When Ellen Snortland confronted a knife-wielding burglar in the basement of her home, she did something any one of us in a dangerous situation might do: she screamed. The burglar ran off and Snortland escaped the situation unharmed, but she was left with a life-changing question to ponder.
“How come no one has talked to me about defending myself?”
It was a question she soon became obsessed by, and it drove her to survey as many men and women in her community as she could. She asked around at work, at grocery stores, on the street. What she discovered was that nearly one-hundred percent of the time, women admitted to not knowing how to defend themselves.
Then, another question came to mind: “Is this across all mammals?”
Both issues propelled Snortland into a whirlwind of research that resulted in a book entitled Beauty Bites Beast. In the book, she explored all the ways in which society, entertainment media, family values, and religion seem to work cohesively to keep women from owning their own physical power. The book received such an overwhelmingly positive response that Snortland embarked on a brand new venture. This time it was a documentary film called Beauty Bites Beast: The Missing Conversation about Ending Violence.
Beauty Bites Beast made its premiere in New York City this month and we were able to snag a few minutes from Snortland’s hectic schedule to talk in depth about the film:
Can you give us a general overview of Beauty Bites Beast so everyone knows what it’s about from your perspective?
I made the movie because a man who owns a factory in Tijuana, Mexico read my book and he wrote to me and he said, ‘Oh my word. I never thought about how scary it might be to be a woman. I’m tall, I’m well off, I’m privileged. Nobody ever hassles me on the street. Nobody ever hassles me and after I read ‘Beauty Bites Beast’ – which I call a how-come book, not a how-to book. It’s not teaching about self-defense. It’s giving you the lay of the land and why so many girls and women think of themselves as helpless and why we think of self-defense as a gendered trait, which my argument is: no, it’s not. So,’ he said, ‘what would it take for you to come down to my factory in Mexico for you to train the women who work for me?’ and I said, ‘Well, I would like to make that happen, but I want to tape it because I think this could be an amazing documentary.’
So that was the beginning of it, and so we taped these women going through the same class that we provide for middle class women in suburban L.A. or New York or wherever else we do these classes. And of course we knew this – it’s reliable, it’s predictable – they got the same things out of it that any woman does which is: ‘Wow, you know what? Men are human beings.’ They’re not cyborgs despite action movies that depict the far end of the ‘masculine’ – I put in quotes, masculine – spectrum and we keep increasing the violence in action movies, so that people will get their adrenaline rush, and they’re all highly choreographed and completely not realistic. You know, I enjoy an action movie occasionally. It’s not that – I’m not saying ban all action movies. It’s just that when you don’t use your consumer discernment and go, ‘Oh this is choreographed!’ it seems like men are just violent and scary. So why would you defend yourself? So the women that we trained in Mexico are the spine of the movie and then I thought, ‘You know what? I’m going to include women from all over the world.’ So we have women in Kenya and women in Jerusalem and women in North Dakota. As it turns out, the students in North Dakota are just the same as anybody else anywhere. They have to deal with predators. And also, I wanted to make it uplifting so that it’s a fun movie. You don’t walk out of there going, ‘Oh, it’s so terrible!’ You actually walk out of there going, ‘Ha! I just learned some things and I feel uplifted.’ When you think globally and act locally, there’s nothing more local than my own body. I really want to know how to take care of it in the event that somebody tries to overtake me with force.
In your journey to make this film, have you found that women from different cultures are conditioned the same way in terms of struggling to feel self-reliant and empowered?
Yep. As a matter of fact, there’s really hardly any difference except that there are more severe consequences for some women in some cultures to defend themselves than there are others. What I’ve noticed about Western women is that if I asked – if I had a survey of Western women and asked them, ‘Do you have the right to defend yourselves?’ I would probably get a hundred percent. The right. Now, when I say, ‘Do you have the ability to defend yourself?’ then the numbers would go way down. Now in other cultures where, you know, there are people that are still working on getting the right to drive a car or to vote, they’re on a different part of the spectrum of progress for women as human beings. But that said, we are still very much in the phase of women’s history that we are basically given permission to defend children that are under our care with every ounce of energy we have.
Now, one of the things I thought was really fascinating when I got involved in the whole world of what we call empowerment self-defense – which I’ll discern for you later if you want to know what I mean by that – is that we would have opening circles where we’re sitting and talking and we’d ask women to consider three different hypotheticals. One: what would you do if you saw somebody attacking a friend of yours? The women were engaged and they were thinking of solutions – they’d run and get help; they’d throw something at them; they’d divert attention. They were problem-solving. The second hypothetical was: what if somebody attacked a child that you are in charge of? And man, you see these women just turn into fierce, fierce – you know, I’d gouge his eyes out; I’d rip him limb from limb. And I’m like, okay! Then, the third, we say: what would you do if somebody attacked you? And then their faces just went blank. So, why the disconnect there? Well part of it is societally, socially it’s acceptable for a woman to be fierce on the behalf of someone else. But for herself, it isn’t a given. I think that’s fascinating. So one of my goals in life is to bridge women’s self care into the kind of care they would provide for a small person.
Why do you think it’s so difficult for us as a society to empower women and let them know that self-defense is integral to their physical and psychological well-being?
Well, I think there’s a lot of binary thinking and it’s either this or that. You’re either passive or you’re violent. And there’s nothing in between. That’s just not true. It’s true of men and it’s true of women that we’re all prey and we’re all predator. It just depends on who’s preying and who’s the predator and the scenario. But we’ve got this: either you’re masculine or you’re feminine. And that’s also a fiction. It’s like, I’ve got traits for both and all of us do, except for the most hyper, hyper masculine people that for [them] masculinity is all about being violent. Violent toward other people, violent toward themselves, like not allowing for feelings, not allowing for very human kinds of things that get labeled as feminine. So then on the other hyperextension of so-called femininity, we have the completely helpless female that can’t do anything and depends on the good graces of the masculine man. Now, the truth is most of us are flopping around in the middle somewhere, you know? That’s just how that goes. But we still are, as a society, pretty convinced that women are not capable of defending themselves against a violent man because that’s pretty much all the imagery we see. We’re almost brainwashed about it and there are some really, really bad self-defense classes out there.
When I said empowerment self-defense, what I mean is that whomever is teaching it understands the really cemented – and I assert – unsustainable thing is that women are just as capable of defending themselves as a male. They just have not really been shown or have had the chance to practice it. And these really bad self-defense classes don’t factor in the rigid, cemented, unsustainable socializing that most women go through. I just ran into it the other day. I was teaching at UCLA Law School where they use my book Beauty Bites Beast and this one young woman said, ‘Oh man, I’m almost using your book like a bible. I’m raising two kids. One is a nine-year old boy and the other is a three-year old girl. The boy is rough and he dominates the little girl.’ And the little girl kicked him – not in the groin, but in the face – and I said, ‘Did he have permanent damage?’ No, he didn’t. But he let her go. And the dad said, ‘Don’t let her do that. Put her in timeout.’ And her mom, having just read Beauty Bites Beast said, ‘No! I want her to understand that she has everything it takes to save herself. I’m not going to punish her for doing what she needed to do to make her brother let her go. I’m not going to do that.’ And she said that before she read my book, she probably would have put her in a timeout.
But if you can’t learn with siblings – that’s why I use puppy analogies so much. A mother dog does not separate dogs by gender and you see puppy litters tumbling around and growling and playing and biting each other’s ears and tails and having a good old time. And the girls are just as rowdy as the boys and it’s possible to train little girl dogs to cower and to – every time they make noise or get rough, you just scold them, ‘No!’ So it’s possible to do that, but within a generation you’d have some really screwed up puppies. And the little boy puppies would have no limits set on them. There would be no consequences to them being mean or rough with the little girl puppies. And that’s really weird, so when you talk about puppies and kitties, you know, it gives you a different perspective on what is a gendered trait and what isn’t.
Can you talk a little bit about how learning self-defense can change or improve a woman’s confidence and self-awareness? How have you seen individual women change as they’ve learned to defend themselves?
Oh my goodness. Well, the general answer to that is I see women walk in one way and walk out of the class another. They are more confident and a lot of them report back that, whereas they had to be really super wary with a lot of men, they trust their instincts and they understand that they are potentially dangerous to somebody who crosses their boundaries. And they also report that they like men better. If they don’t constantly have to be on guard or to be wondering about themselves or whether they could handle something, they can pretty much know that, if push came to shove, they can handle themselves.
And I think the counterintuitive thing is that we notice when we train peoples’ bodies, their abilities to set boundaries emotionally, their abilities to set boundaries verbally all go up once they get the physical piece. Because if you scratch the surface, what’s really scary for a lot of women is that if they set a boundary, they’ll get hurt. And Title IX has really helped. The girls we’re training now that are involved with contact sports or just really rough play, they are not as afraid of getting hurt as women who haven’t had that because they understand that they’re strong; they understand that they’re really able. And when we give them the tools of self-defense which are really simple, basically – the simple part is that all human beings, female or male, have tender places and all people have really hard places. So when you know where to put the hard places against the soft places, most people don’t want to mess with you.
I see people coming out with an understanding that they are a potentially dangerous mammal. In fact, when I took my first IMPACT Personal Safety course, which I’m on the board of them now, my first assignment from my teacher was to spend the next week walking around as if you are a dangerous mammal or a potentially dangerous mammal. And, wow, I was like, oh okay! Was I growling at people? No. I wasn’t being inappropriate or jumping on anybody. But, wow. Walking around in the world like I’m a potentially dangerous mammal is a lot different than ‘I hope nothing happens.’
That’s really interesting to me. Do you think that sort of self-awareness and empowerment changes for someone who has been in a traumatic situation? I believe that it might be hard to walk around as if you’re powerful if you feel powerless due to some kind of trauma.
What we’ve seen is that empowerment self-defense takes that into consideration. Most women we know have varying degrees of trauma or some kind of incident that belittled them where they feel smaller, and we see a lot of healing going on in these classes because it’s like you have a realization that, ‘Oh my word. This incident took so much away from me and I’m going to get it back.’ And so there’s a book called The Body Keeps the Score by a very famous psychologist. His name is Dr. Bessel van der Kolk (it’s a Dutch name). People store trauma in their body. I mean, that makes sense, right? This is our vehicle, this is how we get around in the world and if somebody’s hurt our body, we’re going to have memories of that in our body. And when you train in the martial arts or in what we call empowerment self-defense that factors all of that in, your body is very interested in surviving and not being traumatized. So, there’s a healing to what we do that we see time and again. And it’s so inspiring. We had one woman say that she hadn’t gone out after dark for ten years. Women, you know, they constrain themselves so that they don’t have to go through that again which makes a lot of sense. And when they do something that empowers them, then they start taking their lives back.
Yeah. The other thing I love is that this whole binary thinking that I think is at the core of our troubles – people think, ‘Oh, you’re either passive or you go nuts.’ And there’s not all of this in between stuff, but once you practice some of these things and you see some success stories and you hear women talk about what worked, we’re story-collecting creatures. And so far, what we’ve been collecting are the stories where women did not succeed. Once you start hearing more stories about where women did succeed, we collect those stories too.
So to use an example: I’ve been groped, I’ve been touched when I didn’t want to be touched. And I was frozen because I was in denial – ‘Wow, I didn’t do anything. Why is this happening to me?’ – trying to figure out what’s going on and, you know, ‘Am I going to get hurt worse if I stop them.’ Just the whole freeze that people go through, especially with people they know. It’s like, ‘What? I can’t even wrap my head around this.’ So by the time that you’ve wrapped your head around it, you may not be in the best position to deliver consequences or to take action. Right? This is such a common experience for so many people. I got groped underneath a dinner table once. And so all of a sudden, this guy that’s sitting next to me is groping me between my legs and I’m like, ‘What?!’ I’m sitting there, I’m embarrassed, his wife is sitting across from us. I’m trying to factor in what I’m supposed to do with this and then he slips his hand away. I just sat there mortified through the whole thing. They had two little children, and she was a good friend of mine. It was just all this awful stuff. Now, I’ve heard stories where women have said something like that happened to them and what they did is they grabbed the hand and said, ‘Oh I think you lost this. Let’s put it on top of the table where you can find it again.’
That’s pretty clever.
Right? But that’s somebody that was prepared because she didn’t have to deal with, ‘Oh this shouldn’t be happening. Why is this happening? Is this really happening?’ She was prepared and had thought through what she might do. So, the more women share with each other what they’ve done that works, the better off we’ll all be. And that’s why I think it’s really important to follow the Girl Scout motto, which is “Be prepared.” We know statistically that there’s a chance that’s somebody’s going to transgress and cross boundaries and be inappropriate all the way up to being violent. We know. So why is it that we’re not prepared for that? It’s a good question. Why are we not prepared for that? We prepare for car accidents. We prepare for all sorts of things that we don’t want to have happen. We prepare for the potential of drowning by having swimming lessons. So, there’s a movement that, ‘Well it’s up to men to change because they’re the ones that are committing the violence.’ Agreed! But it doesn’t have to go back to that binary thinking which is either men change or ‘I’m not going to change. Men have to change.’ Well, okay, yeah. Agreed. Men need to change. A lot of men need to change. But in the meantime, the people that are creating violence and creating problems, they didn’t get that memo and they don’t care what you think.
Right. It has to be a collective effort. Everybody’s mindset has to change about what’s going on and how men and women are dealing with these things.
We mentioned before about how our media perpetuates this idea that women need men to protect and guide them. Do you think that having more women in creative roles or behind the camera might help change that?
Absolutely. What stories get greenlighted at studios – TV’s doing a lot better than films, by the way – and here I am directing a film that’s about really criticizing the male dominated action hero model that we have. And we export, by the way. It’s easier to export a violent action movie than it is a comedy because you don’t have to translate BOOM! BOOM! But we’re also exporting misogyny and racism and classism and all sorts of things with our action films. Meanwhile, women’s films, which is a ghetto – they’re really human films – they keep women’s stories from being understood by men. Men are just as capable of being fond of and inspired by women’s stories. It’s just that we’re not used to seeing as many women and women, by the way, that are older. The ageism needs to be included in people’s sensitivity and intersectionality, too. I mean, when a woman hits 35 or 40, what is she going to do? Go out to the pasture because nobody wants to look at her anymore? That’s crazy. And ageism, of all the isms, everybody’s going to, if they’re lucky, have to confront. So, yeah, having women behind the camera, having women write screenplays, having women be in positions of power in the studios and all that kind of stuff definitely makes a difference. But it’s got to be a critical mass, not a few tokens, because if it’s just a few tokens they’re very concerned about keeping their jobs and don’t want to get branded as wimpy.
Beauty Bites Beast is especially resonant now given the current state of American politics. What do you hope the film’s legacy will be in the future, extending beyond this particular moment in time?
Well, my husband and I have been invited to Islamabad to the Islamic University of Islamabad by a Pakistani woman who saw Beauty Bites Beast. She was visiting here on an exchange program and she said, ‘Oh my word. Wow! I’m going to have you come to Islamabad and show this to up to three-hundred young Islamic scholars who are exploring gender relations’ And we tend to shy away from this constant threat of force that if women change, they’re going to have to deal with violence. And this fear. And frankly, it’s very hard to love people when you’re afraid of them. So, what I see is having opened up a conversation. That’s the subtitle of Beauty Bites Beast which is “The Missing Conversation about Ending Violence.” It’s like, okay, so we talk about before violence happens. You know, what you’re supposed to do to protect yourself, like: don’t go certain places; have a dog; live in a good neighborhood. We have all this advice about preventing violence that way. And then we have aftercare. Hotlines, counseling, that kind of stuff. But hardly anybody talks about what you’re supposed to do during an assault.
So, we’re the during-the-assault part of the conversation that is missing from most people’s dialogue or conversations about ending violence. And we keep diminishing, I believe, women by not giving them tools to handle in-the-moment. Will it work every time? No. Nothing works all the time. Air bags don’t work all the time. Seat belts don’t work all the time, but we do know that they reduce injury and death. So, I think it has a long life and I believe that it will help the conversation on a lot of levels.
Watch the trailer for Ellen Snortland’s Beauty Bites Beast.