Unless you haven’t been on the Internet at all over the past week, you’ve probably already seen or at least heard about “10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman,” the viral video created by Hollaback, a non-profit and movement to end street harassment. Published on YouTube on October 28th, within 24 hours it had already racked up 6 million views and five days later it was up to 29.5 million. Predictably, the Internets have exploded.
Before I get to the vocal, reality-denying reactions (and believe me, I’ll get there), there were a few critics that brought up very valid points. For example, Hanna Rosin writing for Slate was one of the first to point out that there were virtually no white men in the video. All but one of the perpetrators of harassment that were included in the final cut are some shade of brown. As Rosin says, rather than “10 hours of walking in NYC as a woman,” more specifically “it’s a video of a young white woman who is harassed by mostly black and Latino men as she walks around New York City.” Dee Locket, also writing for Slate, responded with her own perspective on why we don’t see any white guys in the video, and brings up some interesting points regarding social constructions and power dynamics.
Personally, I prefer Jessica William’s take on catcalling and street harassment. She focuses on her daily commute, explaining that “for most guys, it’s just a calm, boring commute, but for me it’s like I’m competing in a beauty pageant every day” and finally finds the ultimate solution: a 55-minute route where she manages to avoid “teenagers at the bodega,” “creepy guys playing dominoes,” “white guys, Latino guys, black guys, and Middle Eastern guys.” She spares no one. I enjoyed the video because I think comedy is an effective medium for encouraging people to be aware of realities that might make them uncomfortable. It was also quite relatable, because every woman has modified her route at least once to avoid a potentially threatening situation. I also highly recommend the parody video, “10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Man.”
However, today I’d like to write about, an indeed TO the (mostly) men and women all over the world who reacted to the 10 hours video by saying things like:
“Nothing grinds my gears more than women who are too good to talk to or acknowledge a man complimenting them. They seem full of themselves and should walk off a bridge”
“You can’t just say thank you? What is the world coming too?”
And those comments are from Facebook profiles of people I know personally – the comments in other forums are far more aggressive, misogynistic and violent. The actress in the video, who volunteered her time, has already received rape and death threats. I would invite you to read through the YouTube comments on the video itself, but I personally only got through those that had been posted within the past 15 minutes before I started fearing for the future of humanity.
For the record, I wouldn’t classify every comment made in the video as harassment. The man who passes the actress on the sidewalk and says “have a nice evening” would not qualify. “Have a nice evening darlin’ ” is pushing it because I am not your darling, but I’m from the south so I’ll let it slide. “What’s up beautiful? Have a good day” is also ok, given that the comment was made in passing and the man obviously wasn’t waiting for a response. But anything involving a question, i.e. “how you doing?” “how are you this morning?” etc. is moving into uncomfortable territory because those questions expect a response. In other contexts these are completely normal questions to which any woman would happily reply. For example, you’re paying for your groceries and the cashier asks how you’re doing. You run into a colleague in the elevator. You check in for a doctor’s appointment. In these situations, you are face to face with someone and interaction is normal and expected. On the street, interaction is not expected and when you’re just trying to get somewhere you generally don’t want to stop and engage in small talk with a complete stranger for no reason.
Let me try to show you why women don’t “just say thank you” and smile and consider themselves fortunate to have received not only your attention but also a positive review. I will also try to explain why this doesn’t make us “full of ourselves” or bitches, or deserving of a one-way trip off a bridge.
Imagine that you’re taking the metro home. You’ve had a long day and you’ve got your headphones on and you’re trying to figure out the next steps for a complex work report that you have to submit next week. The doors open, and a jolly accordion player steps on. He performs at full volume and ends with a heartfelt rendition of “La Bamba.” Considering that you see metro performers at least a couple times a week and they seem to always play “La Bamba,” you are less than impressed. Furthermore, the accordion isn’t really your cup of tea, and the musician was so loud that you had to turn off your own music and you completely lost your train of thought. The performer then moves through the metro car with a cup of change, asking for contributions. He stops in front of your seat and shakes the cup at you. You don’t react.
The previously jolly accordion player suddenly gets angry.
“WHAT THE ACTUAL F*CK, DUDE? You were just treated to a free, intimate musical performance. People pay good money for concerts like this, and you were offered it for nothing at all! You didn’t even have to go out of your way; I brought the performance to you! The LEAST you could do is smile and say thank you, and you should really give me your spare change…no? Wow, you must truly be a stuck-up, entitled dickhead.”
Does this reaction sound silly? That’s because it is. The accordion player gave a free performance, true. But you neither asked for, nor wanted the performance and you actually found the whole experience a bit irritating because you can’t remember which part of your project you were working on before “La Bamba” exploded in your face. Plus, you know you can expect more or less the exact same thing later this week, and this weekend, and next week, etc.
To be clear, in this situation you are all women and the accordion player is the guy who says “hey beautiful” or “god bless you” on the street. Hey, I’m sure that some people are into accordion music and if these musicians keep playing that means that someone must be smiling and giving them spare change. In my city specifically, I’ve noticed that these people are often tourists who have never seen an accordion performance before. But that does not mean that you, as the commuter lambda, are REQUIRED to show gratitude and if you don’t you should go kill yourself. And lets be honest, the effort, gumption and training required to perform on public transportation is way beyond what is required to catcall a woman on the street.
And yet, this comparison really isn’t sufficient. It covers the annoyance aspect, the fact that cat calling (even if it is delivered as a “compliment”) is a regular occurrence, an invasion of personal space and that victims shouldn’t be expected to always respond and positively at that. However, it doesn’t take into account the inherent threat that a woman feels in public spaces when she is the object of a man’s unwanted attention. If you don’t show gratitude for a metro performer, they just move on. But in the context of catcalling, there is a remarkably short distance (read: 1-2 seconds) between “hey beautiful” and “fuck you, you stupid bitch.” In some cases, there is also an alarmingly short distance between verbal aggression (“fuck you, you stupid bitch”) and physical aggression.
Women have developed a remarkable capacity to immediately sense whether or not a situation is implicitly threatening, but we are not mind readers. The negative experiences we’ve all had with a man/men in public places make us constantly wary. These negative experiences range from verbal attacks and being followed to sexual assault, rape and murder. For example, early last month a woman’s throat was slashed for turning down a date. I wish I were making this shit up. Knowing that an unpredictable and violent reaction is a very real possibility, women in public places prefer to play it safe. We can’t read your mind, and don’t know that you’re just trying to be nice. And so we play deaf and dumb, and don’t react at all.
Let me put it this way – when you visit a website and a window pops up telling you that you’re the 100,000th visitor and that if you click the link below you’ll receive a free gift card, do you click? Have you ever clicked? I mean c’mon, not ALL pop-ups like this are dangerous, maybe you really are the 100,000th visitor and the website just wants to reward you for your patronage. But you never click. Why not?
Well, in the best-case scenario, you click and you’re taken to a new webpage, disrupting whatever it was you were doing before. Or, slightly more irritating, by clicking you somehow open up the floodgates to thousands of other pop-ups and advertisements and you spend a good 5 minutes trying to close everything down because you’re not interested in anything they’re selling. In the worst-case scenario, by clicking the link you inadvertently download a malicious virus that works its way into your computer and makes all of your personal information publicly available. Within a few days, your identity has been stolen, your credit card bills are through the roof and your photos and emails are plastered all over the Internet. Unlikely? Yes. Impossible? No. I think we can all agree that the safest option is just to close those pop-up windows, rather than clicking on the flashing neon link.
In general, complimenting a woman who is by herself in a public place is just not the best time. The potential consequences if she responds far outweigh the benefits (of which there generally are none for her). Women walking alone are almost always aware of their surroundings and of the fact that they are vulnerable. This is not the best mindset to graciously acknowledge and accept a compliment from a random stranger, no matter how well meaning he might be.
As Jessica Williams helpfully explains in the video cited above, there are rules to avoid unwanted attention: “Rule number one, always wear oversized headphones. Rule number two, master the fake phone call. Rule number three, avoid all eye contact. Keep your head down.” She also suggests other solutions, such as having a “bitch face,” acting crazy or traveling in a huge group. This is great comedy because it’s all 100% relatable. All women have been there. A woman’s headphones, set expression and silence in the face of catcalls and compliments is her defense system and for the love of all things, STOP TAKING IT PERSONALLY.
A woman’s reaction or lack thereof is not about you. It is about her, and what she has going on in her head that day and her whole lifetime of experiences. Her reality may be, and most likely is vastly different from yours. Instead of denying her reality or calling her a bitch, just take a deep breath and accept it. And please keep in mind, Mr. Man Who Just Wants To Compliment Women In Public Places, you and your pure-hearted nature are in the minority. Most men who catcall or make “complimentary” comments to women on the street don’t just want to spread a little joy or start a conversation.
As a friend of mine explained, “A) I’m just trying to get where I’m going, I don’t need to be shouted at, no matter the content of the message. B) Admire people if you want, but you don’t see me calling out to sexy dudes I see in the street, so why do guys feel entitled to do that? C) When has a girl turned around after a catcall and said you know what? You seem like a great guy let’s date? No, that never happens so the motive behind the catcalls for the guys must be something else.”
Here’s the thing guys. It is 100% possible to compliment a woman without being creepy. I promise. There is a very, very fine line between “harmless compliment” and “creepy,” but I’ve been in situations where men have successfully and refreshingly walked that line with class and elegance. It’s all about the attitude of the person talking, what they say and how they say it. More importantly, it’s about not needing or expecting anything from me in exchange. Not demanding my attention, or that I respond. It’s about respecting me as a person, and my right to react as I see fit without fear of reprisal.
Some people are really into accordion music. Other people don’t mind it one way or the other. But most people, if given the choice, would probably say that they could do without it on any given day. Especially if listening to accordion music were associated with a legitimate risk of verbal and/or physical aggression. I believe that everyone would be happier if you saved your performances for private settings with people you know will appreciate them. I’m just trying to go home, so please get your accordion out of my face.
To conclude, here is the full comic I used for the cover image, and here is a helpful flowchart by Playboy: