On feminism, high school and sex — and what Occupy can teach us about all three

Illustration via ROOKIE MAG

“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.

The story these two essays tell (Michelle’s is here and Miranda’s is here; you should read them both) is not, ultimately, about whether or not Xavier was guilty. That’s kind of beside the point. Rather, it’s about the tension between activism — or anger — and sympathy, and how to know which way to lean. It’s about what feminism means to a teen girl… and then what it means to that same woman when she becomes the mother of a daughter… or a son. It’s about how sex is complicated, and nowhere more so than in high school. It’s about how adults often fail kids when they most need them.

“When is it powerful to lash out,” Michelle write, “and when is the radical thing, in fact, to reach across the lines that divide us? What is it that we want political action to achieve? If we take the crime seriously, doesn’t that mean we have to give the accusation equal weight? We grapple our whole lives with these questions, as members of movements and as individuals. When I think about feminism now, I want it to be a set of principles that will help my daughter navigate both her sexuality and her anger.”

Michelle recently took her young daughter to the Occupy protests in L.A.; she writes that she was “struck with how radical the simple act of listening can be. I don’t pretend to be able to fully describe the movement, but it’s clear they’re furious. They are unafraid to stand up and express their anger — at banks, at corrupt politicians, at corporations. At the same time, no matter your race, gender, creed or class, if you were physically present at Occupy — if you sat your ass through a general assembly — your voice counted. They combined a radical act of listening, of human empathy, with militant action.”

Listen radically, people, whether your opponent is Wall Street or a rich asshole who may or may not have mauled your drunk friend at a party.