“It’s not easy, in this world, to learn how to navigate our anger and attraction, to learn how to be strong, sexual women and kind, gentle men.” This is a quote from our friend Michelle Chihara’s essay, “Pieces of the Past,” published this week on her blog This Blue Angel. On the surface this essay is a response, a clarification of sorts, to an essay the filmmaker Miranda July — Michelle’s former high school classmate — published on the teen website Rookie, about what she calls her feminist action, twenty years ago. But at its heart Michelle’s essay is about feminism, activism, sympathy, motherhood, adulthood, sex, sexuality… you know, the little things.
Let’s rewind a little: Miranda July’s essay describes how a boy at their high school made an announcement in assembly: “Someone spilled their Coke on my BMW. If this happens again I’m going to be forced to sue for damages. Keep your hands off my car.” In other words, he was a rich asshole — either that or he did a pretty good impression of one. In response, Miranda hung posters all over school that read, “You say: Keep your hands off my car. We say: Keep your hands off our bodies. Sincerely, the women of this school.” Because he wasn’t just a rich asshole, Miranda writes, “he had a history of touching girls at parties when they were drunk or passed out. This was widespread knowledge; older girls told younger girls: watch out for Xavier Reed.” The way Miranda tells it, this was a story of high school girls standing up for themselves when no one else would, eschewing victimhood for a controversial riot grrly campaign. No wonder the teen girl readers of Rookie responded with such awe, declaring themselves “inspired” by Miranda’s action. And it’s true: teen girls need more heroes, more role models, more women who will teach them how to grow up, how to be a woman, how to be a feminist.
And yet. As always with the stories we tell — and especially so the stories we tell about high school — there is another side. Miranda writes, “Thinking about it now I imagine [Xavier] had his share of suffering, but to understand this story it’s important that you feel no sympathy for him.” Except that Xavier was a teen boy accused, anonymously, of sexual harassment, based — it turns out — on a high school rumor mill. As Michelle writes, “To understand this story, it’s important that you feel sympathy for everyone involved, including, yes, Xavier. Because any teenager accused of sexual harassment deserves a fair hearing, even if — or perhaps especially if — he can be kind of an ass.