For a few years now, I’ve used the 30-minute version of Maggie Hadleigh-West’s film, “War Zone“, in my basic writing course (excerpt above). I also used to work in Manhattan for about five years, and often found myself with a female co-worker navigating our lunchtime walks around construction sites or generally wherever men are known to gather, to avoid catcalling or worse. If we didn’t respond, the “compliments” immediately turned to aggression, “You’re ugly anyway” or “snobby bitches” & similar rebuttals to our silence. Hadleigh-West’s reaction was just the opposite of the standard: she took a video camera back in the early nineties and turned it on the men who, as strangers on the street, felt compelled to ‘innocently’ publicly appraise women’s bodies via a range of remarks. In turn, their responses range, as seen in the film, from curious engagement with the filmmaker to actual physical confrontation.
Now, I recently discovered that there is a movement in many cities called “Holla Back” – a flip on the urban street term, “Holla Back Girls” – that takes Hadleigh-West’s idea to the next level of engagement as a mass movement. The websites encourage women and men to use their cell phones to document instances of harassment and send it in with the accompanying story. I’d like all of my students who claim that ‘a polite compliment on the street is harmless’ to see that there is a context, an actual consistant level of harassment on the street that they are feeding into and that women deal with on a daily basis. The context affects our mobility and our sense of safety. The Holla Back New York City site has enough examples to line the garbage cans for years to come, especially for those who think such a harassment culture is a figment of our imaginations because you are not one of those who become aggressive.
Special note: This is not an indictment of men. This is not an indictment of you, particularly if you aren’t a participant in the public spaces of harassment.
P.S. I’m happy to see that Maggie has a new documentary film coming out, “Player Hater“. Looks revealing …
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Amy King is the recipient of the 2015 Winner of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) Award. Her latest collection, The Missing Museum, is a winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. She co-edited with Heidi Lynn Staples the anthology Big Energy Poets of the Anthropocene: When Ecopoets Think Climate Change. She also co-edits the anthology series, Bettering American Poetry, and is a professor of creative writing at SUNY Nassau Community College.