Hey there, beautiful

Opinion by Mina Shah
Nov. 11, 2014, 8:56 p.m.

Just over two weeks ago, Hollaback!, a harassment awareness group, uploaded a video to YouTube of an actress walking in New York City. The video contains footage of the actress’ ten hour walk through the city, during which she experienced over one hundred instances of street harassment or catcalling. The video intended to call attention to the regularity of harassment that women face daily. Responses to the video have been greatly varied, and while some of the organization’s intended impact has occurred, the negative backlash has been not only striking but also illuminating.

Critiques of the video have included questioning the video’s accuracy of representation and its creation by an agency with a particular agenda. Other conversations have been centered around men’s reactions being a result of what she’s wearing, as her outfit indicates she wants attention; that she’s just being complimented and this isn’t harassment; that she should be grateful for the attention; that women ought to simply stand up for themselves if they don’t like the attention. There has also been criticism about the socioeconomic and racial dynamics at play in the video: None of the men who talk to the walking woman are white or wealthy, possibly suggesting that there is a particular demographic of man that does this kind of harassing.

There are, however, problems with these objections. Firstly, comments about her outfit – that dressing a certain way means that she wants attention – sound remarkably like the victim-blaming culture surrounding rape in America. It does nothing to solve the issue of harassment at hand if we teach women to dress differently but do not teach men to curb their initial reactions. Having a woman “fix” her outfit in order to draw less attention to herself would treat a symptom of the problem, not its underlying cause.

The conversation around outfits is incompatible with the assertion that this isn’t in fact harassment. Claims of normativity – that women “should” feel or “ought to” respond in a certain way and not in others – are simply unproductive. Minimizing some women’s outrage or offense won’t change the fact that many women take offense when receiving the attention illustrated in the video. There must be something, though, in the video that strikes a chord with people who don’t want its message spread; the actress in the video has received several rape threats since it hit the web.

Additionally, it seems unfair to suggest that a person ought to change his or her behavior when someone else is doing something to make that person uncomfortable. If one child in a kindergarten classroom were to yell at or bully a classmate, a kindergarten teacher in that scenario would never tell the bullied child that he or she shouldn’t have provoked the first child by wearing a particular article of clothing or by being in proximity to the bully. The teacher would at least not do so without also reprimanding the bully and talking with him or her about why that was maybe not the best way to communicate.

Next, consider the critique that women ought to stand up for themselves. It is difficult to want to stand up for oneself when there is a fear that verbal harassment could escalate to something physical. And similarly to the outfit critique, this band-aid solution addresses a symptom of the problem, a post-haste correction, doing nothing to prevent such harassment from occurring in the first place. If every woman were to stand up and say something each time she experienced harassment, they might be able to slowly teach men that this behavior is not okay. However, verbal harassment takes place at such a high incidence that stopping to take time explaining why catcalling is unacceptable would simply take too much time, making it an unreasonable ask.

The video is certainly problematic as far as racial diversity is concerned, because by editing out all of the white harassers, it reinforces stereotypes that black and Latino men are more likely (or taken farther, the only ones) who harass women. This is intuitively false, so the video doesn’t do the best job here. Though this doesn’t correct the issue, the agency creating the video has apologized for this the lack of comprehensive racial inclusion. It should also be noted that at the end of the video, the closing screen makes a point of saying that the harassment was perpetrated by people of all backgrounds. The discussion about race and how Hollaback! could have done better, though, doesn’t change the fact that street harassment is in fact a problem and must be dealt with.

Not only are the aforementioned arguments ineffective at deflating the video’s intent, they move us toward the wrong sorts of conversations regarding the matter at hand. Instead of trying to correct our reactions toward the video or determine whether people have a right to be offended, we ought to be focusing on discussing what the video intends to convey without minimizing or writing off any reactions to it. To do so, we’d need to gauge people’s reactions to the video and seriously listen about why the video made them feel the way it did. Accusatory attitudes, ad hominem attacks and normative claims do nothing more than to shut down the important conversations that need to be had surrounding gender and power dynamics in contemporary society.

Contact Mina Shah at minashah ‘at’ stanford.edu

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