Since I started blogging (albeit sporadically) three or four years ago, I have wondered whether I am prepared to be more political online. My blog so far has been very topic-focused (e.g. food). I dipped my toe into the water a few months back, but this post is not representative, in that it is very narrative rather than opinionated.
I am very aware of some of the downsides of having an internet presence as a woman (and, particularly, one expressing feminist sentiments – to quote Rebecca West, “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.”), particularly following a couple of events. First, the campaign to put Jane Austen on a bank note (following the removal of Elizabeth Fry which made sterling a boys-own club) which resulted in extreme misogynist trolling (including rape and death threats) of the campaign leader Caroline Criado-Perez. Then, more recently, with the discussion of Gamergate.
I have a number of blogposts running in my head, at any one time, that could broadly be termed feminist. But over the last couple of days, I have had one that is bursting to get out.
You may well have seen the recent video of a woman walking through New York City for one day, and the amount of catcalling she experiences during that time. I watched it about a week ago, and had an interesting reaction to it. What I liked about it was that a (small) number of the “catcalls” identified in the video were nothing more than a “good morning”, a larger number were references to her attractiveness (e.g. “god morning beautiful”) but, seemingly, without any expectation of response, and the frightening ones were continued one-sided “conversations” where the speaker seemed to resent either her facial expression, the fact she didn’t acknowledge or reciprocate his compliment, or (in one creepy example) a guy who said nothing but spent more than ten minutes walking next to her, staring at her.
For me, it was quite a revelatory video. Every woman has her own experiences to call on, when talking about catcalling. My own experiences range from:
- As a teenager, walking home from the pub with three (female) friends, finding ourselves with a tail who – once we were on low-lit suburban streets – took his penis out and started muttering about what he was going to do to us;
- In my early thirties, walking home at night from the station in my duvet-style coat in winter (I kid you not, a spectator only knew I was a woman because of my height, this coat was so shapeless), when a passer-by said “nice tits!”).
My own view is that, in isolation, it is impossible (and possibly wrong) to object to someone saying hello. It is difficult to object to being given a compliment. But the point of this video is that, for women, even a simple “good morning” is in a tricky context.
When the salutations and the compliments come in the context of:
- Being told by everyone that what you wear and how you conduct yourself dictates how you will be treated, and that therefore, if you were wearing the wrong thing or reacted the wrong way, it is your fault if you are assaulted;
- Together with the above, a few people being creepy can make the majority seem creepy too.
I was ready to leave the video be, a little bit with “I’m forty-something” making me feel complacent. And then I watched this video from CNN.
Have you ever seen someone as blissfully unaware that his opinion is irrelevant? Reading the intro, I was ready for “mansplaining” meaning he was going to be “new man”. How wrong was I? My three favourite things:
- His inability to hear what women think, explained calmly and rationally by a woman;
- Her succinct explanation that, regardless of how the video was made, it represented an authentic experience; and
- The anchor’s ability to recognise when she was auditorialising, and pulling it back, so the interviewee could give her view.
It is difficult for men to understand how their public interactions with women are interpreted. But they should watch this video and learn. There is no single female experience, but when seeing women on the street, they should bear in mind the possibility that the woman they want to compliment is:
- A rape survivor, who does not find any male attention “complimentary”;
- Thinking seriously about the day ahead, or her next meal, or what she read in a book just now, or anything; or
- Not attracted to them.
None of these is a good reason to yell at them that they are either ugly, a lesbian or frigid. Or indeed anything else. It is not a woman’s job to be attentive to all men they meet. Nor is it her job to be physically attractive or smile all the time (“seriously, how do you know I’m not having a bad day?”). And while it would be lovely if someone saying “good morning” could always be reciprocated, in a world where a tiny number of men see that as invitation to rape and murder, please excuse women if they don’t always reciprocate.
While we’re at it, the nutty guy in the video seemed to think the appropriate way for a woman to deal with catcalling is to turn around and holler back. Given that he was criticising a video made by an organisation called Hollaback, that’s quite entertaining. However there’s a reason that women don’t holler back, that they tend to avoid eye contact and speed up. Actually two. One was brought up in the above video; women suffer violence when they stand up to catcalling. The other is that sometimes law enforcement perceive the woman’s verbal reaction as being more serious than the original verbal incitement (even when it is persistent). Because gender stereotypes identify a vocal woman as more aggressive than a vocal man or men.