Misplaced Fear

Dr Melfi’s Husband: Well, you’re gonna have to have someone escort you to your car at night.

Dr Melfi: What’s that supposed to mean?

MH: That’s what the rape counsellor woman told me. Deserted parking garages are where a huge percentage of these attacks happen.

M: You think this is my fault. You blame me for what happened, don’t you?

MH: How many times did I tell you to call the security guard when you left work late?

M: It wasn’t late.

The above dialogue is an excerpt from the script for The Sopranos episode Employee of the Month, which depicts the truly confronting rape of Dr Melfi and its aftermath. Recently the issue of women’s safety, and sense of safety, in public spaces has come to the forefront in the media following the highly publicised incident of rape and murder of a young comedian, Eurydice Dixon in the city streets of Melbourne. What was focused on in the media accounts of Eurydice’s murder was not entirely on the problem of gendered violence, but, in fact, equally on Eurydice’s use of public space. The implication in this criticism, whether intended or not, was that Dixon was in some way responsible for her fate.

Gill Valentine, in her 1989 essay on “The Geography of Women’s Fear”, recognised this trend in reporting, and reactions to, gendered violence in public spaces. This public blame of victims who were assaulted in public spaces, she says, “…encourages all women to transfer their threat appraisal from men to certain public spaces where they might encounter attackers.” Men are at once distanced from the perpetrator of the abuse, and absolved of any responsibility, by putting the onus of securing women’s safety in public spaces back onto the women. On the other hand, the fear of existing in a public space as a woman often causes women to adopt false assumptions about the safety of places that are normally deemed secure for women, such as the home.

These issues of gendered violence are constantly brought up in The Sopranos, a show that also repeatedly depicts its female characters idealising the Home as a concept of security and comfort, while contrasting this imagery with the realities of their home life as violent, manipulative, abusive and lonely. When Tracee, a dancer at a strip club discovers she’s pregnant, she dreams of an idealistic future with a husband who loves her, that husband in reality being gangster Ralphie, and abusive and controlling man who ultimately beats her to death in a rage at finding out about her pregnancy.

The rape of Dr Melfi, and the reaction of her husband entirely reflects Valentine’s theories of instilled geographical fear as a way to shift blame. You must all have heard these comments before: “what was she doing out so late?”, “I would never go out alone like that”, “what was she thinking, being in a place like that?” In fact, outrage amongst the women of Australia in the Eurydice Dixon case was generated by the thoughtless comments of a senior police officer, Supt David Clayton, who said that people needed to “take responsibility for your safety.”

Women are constantly warned and trained to navigate streets safely; carrying keys between their fingers in one hand and their phone clutched in the other; actively avoiding streets they perceive as ‘unsafe’; or spending money they don’t have on Uber trips to places close enough to walk to. Cishet men simply don’t experience public space in the same way; they outnumber women, and the aggressive behaviour they exhibit towards women, especially at night, makes women uncomfortable to exist in many public spaces. As Valentine writes, women’s dependence on some men to protect us from all “…results in a restricted use of public space by women, especially at night, allowing men to appropriate it and hence making women feel unsafe to go out, reinforcing their comparative confinement in the home.”

The realities of gendered violence need to be confronted. How can a space be deemed a public space if it is only comfortably accessible by half the population? Women should be able to assume the same level of safety that men do as they move through public spaces. Our society encourages and fosters the idea that we women are safe only by the grace of other men, and that the public is a male space that women need to navigate with care, and never alone if they can help it. To all men who believe it’s ok that women feel unsafe to walk home at night, or enter a bar alone; this isn’t Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and you aren’t Willy Wonka, taking me on a tour through your treacherous, fucked up playground where if I take one wrong step I’ll turn in to a blueberry. The answer is to fight the norms of a society that propagates male dominance and gendered violence, not restrict women even more.