Blending styles including personal memoir, creative nonfiction, and photography, “Open Season” lyrically explores what it means to be a woman in America. The vignettes present flashes of microaggressions that women suffer and internalize every day, as well as the consequent battle for autonomous power that surrounds female bodies in public spaces.
“Smile, babe. I hate to see a frown on your pretty face.” I slide away from the man on the train, don the frayed hood of my oversized winter coat. His small eyes haven’t left my body since we boarded three stops ago, a hyena tracking its prey. His spotted hands tremble as they grip the cold metal rail for support. With one swift step, I shield my sister from his sight. She is eleven, with golden hair and dimples that kill. “Why did he call you babe?” She whispers, a small hand cupped around chapped lips. Her lilac hat slips down over her eyes. She shoves it back up, crossing her eyes to focus. “Sometimes men say stuff, hun, and you just… I guess you just get mad and ignore it.” I take her pale hands and squeeze them between mine, rubbing two ice cubes together to make fire.
| Chelan Lasha | Cindra Ladd | Joyce Emmons | Donna Motsinger | Linda Brown | Victoria Valentino | Gwyneth Paltrow | Tamara Green | Angela Leslie | Tori Amos |
We turn right onto the main street, cold wind whipping our faces. My friend tugs her knitted tangerine scarf tighter, squishing bouncy auburn curls against her neck. I note the thrill in her eyes as she recounts yesterday’s adventure. She walked to the corner store with her neighbor, both adorned in sweatpants and flipflops, and counted honks from passing cars. “Twenty-two.” I do not miss a step, but my mind screams, a whistle in an empty tunnel. Twenty-two? “How did that make you feel?” I wonder aloud. She shrugs a slight shoulder and looks to the clouds. “Kinda like it was open season, I guess.” We make another right and reach the steamy door of our favorite coffee shop. A man complete with rustic beard and cashmere beanie exits the shop and stands aside, holding the door open. “Thanks!” My friend chirps and sashays inside. “Thank you.” I lock eyes with the man and nod curtly in passing.
| Therese Serignese| Fiona Apple | Linda Ridgeway Whitedeer | Beverly Johnson | Helen Gumpel | Kathy McKee | Lane Moore | Jewel Allison | Molly Ringwald |
I am clutching a compostable tray of nachos, paying the heavyset man in the food truck above me. I scrape change from his sweaty palm and slip the coins inside my skirt pocket. Swiping a stack of napkins, I head into the crowd to find my family. It’s hot, my tank top clings to me like a wetsuit, and every passing individual seems to think this is a rugby match. I spot a clear path on the sidewalk and skip onto the curb, escaping the sweaty cloud of body odor. I straighten my shoulders, take a deep breath of fresh air. “Hey honey, where you headed?” The deep voice does not shock me. Nor do the hoots and giggles of strangers that follow. I walk on, staring straight ahead, refusing to slouch or spill the steaming nacho cheese. “Bitch, I’m talking to you.” I hear this word, this command, this bullet, shot in my direction. The napkins crumple to useless shreds of tissue in my hand. I walk on. Another voice behind me whistles, low and long. Someone shouts “Damn!” The sweat, the shaking, it’s not just from the sun and humidity; I am furious, I am defenseless, I am just trying to eat nachos with my family.
| Eden Tirl | Andrea Constand | Ashley Judd | Linda Kirkpatrick | Colleen Hughes | Sarita Butterfield | Autumn Burns | Lady Gaga | Charlotte Fox | PJ Masten |
This is the ninth time I’ve seen Moana this month, but the girl I babysit doesn’t seem to mind. I watch her scribble in a coloring book, tactlessly turning a tutu-wearing hippo a distinct shade of yellow-green vomit. “What happened here?” Next to the box of crayons, a teal ribbon holds a braid of her thin hair. She snatches a purple crayon without looking, layers it over the yellow-green wax already on the page, and launches into the story. “A boy who sits behind me in class snipped it with scissors. But my teacher said it’s just ‘cus he likes me, and that I shouldn’t let it ruffle my feathers.” I ask her if other people who like her are mean to her too. Are her friends mean just because they like her? Am I? “Well, no…” She furrows her brow and sets down the crayon. She taps the teal ribbon with her pinky finger, then touches the spot on her head where the braid once grew.
| Sharon Van Ert | Jane Fonda | Gabrielle Union | Amy Labadie | Kesha Rose Sebert | Beth Ferrier | Asia Argento | Rosanna Arquette | Kamerin Moore | Carrie Hogan |
A sigh escapes my lips, frustration with the jigsaw puzzle of trigonometry in front of me. My brother, eighteen and too tall, walks in and slumps down at the table, a pillow in need of fluffing. I set my pencil aside and ask what’s wrong. “School was weird. And stupid.” He explains that he was forced to move boxes during free period. I roll my eyes at his notorious laziness. Then, he mentions that his friend got mad because she had actually volunteered to move the boxes, but was not allowed. The teacher turned her away, told her that they were “looking for boy volunteers,” that they needed “strong and capable students, but thanks for the kind thought.”
| Amber Tamblyn | Heather Graham | Patricia Leary Steuer | Lisa-Lotte Lublin | Anna Paquin | Renita Chaney Hill | Charlyne Yi | Arianna Guerrero | Kaya Thompson |
My roommate barges in, cheeks flushed, zipper pinching her chin. She drops her backpack onto the couch and unzips her coat dramatically. “I was so excited to wear this damn shirt today.” In front of me, she sports cuffed blue jeans and a white ringer t-shirt. The edge seams are pure red, the blocky print on the front reads “The future is female” in all red capital letters. I distinctly remember her ordering this shirt online, getting it a size too small, exchanging it for a larger size, and getting the new new shirt just the other week. “So what’s the problem? Wear it.” I respond with revolutionary advice. “Well I did.” She huffs, tells me how, after sitting down before class, a man near her called out, pointing at the shirt. “Can I ask you a question? Like, why do you hate men?” He laughed, a classmate even clapped him on the back. I ask her, isn’t that the point of the shirt? To disrupt, to make people notice, to spark thought and conversation? She considers it, storm clouds brewing in her eyes. “I guess, sure. But I just wanted to wear the damn shirt.”
| Heidi Thomas | Joan Tarshis | Linda Joy Traitz | Angelina Jolie | Pamela Abeyta | Michelle Hurd | Rebecca Lynn Neal | Margie Shapiro | Judy Huth | Marcella Tate |
Eyes closed, I wiggle my fingers slightly, measure the weight of the bean bag in my hand. I pretend to take aim and toss it a few yards ahead of me, familiar with the *thud* of the heavy bag landing in mud. “Shit.” People are barbequing all around, flinging frisbees and laughing too loud. A football rolls near me and a man stumbles over to collect it. “Why’re you standing all alone, girl?” He’s beet red, there’s a bubble of drool on his lower lip, and he’s doing an excellent job watering the grass with his beer. “Oh, I’m not. Just playing a game with my buddies.” I motion to my opponents, a lovey couple holding hands. “But I don’t see a man around here looking out for you. That’s too bad.” I step away, kneeling down to collect the bean bags scattered about. “I can stick around and be your partner. I can watch out for you.” I stand to find the drunk man inches from me. “No thanks.” He takes a swig of his beer. He doesn’t move. His hot breath stings my face, clouds my thoughts. He reaches for my shoulder. Suddenly my teammate returns with a plate of food, towering like a tree over the drunk man. “Oh, my bad dude, I thought she was alone.” The stranger holds up his hands in surrender, trips backwards, retreats with his football. My friend shrugs. I hand him a bean bag. I wonder how it could possibly matter if I was alone.
| Ambra Battilana Gutierrez | Jenny Slate | Patricia Arquette | Isa Dick Hackett | Chloe Goins | Leigh Corfman | Rose McGowan | Maureen Ryan | Laura Dern |
The rustle of a hundred people rising to their feet fills the stuffy air. I offer my grandmother an arm to lean on. She pats me gratefully and adjusts the pin on her shimmery green sweater, a proud peacock in her Sunday best. I smile at her lipstick, that familiar flash of unapologetic hot pink. When I see it in the store with my siblings we call it “Grandma Judy Pink.” In unison, the congregation grabs for books bound in plastic mahogany covers. I flip to page seventeen, as I have so many times before, and my gaze settles on a small boy in the next pew. He tugs at his stiff khaki pants. His mother taps his head gently, directs his attention forward. “We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth…” I hold the book out for my grandmother and slide my finger along the thin page, sucked into the hypnotic rhythm of the prayer. Voices echo through the church, but suddenly my grandmother falls silent. “…for us men, and for our salvation…” I drag my finger along the words a bit more slowly. “Grandma, we’re right here.” I lightly tap the page. “I know, I know where we are. I’m just stuck on that.” She scowls. “For us men, not for us women, huh?”
| Lisa Christie | Shawn Brown | Janice Baker-Kinney | Rita Hayworth | Ilana Glazer | Marie Anderson | Tiffany Thomas Lopez | Jade Capua | Morgan McCaul | Jill Lewis |
We enter the grungy lobby and search for a place to stand. Leaning against the carpeted wall, my friend fluffs her hair with long baby pink nails. She doesn’t flaunt her natural curls often, but you can tell she feels beautiful when she does. “I’m going to use the bathroom. Find our seats?” She hands me a ticket and I head into the dark concert hall, squinting to determine if we’re seated in row E or F. Minutes later, my friend collapses into the seat next to me. She is shaking her head, hands unsteady, a human earthquake. I reach out, try to comfort her, but she just gives me a knowing look. I can see the anger, the exhaustion, the disbelief in her teary eyes. “I swear if one more boy grabs my ass and says something about ‘chocolate cake,’ I will lose it. I shouldn’t have worn leggings.” Like fucking open season.
| Kristina Ruehli | Rachael Denhollander | Queen Latifah | Kyle Stephens | Simone Biles | Lindsey Lemke | Jessica Howard | Alexis Alvarado | Debbie Wesson Gibson | Anna Faris |
“What a joke.” My friend rolls his eyes. I turn in the direction he’s facing and spot two women at the bar in matching heels, thigh-length t-shirts, and fuzzy zebra ears. I glance over at my friend’s own Halloween costume and bite my tongue, hard. He’s in sweatpants and a gold necklace, claiming to be dressed as “white trash.” I crunch on a piece of ice from my empty cup and turn my back on the zebras, focus my eyes on the TV screen but do not watch. He keeps talking. “Don’t they have any self-respect? Who are they trying to impress?” He doesn’t even know these women. Not their names, not their stories, nothing. I drop my cup in his hand and flash a warning look, eyes like sirens. “Who said they’re trying to impress anyone? What’s so disrespectful about a woman showing bare leg?” My friend chokes at my response, jiggles his head, an awkward jack-in-the-box. “You got next round.” The words slip through my clenched teeth and I shift my attention back to the television on the wall, fiddling with a broken button on my jacket.
| McKayla Maroney | Becky Gray | Gloria Thacker Deason | Jeanette Antolin | Uma Thurman | Emma Ann Miller | Jamie Dantzscher | Gwen Anderson |
I am taking notes, I am running late to class, I am constantly spilling hot coffee on my hand. I am soaking in every word from every woman I can, a heavy sponge. I am marveling as professors introduce me to geniuses, geniuses with pens and ideas and burning words in their mouths, swelling their tongues and begging to be spat out. Women, with fire to breathe, skies to roam, cities to dominate. Rubble thick with the smell of smoke and ash. Geniuses, like Lila Abu-Lughod, Judith Butler, Claudia Rankine, Joan Didion, Margaret Mead. I am listening, I am learning, I am growing. I am finding other women who feel the same, whose bodies are treated like public domain, who know the entitled grasp of a stranger’s hand. I am bursting with pride for their genius minds. I am quiet, listening to the worldwide cries of women. I am not alone. I am realizing that there are other women with words to spit and claws ready to tear into the world, to grip the earth and shake it into epiphany.
We’ve been waiting in line for almost forty-five minutes. Some of our family Christmas traditions are ludicrous, but I’m a good sport, so I parade around the mall in a red and white Santa hat. It makes my sisters laugh and blush. We step forward, finally our turn to bargain with Santa for gifts. He greets my sisters, pats the friendly space on his lap, then spots me standing beside my brother. “And how old are you?” With small glasses perched on the edge of his whiskered nose, I watch Santa’s eyes glide up and down my body, a geographer surveying the land. Once, twice, three times. “Twenty-one.” He winks. My cheeks flash red, the only sign that betrays my humiliation. One sister watches me, my face frozen in defiant fury, and glances, suspicious, up at Santa. The other slides off his lap and steps gingerly next to me. My brother is lost in thought, my parents fussing over their camera phones. Santa clears his throat. “And what would you all like for Christmas?”
| Melanie Lynskey | Alyssa Milano | Debra Messing | Felicia Day | Mira Sorvino | Janice Dickinson | Jennifer Lawrence | Sammie Mays | Evan Rachel Wood |
Sitting here, soft snow twinkling by my windowsill, I keep writing and writing and writing… and I keep realizing that, in fact, I have no words. I have nothing to say, no way to embody how I feel. I am exhausted from repeating myself, a broken record. I have run out of blind eyes to turn. I am tired of crossing the street and excuses like “boys will be boys.” I am out of patience. I want to scream, to spew fire from my throat. I want to take back my body. A cold breeze bites my face from a small crack in the window. I listen to the silence around me, I feel my wings spread, fill with air, like a predator with beautiful scales and dangerous eyes. Yet I am treated as prey. I watch others concede, condone the hunt, let it continue. Women, it seems, are the only ones always in season. I am writing and thinking and watching and realizing that, in fact, maybe St. George was never needed to slay that dragon, or even to rescue the princess. Maybe, just maybe, the princess had that dragon under control, on a leash. Maybe she was furious that he killed her friend, furious just as I am. I am angry. I am fed up. And I keep writing, although I have no words.
| Barbara Bowman | Trace Lysette | Terry Crews | Rosario Dawson | Louisa Moritz | Carla Ferrigno | Anika Noni Rose | Kimya Dawson | Jordyn Wieber | Lachelle Covington |
We swarm the streets in a sea of pink sweaters and red scarves. We lean on one another, drawing strength from slender shoulders and loud voices. We demand equality; we yell things like “My body my choice!” and “This is what feminism looks like!” We work to clarify that “nonconsensual sex” is, indeed, rape. We fight for healthcare. Fair wages. Respect. We dare people to silence us, to take the air from under our wings. We stand up and shout our stories; we stand aside and pass the microphone. We echo each sentiment, hold hands, dry each other’s stained cheeks. Like the curves of a mountain, or the twist of the sea, the female body cascades and glides, crashes and goads. Like a cold blue flame, or the rattle of thunder, the female body dances and flounces, destroys and frightens. It leaves people in awe. Shocks them with beauty and power and mystery and yet… the wonder in our bones, the fire in our veins—people vie to control and contain and snuff out our light. Women around the globe perpetually suffer sexual assault and rape, have their beauty attacked, their power taken, their mystery shattered. So many confessions, so many “Me Too” stories, plot a dangerous pattern: a general mentality that the female body is up for grabs. That women are publicly accessible, externally controllable. An object that must belong to someone, a damsel who must be protected. A pussy that can be grabbed. We swarm the streets to prove that women are not sitting ducks—it is not open season. We swarm the streets to breathe our fire, to fill our wings, to hold up half the sky.
| Hilarie Burton | Lili Bernard | Reese Witherspoon | Janis Hirsch | America Ferrara | Mattie Larson | Gena Richardson | Jessica Barth | Oprah Winfrey | Lisa Jones |
I stand outside on windy days—the thick, heavy kind of wind that precedes a storm—and I let my hair whip across my face, let my clothes hang in limbo and my eyes sting with tears. I scream into each gust and fill my lungs with new curiosities. I take my power from the world; I drip my beauty onto the grass one teardrop at a time. I let the wind caress every part of my body, wrap so close to my skin that I cannot tell the difference between the breeze and my goosebumps. I am in flight, a monster in the sky. I feel spikes in every fingertip, electricity running from my heart to the center of the earth. The wind dies down, the raindrops blend with my tears, and I return to the ground. I float back down, back to reality, where hands grab and voices stab and eyes pierce. The wind gives me power, but the world steals it away, leaves me drained and empty, no breath in my lungs to form words, no air to lift my wings. But I still feel fire on my lips, and I am fearless.
| Your Mother | Your Neighbor | Your Dentist | Your Classmate | Your Sister | Your Boss | Your Friend | Your Uber Driver | Your Grandmother | Your Cashier | Her | Her | Her |
My mother sent me a quote last year while I was away at school. She knows the way I feel about my body, about how it is not my own. She has experienced the same feeling, seen the same hunting patterns, been shot by the same bullets. She has lived through the chaos that women suffer in the Western world. She has witnessed the way the female body is constructed and controlled on a global scale. She lives with a powerful intensity, loud and unapologetic, fearless and unchained. Wings spread wide, lifting up half the sky. Flames dripping from her mouth. She sent me a quote last year by an unknown author, and so to me it became my mother’s own quote. “Don’t fashion me into a maiden that needs saving from a dragon,” it burns. “I am the dragon, and I will eat you whole.”
A recent graduate from Hobart and William Smith Colleges, LAUREL BROWN is from Cleveland, Ohio. Previous works have been published in her college’s newspaper and student-run magazine, The Herald and The Martini, respectively. She is eager to share her work as she continues to explore the world through writing.
Note: Images used in the piece were taken in Geneva, NY, at a women’s strike in the fall of 2016. Laurel Brown was the photographer.
Featured image: Egypt, “Fragment of a Queen’s Face,” yellow jasper, Dynasty 18, New Kingdom, Amarna Period, reign of Akhenaten, ca. 1353-1336 B.C., The Metropolitan Museum of Art.