If you’ve ever seen the Disney movie Mulan, you might recall the scene where Shang, the army captain, challenges all his trainees to reach the top of a tall wooden pole and retrieve an arrow. The catch? They must do so while weighed down by two brass disks tied to their arms.
All the trainees approach the task viewing the disks as a burden, and are unable to climb the pole. Only Mulan discovers by accident that the disks don’t have to be a burden: when she swings the disks upward and then tugs back on the ropes, they interlock behind the pole – now she’s able to use the disks as a counterweight, pushing against the pole with her feet, slowly but surely rising up – and ultimately retrieves the arrow.
I thought of this scene when I went to CERRU’s Susheel Kirpalani Innovation Exchange: #MeToo, on the evening of November 7th at the Student Union ballroom. Our panel of speakers included Robina Niaz, founder of the nonprofit Turning Point for Women and Families, Erin Spampinato, scholar and activist, and Dr. Keren McGinity, author and professor. At one point, one of the panelists said, “We feminize the idea of vulnerability.” She continued on to reference a TED Talk by actor Justin Baldoni, in which he asks the men in the audience if they’re “man enough” to be vulnerable.
Is vulnerability a burden or a blessing? It depends on what kind of vulnerability you’re referring to. As the panelist discussed, rape is not really about sex at all – it’s about power, about going after those who are vulnerable. And vulnerability is often painted as feminine. Being vulnerable to sexual assault is a terrible burden. Being vulnerable in terms of being brave enough to confess to the world your innermost feelings and risking ridicule – a.k.a. showing emotion, a stereotypically feminine action – that is a blessing. But when both types of vulnerability are placed mainly on women, all genders bear the burden.
No one in the world should ever have to bear the weight of a past sexual assault, or the fear of a future one. Sometimes women pay the price of rejecting men with their lives. And when only women are allowed to express their emotions, men bear the weight of their own emotions bottled up, unexpressed, and often pay the price with their lives, as men have higher rates of suicide than women.
Gender roles literally kill.
It is ironic, actually, that the scene in which Mulan climbs up the pole and reaches the arrow culminates with the song, “I’ll Make A Man Out of You.” And yet, when the power dynamics go away, when vulnerability – the emotional kind – becomes a human trait, not a burden but a means for reaching our highest potential, on that day we will have made the world a safer place, and move one step closer to being our fullest selves.
For more much-needed and thought-provoking events, come to our Transforming Queens College into a Sexual Violence Free Zone event on Monday, November 26th at free hour in Powdermaker 108; or check out CERRU’s Facebook or Twitter (@CERRUQC)!