There’s a moment in many movies. You’ve seen it: imminent danger, a desperate decision to flee, and someone, usually a man, cries out, “Women and children first!”
I saw versions of this moment three times recently. Once during Paramount network’s re-airing of Waco, when a frantic (and despicable) David Koresh yells to the ATF agents to stop shooting because the compound is full of women and children. And twice while watching a television rerun of Titanic — the “steerage” passengers have amassed at a locked gate, shaking it in terror and rage as an employee refuses to unlock it, and an Irish character bellows and begs for God’s sake there are women and children down here!; later, as the wooden lifeboats are lowered on their creaky ropes, and the crowd of first-class passengers begins to press and heave, a member of the crew imposes order by calling out women and children first!
I’d seen all three scenes before. They still made me cry. Each time, I felt my throat tighten and ache, I felt tears forming in my eyes. Those scenes always make me cry, or they at least move me to the verge of crying. Why?
Because it’s one of the few times our culture actually puts women and children first in a critical, non-purely-sentimental way. Few moments that involve both women and men together are truly oriented toward the wellbeing of women. Not just the beauty of women, or the femininity of women, or the physical “weakness” of women, or their role in relation to a man — of course I have seen men step aside so a well-dressed chick can walk down the street, of course I’ve seen people rise so the bride can make her way down the aisle in her whitened, decked-out splendor, of course I’ve seen a dude offer to lift a heavy box for a woman. I have been that woman. But those moments are different. Those moments are locked into our rigid ideas about what women are — pretty, soft, to be looked at; the danger-and-safety women and children first moments are about what women, as a cohort if not individuals, actually are: the givers and keepers of life, the beings from whom and through which every last one of us came, the people who keep it all going and without which there would be nothing. (To be sure, in the wrong hands, this idea can carry a whiff of politically-dangerous essentialism; mine are not those hands.)