At the end of Carmen Maria Machado and Dani’s The Low, Low Woods, El and Vee uncover the generational violence against women in Shudder to Think and they confront Josh, the teenager that sexually assaulted them at the beginning of the series, as he and other assault Jessica. When Vee punches Josh, she narrates, “I’ll never forget how small he looked. How I felt like if I clasped his body in my hands, it would collapse under my strength, pus-filled chambers, oozing and bursting, until I reached some kind of horrible center — a burning, solid core.” Vee sees Josh’s weakness, which Josh covers with his bravado and predatory actions.
As I reread The Low, Low Woods and taught it, I kept thinking about the final issue and how the culmination of the story fights back against a myriad of lies that society perpetuates when it comes to victims of sexual assault. These come together with Vee punching Josh, but they come into clearer focus following the encounter with the skinless at Heaven on Earth, after Jessica opens up herself and swallows the skinless, Josh, and others into a sinkhole.
While Jessica lies in the hospital, Vee sits by her bed. El stands at the door of the room and speaks with a male police officer. Vee tells us about the community’s reaction to the events that occurred, and she narrates, as El and the officer stand at the door, “It isn’t that no one believed us. It’s worse than that.” Here, Vee causes us to think about the ways we listen to victims, the ways that society pushes victims’ experiences aside, choosing to argue that nothing happened or that the victim merely says something happened in order to get something.
Following this panel, we see a closeup of El screaming, we assume, at the officer she speaks with. We don’t see what El says to the officer, but we do see Vee’s narration. She tells us, “They knew.” Over the course of the series, El knows something happened to her and Vee in the theater, and she knows it is part of a larger horror inflicting the town. Vee’s assertion, “They knew,” undercuts the community’s position that nothing happened and the community’s refusal to believe El, Vee, and Jessica. Vee points out that the community did all of these things because they did know the truth, yet they chose to ignore it.
The final panel in this sequence shows Vee and El walking Jessica out of the hospital. They stand on each side of Jessica, holding her up as they head to the parking lot. Vee narrates, “There was talk about the missing boys. How they’d been careless. The lesson was not, don’t do what they did, it was don’t get caught.” Rather than punish the boys and the men in the town for sexually assaulting women, the town takes the position that the boys’ crime wasn’t that they inflcited pain and trauma on the women. No, that was not the problem. Instead, their crime was that the women found out what the was happening.
The community chose to cast the girls and women to the side in order to protect the boys and men. Vee’s comments remind us that those in power will always seek, by whatever means necessary, to maintain power and to squash any revelation of the truth that would cause their power to collapse. Her narration, as well, calls to mind the phrase “boys will be boys,” a phrase used to justify the actions of teenagers on the cusp of adulthood, specifically to justify sexual assault. Thinking about this phrase, I thought back to Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony detailing how Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in high school.
During the hearing, as Megan Garber wrote, a lot of talk surrounded that phrase, specifically “about the liminal space that separates adulthood and its stark accountabilities from the heady years that precede them.” While we all did things during our liminal years that we regret, sexual assault and other such acts of violence should not fall under “boys will boys” because they, as Garber continues, highlight “cruelty” and “entitlement” and are, plain and simple, “violence” and assault.” The phrase casts disbelief on Dr. Ford’s experiences, just as the town does on Vee, El, and Jessica. “It normalizes,” as Garber states, and “erases the specific details of [victims’] stated recollections with the soggy mop of generalized male entitlement.”
Along with all of this, it solidifies power. A White House lawyer at the time, when asked if the administration would withdraw Kavanaugh’s nomination in light of Dr. Ford’s accusations, said that it would not withdraw the nomination. In fact, the lawyer told Politico , it would have the opposite effect because “[i]f somebody can be brought down by accusations like this, then you, me, every man certainly should be worried. We can all be accused of something.” The lawyer’s statement suggests that every man in power has something to hide, something to keep secret, something that must be kept hidden. The lawyer’s comments also suggest that the crime isn’t what the man did but rather getting caught for the assault and violence, because getting caught would lead to their downfall.
No woman should fear being believed. No woman should have to watch every step they make in order to survive. As I finished The Low, Low Woods, I kept thinking, as well, about two songs: Dessa’s “Fire Drills” and War on Women’s “Lone Wolves.” These two songs highlight the themes of The Low, Low Woods, specifically the fact that we have created society where women must be hyper vigilant in order to merely survive. This constant state of vigilance hinders individuals’ lives because it causes them to always remain alert, denying them a moment of calm.
Dessa sums this up in “Fire Drills,” specifically in the third verse where she raps that instead of telling girls, from a young age, “Go out and be brave” we tell them, “Be careful, stay safe.” We hinder their ability to live, and as Dessa points out, women deserve more “than mother fucking vigilance” because it’s hard to “make a difference if the big ambition is simply standing sentry to your innocence.”
Likewise, Shawna Potter points out the constant vigilance that women must engage with as she sings on “Lone Wolves,” “You act butch, pretend, hide yourself, you find your exits, and you work to improvise weapons.” In order to survive, the woman must be aware of exits, escape plans, and ways to fight back if need be. That shouldn’t be the case, but, as Potter continues, “They don’t care you live. They don’t care if you die. It’s only been about control.” The control is the key. Nothing surpasses it. That is why “boys will be boys” and why the leaders of Shudder to Think don’t criminalize the boys for their actions but merely chastise them for “getting caught.”
There’s more that could be said here, but I’ll leave it for now. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on twitter @silaslapham.