome, his battle strategies are still studied today. I could spend hours just writing about his brilliance and my adoration of this man, but author David Anthony Durham has done most of that work for me. His historical fiction novel Pride of Carthage (2005) is what drew me into Hannibal’s world and over all, this is a very good book. Durham cites a bibliography, crafts rich and compelling characters on both sides of the war, and animates historical figures who have been dead for 2,200 years.

Yet he is incapable of writing women. While he does a decent on the historical women of Hannibal’s wife and sisters, Durham also writes a love story as a side plot line set against the larger back drop of the Second Punic War. The love story is about a foot soldier, Imco Vaca, who Durham creates and this woman, Aradna, a Greek who follows Hannibal’s army as a camp follower.

While Imco is an interesting character, rising through the ranks of Hannibal’s army, surviving the war and even conversing one on one with the Carthaginian general, Aradna’s greatest attribute is her beauty. This wouldn’t be so bad, if she weren’t introduced as a woman so beautiful that her entire back story is being raped by various men, starting with her dead father’s friend. Throughout the novel, Aradna falls into the trope of So Beautiful It’s a Curse. And the writing does not feel as if Durham is portraying the mindset of 200 BC, but his own ideas that beauty is a reasonable excuse to rape someone. We’re supposed to feel terrible for her after we read her tragic back story, but during the novel we’re told to accept that her beauty will attract men because that is naturally the way things go for beautiful women. Durham takes the responsibility off the men and reminds his readers that it is the woman’s job to not get raped.

When she’s not fending off men by rubbing herself in excrement in the hopes the smell will keep them at bay, she’s being pursued by Imco. By this, I mean he saw her bathing we get an uncomfortable look into Imco’s mind about how he wants to have sex with her. From the start of their interactions, she is an object. Throughout the novel the two meet up periodically by chance and Imco is always lusting after her. He’s in love with her beauty and this is the relationship readers are supposed to root for.

What bothers me the most is that even though she’s not interested and feels he’s just another man trying to attack her throughout most of the novel she finds him trapped under the dead bodies after the Battle of Cannae and she rescues him. Then they fall in love because the man needs to win the woman in the end. She is, after all, his prize.

There are so many things wrong with how she is written and where her arc goes, but I think one of the most important things to point out is that her story is sexist against both men and women. Against women, the obvious is that it perpetuates rape culture and also denies the woman agency unless it’s to aid a man and be his love interest. Against men it portrays them as sex-driven animals who can’t control themselves if a beautiful woman is around. I don’t understand why a man would want to portray his own sex in such a negative light, but that’s what Durham does.

This trope vilifying beautiful women as tragic figures destined for unwanted attention and rape is one that I didn’t understand when I first read the novel in high school. All I understood was that I never wanted to be Aradna. Because she was sexually assaulted she was the literary example of my greatest fear. It is terrible when young girls cannot look up to female characters without feeling as if being a woman is wrong and sinful somehow. I thought that her Aradna’s beauty was the cause and I didn’t want to be beautiful. And because beauty was her defining feature, I didn’t want to be a woman. I wanted to be Hannibal: the respected general with an intricacy of thought I still marvel at, not Aradna the beautiful woman followed by tragedy

I love Hannibal Barca, but I can no longer love the novel Pride of Carthage because it represents all of my fears of rape culture and places fear into women readers. I will not read something that makes me afraid or ashamed of my sex and these are the real evils of sexism that feminism combats. Feminism is needed because of how flippantly women are hated and how often we are told to hate ourselves. I’m a feminist because I refuse to hate myself and I will fight so that others can also understand the love and respect women deserve.

“Girls Shouldn’t Walk Alone”

I recently started working for an environmental non-profit as a canvasser. This means we go around to different residential neighborhoods and knock on tons of doors each night to raise money and get petition signatures.

And for all the people who are incredibly enthused to help out our cause, there are just as many people who instead of telling me “No” or “I would love to, but“, they instead offer me advice. The first house I went to last to last night I was asked by two older women if I was alone. I told them that there were other canvassers in the surrounding blocks. They proceeded to tell me to be careful, and the underlying whispers of you might be raped hung heavy in the subtext of their words. Just as I was turning to leave to the women called me back and asked me, “If you had seen two men sitting in this house and they invited you in, would you still have come inside?”

I told them that I would use my best judgment based on my own comfort level of the situation. They told me again to be careful. These weren’t the only comments I received on my safety that evening.

While I understand that these individuals were thinking of my safety, it was all women who lectured me about caution. This is the product or rape culture: women telling other women not to get raped. By this logic it’s all the victim’s fault for walking alone and having the audacity to have a job that requires walking alone. Women are constantly told to be dependent. When we’re not dependent on men to protect us from other men, we’re dependent on female friends to walk in a group and uphold safety in numbers. Or we’re dependent on relatives to keep us sheltered from the harsh reality of the world where women walking alone risk sexual violence.

I once had a conversation with a close friend of mine where she too was concerned about me walking alone, especially after it gets dark. I told her that I don’t want rape culture to run my life. I’m not going to quit my job or limit my activities because I fear being attacked. And if I walk alone because I need to, hopefully I can show other women that it’s okay to be independent. If there’s one more woman walking alone and challenging the authority of rape culture then we’re one woman closer to a country where it’s the norm for both sexes to walk freely and not fear violence.

I understand that this is dependent on the neighborhood and that there are extenuating circumstances, but a fear or being raped should not keep either sex dependent. Men get raped as well and I do not mean to discount their experiences. Rape culture effects everyone: the victim and the attacker. Everyone should be free to come and go as he or she pleases without fearing sexual violence. Freedom of movement should be a natural right.

Thank you to all the women in my life

For International Women’s Day, I don’t want to spend time honoring famous women. There are other writers and researchers more skilled than I who know the details of these women’s lives and can-and will-relay them. It’s not that these famous women are not important or don’t deserve their day to be remembered, but for my own celebration I want to do something closer to home.

I may never be able to properly thank all the women who made a difference in my life if I don’t take the time to honor them alongside the pioneers in feminism. It would be a disservice to what they have taught me if I disregard them in order to spew out facts about Adrienne Rich or Judith Butler.

This is not just an ode to the women who are closest to me, but a sweeping thank you to really every woman I have met. If I have passed you on the street and exchanged polite hellos, if I went to school with you, whether I liked you or not, thank you.

If I have learned anything from being a feminist and looking at the women I have interacted with, it is that there is no right way to be a woman. There is no one image that can be the face of feminism, and there is no one woman to celebrate.

I honor the women who know that International Women’s Day will pass. When it is gone, sexism will still exist. These women I have met, live with, or love will wake up on March 9th and know they will still be denied equal pay, still live in rape culture, and still live in a world where they are taught to hate their bodies and teach their daughters to do the same.

I honor the women who are proud to be women anyway. The women who will wake up on March 9th and fight for gender equality because they know there is a long way ahead of us.

Rape Culture

If you haven’t heard the term before, let it shock you. I was shocked. I still am shocked. But we live in rape culture. Because as women we are constantly fearing rape or being told to fear rape or strange men we live in a society where rape is condoned. It is the woman’s fault: she was drunk. she was dressed like a slut. she was asking for it. the man couldn’t help himself.

I am always ashamed to admit it, but being raped is my biggest fear. Rape is not something I can dismiss as an implausible fear. I know it is all too real. Rape is accepted as a natural occurrence and for this reason since I learned about sex I have not been able to walk somewhere alone without fearing rape.

This is not okay.

If I am up on a soapbox for a moment I apologize, but women should not need to live in fear or even told to live in fear because it is just another form of subjugation.

I was walking to the food store talking on the phone to my mother and when I told her I what I was doing the first thing she asked was if I was alone. I said yes and that I would hopefully be back before dark. My mother told me that if it gets dark I should not walk back but call one of my friends on campus to give me a ride. I wouldn’t do this. I would rather walk back in the dark, but I would be afraid.

I hate this fear.

I do not want to fear doing every day errands just because rape is an accepted norm that cannot be stopped. I do not want to live in fear.

Please, even if you never experience what I’m saying, have empathy. Use that empathy to educate people about rape and proper sex education. Use that empathy to stop slut shaming, volunteer at a rape crisis center, participate in slut walks and be part of the movement for equality. You deserve to walk down the street without being afraid. And remember, rapists are always the cause of rape.