SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2003        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Amy Vestal

Just the Way the World Works

    I remember like it was yesterday.  The summer after I turned 12, a rough time for any adolescent, I was struggling to find my own independence.  But I was still a little too young to do everything my way.  My brother was only a year older than me, and he was going through the same transition.  We had always lived by the same rules and had been treated equally by our parents.  But that summer everything changed, and I would never understand why.

    I remember it like it was yesterday.  As my 12 year old daughter looked up at me in shock, I felt ridden with guilt.  I was trying to be a good mom, trying to keep her safe. But she would never understand why.

    My mom had been watching Oprah on her day off, and on the show experts were talking about the rising rates of kidnapping in the United States.  At the end of the show they listed the top ten places young kids were being abducted from.  And on the top of the list was our local shopping mall.

    When I first saw the reports on Oprah about young girls being abducted from local shopping malls, I thought ‘how horrible’.  But then when they mentioned specific reports from my own local mall, I thought ‘this is a big deal’.  My own daughter goes to that mall with her friends.  It could be her next time.  The detective on the Oprah show talked about girls taken right from Phoenix, right from Arrowhead Mall.  They had been raped and beaten.  Some never returned home.  And they were all my daughter’s age. 

    In the early 1990’s the mall was a haven for young teens trying to escape their parents.  It was a hangout for kids of all ages. I was no different.  It was a break from responsibility and chores.  I could get away from it all and be completely safe, or so I had imagined.  At 12, I practically lived at the mall, as did my brother.  We were used to bumming rides from our parents and being free to roam the mall with our friends.  

    In the early 1990’s, the world was a changing place.  As the news reported, domestic violence issues were on the rise.  Violence against women was in the newspaper everyday.  As Oprah talked about the abductions, she also discussed possible reasons why this could be happening.  There was even a private detective and feminist activist on the show!  They explained how a social backlash on women might be the cause of such violence.  At this time, social roles and power structures were changing within the American home.  In the 1980’s women had gone to the workplace and demanded equal pay.  The 1990’s saw a huge gay movement, demanding recognition from the typical American.  All this threatened the dominant male power structure, and as the panelists speculated, was a major factor in the rising violence against women of all ages in this time period.  Malls were no longer safe.  Neither was my daughter.

    When my mom saw the report on Oprah, she changed the rules.  No longer was I allowed to go to the mall without any adult supervision.   The new rule was that either she or a friend’s parent had to accompany me at all times, end of story.  I was horrified.  None of my friends had rules like this!  But what I found more interesting is that the rules did not change for my brother.  He was barely a year older than me, but was still allowed all the previous privileges.  When I questioned my mother about this, I was dissatisfied with her response.  She explained that my brother did not have to follow the same rules because he was a boy, and things are different with boys and girls.  When I asked her for more explanation, she said she was sorry, but couldn’t really give me any more than that.  She recognized the double standard, but said that sometimes this was just the way the world worked.

    She had been going to the mall without parental supervision for about a year.  Her older brother was 14, and had the same privilege.  But as soon as I saw those reports, I knew I had to change the rules.  Of course I knew it was unfair.  But I did what I had to in order to keep my daughter safe.

    As I tried to explain this to my daughter, she reacted strongly.  She probably felt as though I was trying to spoil her fun.  But when she asked if her brother had to follow the same rules, I replied ‘no’.  It was different.  The show only mentioned young girls.  And teenage girls are always more vulnerable.  Boys can take care of themselves physically, if they are attacked.  And they seem to be less of a target.  But girls, they are a different story.  I just worried more about my daughter being alone than my son.  They were the same in most aspects: responsibility, maturity, etc.  But I worried more about her.  

    Looking back, I remember being upset and confused by the whole situation.  My mother could not explain to me why my brother and I had to live by different rules just because of our difference in gender.  We were both capable of making good decisions, but I required more protection based on the sole fact that I was female.  This was a new concept to me then, and the feeling of “difference” became quite clear in a shocking and painful way.

    So I changed the rules.  No more mall without a parent. I couldn’t give her the answers about why her brother was different, I didn’t have them. I knew she desperately needed a reason for this change, so the world would make sense once again.  I just couldn’t find one.  I just wanted her to be safe.  I just wanted to be a good mom.  

    Over the years as I grew up, I have both witnessed and experienced this feeling again and again.  The rules of gender make no logical sense, but dictate the majority of social role expectations.  I have never understood why the double standard surrounding gender exists, and often times I doubt I ever will.  I remember every time I go to a shopping mall, when I smell the aroma of the food court and see the young teenagers roam free. I will never forget the invisible border that lies between men and myself.  I stand at it everyday, hoping desperately to understand. 

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