A Catcall Crisis?

Whenever I bring up the topic of street harassment with men, they tell me they just don’t see it. Literally: When they’re walking down the street with a woman, other men don’t make a noise. Last week there was a bit of a kerfuffle over a video of a woman walking the streets of New York and being catcalled by guys. Most of the catcalls were comparatively tame, though not all were, and the result was a predictable storm of attention on the Internet via Twitter and other social media, exactly as the video’s producers – , an anti-street harassment organization called Hallaback – intended.

To film the video, Rob Bliss outfitted a backpack with a hidden camera and walked across New York City streets for ten hours in front of actress Shoshana B. Roberts, who was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt and holding a microphone in each hand. Bliss’ camera caught men approaching, leering, and trailing Roberts’ movements; the mics recorded their comments, which ranged from ostensibly friendly greetings (“Have a nice evening!”) to unsolicited commentaries on Roberts’ body (“Sexy!”) to absurd commands (“Smile!”) to pure expressions of entitlement (“Somebody’s acknowledging you for being beautiful! You should say thank you more!”). The ceaseless chatter (plus some light stalking!) adds up to a constant reminder that, just for walking from point A to point B, some men believe that women’s bodies and minds should be made accessible to them on command. “How are you this morning?” doesn’t sound so sinister. But when a male stranger shouts it, it’s just another unearned claim for a woman’s attention—one that could escalate should the woman so much as bat an eyelash. Roberts didn’t; she still got harassed at every turn. Bliss recorded more than 100 instances of verbal harassment in all, and that doesn’t include winks and whistles.

However, since the video has gone viral it has endured a lot of criticism. More specifically, the argument that the video represents a young white woman who is harassed by mostly black and Latino men as she walks around New York City for 10 hours….But. activism is never perfectly executed. We can just conclude that they caught a small slice of catcallers, and lots of other men do it, too. But if the point of this video is to teach men about the day-to-day reality of women, then this video doesn’t hit its target. The men who are sitting in their offices or in cafes watching this video will instead be able to comfortably assure themselves that they don’t have time to sit on hydrants in the middle of the day and can’t properly pronounce “mami.” They might do things to women that are worse than catcalling, but this is not their sin.Bliss says he wanted to create this “because I think a lot of men don’t understand the collective weight that this harassment causes. They see it as just an innocent ‘compliment’ but are missing the forest for the trees.”

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