Learning To Be A Superhero When The World Feels Unsafe To You
Courtesy of Feld Entertainment
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I was warned that the first punch would come in from my left — but that putting my right arm up as the punch passed me by would deflect it. So that’s what I do, and that’s what happens: I see the punch coming in, so I angle my body to the left and put my right arm up, my hand loosely held in a fist. The punch, instead of landing on my nose, passes directly by my right cheek, its trajectory interrupted by my right forearm.

Next, I’m supposed to throw my opponent off balance: I turn my body slightly to the right, bringing my left arm up and using it to push down on the arm that belongs to the fist that tried to punch me. Then, if I step forward with my right foot, right arm extended directly outward from my body, I can clothesline my opponent — so that’s what I do, again, and it works, again. He goes down, hard.

But there’s a second opponent coming in from my left — so, once more, I do as I was taught: When he swings at me with his right fist, I duck, moving my body to the left. He stumbles, and while he’s still off-balance, I reach out with my right leg, and I kick out. It connects, and he goes down, too, tumbling away with a force that surprises me.

It surprises me because I didn’t actually kick him that hard. Then again, that’s exactly what was supposed to happen: He should always be the one controlling the fall, even if it looks like I’m the one who took him down. He is, in fact, a stunt performer — they’re all stunt performers — and I’m backstage at Marvel Universe LIVE! Age of Heroes during its preview period at the Smoothie King Arena in New Orleans, learning, in essence, how to be a superhero. And the irony of the situation is that I’m learning it while existing in a world that so frequently feels unsafe for me to exist in — just as a matter of course.

There is something enormously empowering about watching powerful women kicking ass onstage — part of which, I suspect, is due to the fact that women are so often told that it isn’t “ladylike” or socially acceptable to be strong in the way our culture thinks men should be.

I’m definitely not the target audience for Marvel Universe LIVE!; the stunt-driven arena show, produced by Feld Entertainment and currently touring the United States through 2019, is geared towards kids, and I’m a 30-something woman who is currently child-free. What’s more, I’m sometimes wary of some of the Marvel properties due to the problematic ways they’ve been known to treat their female characters, particularly within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (Black Widow in particular has suffered everything from ridiculous movie poster poses to still not having headlined a movie of her own yet.) Marvel Universe LIVE! certainly isn’t perfect when it comes to gender parity, but it does feature a lot of badass women — both characters and performers. Black Widow, Wasp, and Gamora are important members of the team of heroes, while Black Cat and Nebula feature prominently on the villains’ side. The ensemble, too, is full of women; we’re not just watching a bunch of dudes hit each other over and over.

There is something enormously empowering about watching powerful women kicking ass onstage — part of which, I suspect, is due to the fact that women are so often told that it isn’t “ladylike” or socially acceptable to be strong in the way our culture thinks men should be. Indeed, Caitlyn Larsen, who performs in Marvel Universe LIVE! as Nebula, tells me that she’s often underestimated by people who don’t know her. “I get the very surprised, shocked look: ‘Oh my gosh! You do what? You look more like a school teacher!” she says — despite the fact that she has years of experience both in Filipino stick fighting and in stage combat with a variety of weapons (sword, sword and shield, rapier and dagger, quarterstaff, and knife work are just a few of the weapons she reels off to me). Getting the short, half-shaved Nebula haircut helped curtail the “But you look like a school teacher!” comments somewhat; “I got the haircut and people started to believe me,” she says. So, y’know… at least there’s that (although I would argue that it shouldn't take a change in appearance for other people to start taking you seriously).

But I also suspect that the sense of empowerment comes from what I experienced learning the stage combat moves myself — the feeling that, for once, I am strong. I am powerful. I am a force to be reckoned with.

Courtesy of Feld Entertainment

I’m certainly not the first to make this observation; nor will I be the last. But the point still stands: For women, the world is almost never safe. Common, everyday activities — walking down the street, using public transportation, simply stepping out our doors — can be fraught, and many of us often instinctively brace ourselves whenever we prepare to do… well, just about anything. And there are reasons for that: A landmark survey released by the non-profit organization Hollaback! and Cornell University in 2015 included data from 16,600 respondents from across the globe in what’s considered to be the largest analysis of street harassment ever conducted — and the findings, although unsurprising for the millions of women all over the world who suffer similar experiences every day, underline all of them.

In the United States alone, 85 percent of women reported having experienced street harassment before the age of 17, according to Hollaback! and Cornell. If you raise the age limit, 97.7 percent of women have experienced street harassment before the age of 21 — and if you lower it, 11.6 percent have experienced street harassment at the age of 10 or younger. What’s more, street harassment is simply a fact of everyday life for many women: In the year prior to participating in the survey, most of the respondents reported experiencing either verbal or nonverbal harassment; 40 percent reported that they had been fondled or groped within the previous year; and 77 percent reported having been followed by a man or group of men in a way that made them feel unsafe. While it’s true that some women reported either feeling not at all bothered by the harassment or feeling flattered by it, that number is incredibly small — for most women, harassment is the opposite of flattering, and often frightening.

We are considered not only objects, but public property, available for others to comment on, touch, or have, in whatever way they like — regardless as to whether we ourselves have consented to it.

And beyond the statistics, there are the incidents. Last August, two women went out jogging in broad daylight — one in New York City, one in Princeton, Mass. — and were killed by men who followed them. When women like Sarai Sierra suffer violence when traveling, they’re told, “Well, she shouldn’t have been traveling alone.” Men in power are regularly accused of harassing the women they employ, yet face few or no consequences for their actions. The problem, of course, is not women running alone, or women traveling alone, or women working, or women simply existing in the world — and yet, we are taught frequently that it is the problem. That we are the problem — not the people who choose to attack us. We are taught that our very existence puts us in danger, and that we are therefore to be blamed for anything that might befall us.

We are never “asking for it.” We can be wearing anything; we can look like anyone; we can be doing anything; it can be any time of day or night. No matter what the details are, we know that it will happen — it’s a foregone conclusion. We are considered not only objects, but public property, available for others to comment on, touch, or have, in whatever way they like — regardless as to whether we ourselves have consented to it.

Courtesy of Feld Entertainment

But like many women, I typically operate under the assumption that this is simply how it will be whenever I leave the house. I feel it especially keenly, however, when I’m somewhere I don’t know very well, whether it’s an area of the city in which I live that just I don’t go to very often, or an entirely new place I’m experiencing while traveling. Walking around the French Quarter in the early evening — still in broad daylight in New Orleans in the summer — the night before the fight demonstrations, it hit me again, full force: I am a woman — and a small one at that; I’m barely over five feet tall, often mistaken for being much younger than I am, and easily overpowered by anyone bigger, taller, or stronger than I am (which, honestly, is basically everyone) — walking around alone in public, and because of that, I am a target.

As I walked around the French Quarter, I was conscious of being hyper aware of my surroundings, of how I was keeping track of how many men there were around me, of how I was noting whether those men were traveling singly or in groups, of how I kept glancing to see where my nearest escape routes were, of how I made mental notes about which stores or restaurants I could run into if I needed to find safety in numbers. I stuck to well-lit areas. I stuck to well-populated streets. And still, because of what our world has taught me to expect, I felt deeply uneasy and constantly on high alert — just because I dared to want to walk down the street.

This is, perhaps, why learning a few simple pieces of fight choreography made such a profound impact on me. What I felt immediately afterwards is what sticks with me the most: At first, it was an adrenaline high, the kind you get from riding a roller coaster or walking through a haunted house around Halloween; it’s what tends to happen whenever we do something that feels dangerous, but which is actually occurring under relatively safe circumstances. But, more than that, what struck me as I rode the wave of adrenaline was that I felt powerful.

That’s the kind of feeling I’d like to be able to carry around with me all the time — the feeling that we are safe, that nothing can touch us, that no one would dare touch us. And in an ideal world, that feeling would exist because we had nothing to fear — because instead of trying to prevent ourselves from getting assaulted, no one would even think of assaulting us in the first place.

I hadn’t really learned how to fight, of course; I was performing a dance, a pre-set series of movements (which, when performed by people who really know what they’re doing, are incredibly impressive — the stunt work in Marvel Universe LIVE! Age of Heroes really is spectacular) that had a scripted, predictable outcome.

But it made me think: What would it be like to feel like that all the time? To feel that powerful when I’m riding the subway or walking around town? To know that the world waiting for me when I step outside my door won’t leer at me, comment on my body, or touch me without my consent because it knows that that’s just not how it’s done?

The solution to street harassment and violence against women is obviously not for all women to become black belts in martial arts (although if you are, then you are badass and more power to you); it’s for people to learn not to harass other people in the first place. The onus is never on the victims not to become victims in the first place — it’s on the perpetrators not to victimize others.

Courtesy of Feld Entertainment

But as Caitlyn Larsen notes, these skills can give you an edge in real-life situations — “especially the martial arts reference, which is knowing how to protect yourself and knowing how to take precautions,” she tells me. “Luckily I’ve never had to necessarily engage my combative skills, but I take a lot of preventative measures when I’m out on my own or going out with a lot of friends.” She says that a lot of her friends and family appreciate knowing that someone around them “has that side of thinking and that awareness,” as she puts it. “Just that preventative care goes a long way.”

And I believe it. I felt it just the tiniest bit while I was pretending to kick around a couple of people on a tumbling mat. That’s the kind of feeling I’d like to be able to carry around with me all the time — the feeling that we are safe, that nothing can touch us, that no one would dare touch us. And in an ideal world, that feeling would exist because we had nothing to fear — because instead of trying to prevent ourselves from getting assaulted, no one would even think of assaulting us in the first place.

That ideal world does not exist — or at least, it doesn’t exist yet. But I know what that feeling is like now, and I think that matters. Not because it will keep me safe — but because I know it’s a possibility.

And that? Is kind of a superpower all its own.