midnight ponderings

My girlfriend and I were walking through a rather sketchy neighbourhood late one night. As far as I remember, we were both bundled up and she was wearing a hat, and I’d tucked my arm into hers, and we weren’t talking much. At one point, we came up to a guy arguing with his girlfriend about something; she was in a car, and he was leaning in through the window, trying to change her mind, while she seemed to be about to drive off. He was really agitated and loud, maybe a little drunk, and when he saw us walking towards them, he broke off and came right up to my girlfriend, still speaking quickly, something about no guy would baby, I’m tellin ya, now c’mon man. When we talked about it later, we wondered if he thought she was another guy, someone he could bring in to bolster his side of the argument — it took some time for us to realise that, because my girlfriend is not particularly butch and doesn’t get regularly mistaken for a guy, but that day, with the baggy clothes and the dark, and her hat, it’s possible. Anyway, at that time, we were both jumpy and feeling a little unsafe already, and this confrontational guy was getting right up in her space, so I yelled “Hey!” and we got out of there as fast as we could. The guy was really surprised at my yell; I remember his face — and I think that was when he got a good look at her too, because then he followed us in a half-hearted fashion for another block or so, shouting, fucking dykes, motherfucking bitches, before giving up.

This incident came up the other day, and she said it was really surprising to her that I’d yelled at the guy. I guess that’s fair: it’s pretty unlike me to be belligerent or loud, and I’m not physically threatening at all; in fact this is exactly the sort of thing that would leave me helplessly petrified if it happened to me alone. At that moment though, all I felt was an overwhelming protectiveness about her. This is a feeling I get quite often; about my little sister for example, particularly when hearing about her sleazy boss, but when I feel protective about my girlfriend, I want to stand physically in between anything harmful and her, specifically take it on myself rather than letting it hurt her. I know she’s completely capable of taking care of herself, doesn’t need anyone else to do it at all. It surprised her when I talked about it because this has never been our dynamic at all, and even less so now, when we are no longer a couple. Still, every once in a while something will happen, and I will want to be her shield.

I want to say that this must be a universal reaction, to want to protect the people you love, if they are in danger, even at the risk of harm to yourself. It just seems like the natural unthinking reaction, and after all, parents do it all the time, and it’s a staple in romantic fiction across cultures and through the ages. But the more I think about it, the more I feel like I’m missing something gendered here, because all the examples I can think of are about men protecting women and never vice-versa. The only place where I can see a straight female being protective towards a straight male is as a mother or older sister or similarly unequal relationship, and frankly that really confuses me. Are we really being asked to believe that straight women don’t have these protective instincts towards husbands, boyfriends, lovers? Maybe they’re generally supposed to channel them into emotional protectiveness and other forms of compassion? Or…? I’m not sure of the answers here, but I’m always fascinated by the narratives we tell each other and ourselves, and how they define how we behave, and this is one of those places where the social narrative and my gay reality just don’t add up.

~ by mortarandpestle on April 6, 2008.

3 Responses to “midnight ponderings”

  1. Hm. I was going to say that I’m very protective of people I care about regardless of their sex, but you’ve got me thinking about how exactly I mean that. I’m emotionally protective with everyone, but more immediately physically so with women (usually because I’ve been in more confrontations than most women I’ve been with). Am I physically protective of men? To the extent of keeping them physically safe, whether it’s looking out for them on a hike or keeping them out of a fight, I’d say yes. But I wouldn’t get in the middle of a fight, you know? It’s not that I wouldn’t want to but that I know that unless I had something really heavy in my hands, I probably wouldn’t be much use.
    The other thing is that when I’m out with men, I’m sometimes extremely aware that should anything untoward happen, they’d step in. That scares me because I don’t want to be the reason someone else gets hurt. As a result, when I’m in a more traditionally ‘secure’ position, ie, accompanied by men, I actually tend to be less confrontational with other people because I know that it’s not me who’ll be swung at.

    I probably should point out that I don’t actually hang out in places where such things are likely to happen, so it’s rarely come up at all.

  2. i have noticed recently that i am more protective in general than i used to be. i think, in fact, that because of this i am not the full-fledged pacifist i used to be (though it hasn’t come up).

    but i also realized that i’ve two rather different types of protectiveness. one is like what you are talking about: a shield, “I want to stand in between anything harmful and her.” for me, this is the one that comes from those power dynamics you talk about at the end there; this is what i feel when i want to protect someone more vulnerable than me (though not necessarily physically). the other one is more like “i’ve got your back.” that’s the one i feel about my buddies. i’m not sure why. something along the lines of “i’m not going to fight for you, but i will fight with you.”

    not that i fight.

  3. I think protectiveness is absolutely a quality that comes with love. There are many times when the way I walk down a street with a girl that I’m with is clearly defensive… protective, and I’m the tiniest thing in the world so I probably wouldn’t be much actual help, but there is something about love that makes your fluff your feathers and seem big and bad.

    I remember once when I was dating a woman of color and stepped went to step between her on our side of the street and a group of men on the other side of the street. She immediately pushed me aside with her arm and then lectured me on how I shouldn’t do that with black guys… how it won’t be protective, it’ll be threatening and broadcast our lesbianism… it was very interesting to me. It’s really made me think about those movements more these days.

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