In Knee Length, poet and journalist Khalisa Rae navigates the nuances of an inherited conservative legacy. Pulling from memories of her religious upbringing and education, family history, and matrilineal teachings, Knee Length is a history reimagined and excavated—a rebellious relearning of desire and respectability, family and faith.
The Beast is Just a Beast, and Beauty Can Walk Away
I remember the first time I heard “Clean Up Woman” by Betty Wright. What came to mind for me was that Black women are always asked to be the cleaners of messes—goddesses capable of transforming something from broken to mended, smudged to sparkling. All of that sounded like a lot of weight and responsibility resting on our shoulders because men didn’t want to do the work. Women are to be shuffled into their dirty silos to sweep out the cobwebs and reveal the shining china that was underneath the filth. We are always the seers of potential, and this investment of time and labor never sat right with me.
Women have always been asked to do it all. Take care of the home, cook, rear the children, give advice, be the source of moral rectitude / the shoulder to cry on / the repairwoman tasked with solving every crisis, domestic or otherwise. This impossible standard pervaded every romantic relationship around me growing up. I saw how the older deaconesses and church board members would come to younger women’s rescue when their relationships fell apart. They’d pick them up off the ground after he cheated with so-and-so or left her with the kids. I would eavesdrop when my mother was talking on the phone, or when Sunday school teachers gossiped about how Ms. Sally stayed with Leroy when he didn’t have a job, always driving him around and lending him money. I internalized this to mean that women are fixers tasked with revitalizing broken men. If a man’s parents failed in rearing and providing him with the tools to be independent, emotionally intelligent, and well-adjusted, no problem—a woman will come and pick up the pieces.
For years, I heard women share stories of grandparents that stayed together in spite of all sorts of problems. Of fathers like mine with raging tempers that the rest of the family learned to tiptoe around. A 1991 LA Times article “The Return of the Brute” went so far as to argue that women don’t actually want a “nice” guy at all—they want to be thrown around and have their shirts ripped by a muscular “bad” guy. They are willing to deal with controlling personalities, disrespect, and aggression for the sexual thrill.
Much of this myth and romanticization of toxic relationships came from popular movies and romance novels at the time. As a girl, I’d always see Zane and other romance novel covers with the infamous Fabio, shirtless and seductive. Though my mother never let me read them, I’d sneak off in bookstores to skim through the pages and flip to the juiciest scenes: candlelit nights where a man overcome with passion lifts his lover and throws her against a wall. A debonair Lothario who makes women dizzy with a martini and authoritative lovemaking. It didn’t take long to realize that this was all a fantasy.
The angry, passionate brute was a coveted archetype. It was easy to romanticize the disrespectful jackass with a sharp tongue and chiseled abs. The tortured, wounded Christian Grey character was a sexual dynamo who just needed an innocent, doe-eyed girl to cure what ailed him. I was drawn in, but also found these characters unsettling; I saw that even though they got your heart racing watching them on screen, this never played out in real life. The glorification of the brute revealed itself to be a disappointing lie when I was a teen who dated a misguided, grief-ridden boy who would throw me against lockers, push, and shove me. Who was prepared to have sex but not at all prepared to respect my agency, body, or autonomy when I said no. Then I’d go home and find that violence reinforced. Watching and overhearing interactions between my parents taught me that there was nothing romantic about the way men bent women to their will.
Nights spent listening to my parents argue reminded me of the Beast raising his voice to Bell in the Disney classic Beauty and the Beast. In this movie, the message conveyed was that a woman’s job is to quench the blazing fires of a man’s rage with her sweet, passive demeanor and then be a stern mother figure like Belle when necessary. That ultimately, women are the perfect solution for broken monsters. Our love can break the spell cast over the toxic male to reveal the prince locked away beneath his terrifying exterior.
These dangerous depictions obscure important questions—who centers the woman’s safety? Who protects her when she fails to extinguish the man’s anger? Why is it a woman’s responsibility to calm the raging beast? And what happens if and when she finds herself on the receiving end of that anger? All my life, I watched women accept anger and failure from men at the expense of their own wellbeing. We put ourselves in danger to save them. Who made that our responsibility? And to what end? After years of watching this unhealthy dynamic play out, and never in the woman’s favor, I decided I was done being the glue-master destined to piece a man back together. I promised myself I would never be the woman that tries to gather the broken shards of a man and reassemble him into what I needed.
Looking back, I realize my mother never talked to me about the messaging in Beauty and the Beast. How the brute might be idealized and romanticized, but in reality, he might be guilty of domestic violence, manipulation, or abuse. No one sat me down to tell me that actually, Beauty and the Beast is a cautionary tale of Stockholm Syndrome.
I think of all the stories of women that stayed with their husbands “in spite of” and how we praised them for their resilience. I always wondered, just what was it in spite of—in spite of themselves? In spite of their safety, their children’s safety? What’s perpetuated here is the notion that not only can women “handle” heavy burdens but that our needs come last. Our well-being and happiness come last. What I long for, what I dream for us are well-adjusted, safe, and supportive partnerships, where everyone is safe and cared for. Relationships must be balanced and built on love and respect. Partnerships should be about being slow to anger and quick to listen—being a team of two whole people with emotional intelligence. The sad thing is, I grew up thinking that was the fantasy. That finding a man who knew how to communicate with words rather than fists was impossible. Now I know it is the standard.