This Is Not An Indictment
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 …
7 Responses to “This Is Not An Indictment”
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AMY KING View All →
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.
July 8th, 2007 at 10:46 pm eWhen I’ve called out men on the street for saying inappropriate things to women passing by, most of the time the situation becomes a confrontation, as if I attacked their manhood. I’ve had to squelch this impulse because one time it got me surrounded by a moving company worth of young men who decided that this “four-eyed faggot” should shut. They were not very polite. I’m embarrassed for my sex when I see men behave this way. Thank you for clarifying that you are not indicting men. At times, however, a good number of men act indefensibly bad.
July 10th, 2007 at 2:50 pm eIt’s such an act of dominance and the moment the hecklers are confronted they are shocked that someone would challenge that dominance. I was especially amused by the old dirty white men who seemed to become much more irritated when confronted than the others.
I received your package, by the way, and it made my day!!! I’ve got something coming back at ya.
July 10th, 2007 at 11:33 pm eI’m so curious how your students respond to this film. Is it difficult to keep the discussion fruitful and generative?
July 12th, 2007 at 9:05 pm eThanks for speaking up, Tim — every little resistance has its merits. Sorry the aggression turns on you though.
Rachel, You’re most welcome!
Kate, I get the regular person who feels they’re being attacked, usually because they hit women up on friendly terms only, so to speak. In fact though, many men and women tend to speak up against the defender, and on the whole, discussions have been fruitful. I can’t say that any have been primarily negative. I’m often surprised by how many women tend to speak up after the film. The worst that happens consistently is a guy or two will comment on how unattractive Maggie is, clearly missing the whole point. But I’m usually not alone in clarifying the point – actually, never have I been. It’s a worthwhile classroom tool for sure. I also use it in conjunction with a film called, “Tough Guise”, by Jackson Katz, which is an excellent documentary on many levels. You can discuss the way an argument is constructed and organized, how the evidence supports or illustrates the claim/s, etc. It is also a way into talking about how a violent masculinity is normalized and enforced.
July 15th, 2007 at 5:00 am eI have a confession to make– I am male and I check people out, in all kinds of places. There is a fuzzy line, but still a line, between sexual harassment and appreciation of somene’s beauty. I stay on the latter side, I believe; I never make “catcalls”, etc. and if I do remark on the beauty of a woman, I don’t say it in earshot of her. But sure, if she passes and I turn my head around to look at her ass, what’s so bad about that?
First: some women obviously want people to look at them, otherwise they will not dress in such a sexy way. That doesn’t make it OK to harass though.
Second: I’m sure that as a woman you would not want all men to not look at you when they’re attracted to you, ever. If the kinds of looks are purely sexual, and you feel “reduced” to a sex object, you still might acknowledge that sexual attraction is part of life.
Third: If you want the cute ones to be interested in you, then be sure that the not-so-cute ones are also going to be interested–the old, the fat, the dirty, etc.
I am getting tired of people who complain of “dirty old men” who probably are as clean as the rest of us, who simply happen to be “old” (age discrimination?) and still have sexual interests. It’s as if being old and having a sexuality were something to be ashamed of.
July 16th, 2007 at 8:40 pm eNot sure where you’re getting the “dirty old men” reference in here, or if you’re just bringing it in, Corin — but you’ve pointed out the distinctions that no one is disagreeing with; there’s a big difference between leering and saying things to women in public, and covertly or subtly checking someone out. I imagine we all agree that each human is curious about the other, and in some way, sexualized or not, checks others out. The problem enters when strange men in public feel free to act, verbally or more, towards other women in a way that makes them uncomfortable — what we call the “unwelcome” approach, I suppose. In the south, we say hello to folks on the street regulary, but women are often subjected to that moment when the friendly hello becomes something of a pursuit that they did not invite, thus putting them in the position of saying no or worse. Of course, there are also social settings where the approach is more expected such as a bar scene or party, but that’s not the same as walking down the street in a culture that becomes increasingly violent when women don’t respond in the affirmative. Subtely checking out? Yes, expected. Trying to get a date or some sort of rise from strange women? No, not welcome at all in most cases. Save it for the “pick-up scene” or a friend’s blind date set-up, etc.
July 18th, 2007 at 7:20 am eI am glad that you can see where I am coming from. I think I mentioned the “dirty old men” because it was apparent in the movie, and I had already overhead some fairly young (25 or so), saccharine-sweet, really privileged-looking woman talk disparagingly about men who hit on her who are not of her preferred age and class status.
I am sorry that my comment came a bit defensively. I recently also had a female friend complain about being harassed in her neighborhood. I also believe that the problems of having been rejected or ignored, which results from not sufficiently fulfilling women’s definition of appropriate “masculine” roles, leads men to express their hopelessness in gender relations by acting in this way.
I also think that most of the time when you may hear such remarks, they’re made by the same small percentage of men while the majority are standing by without necessarily intervening, because it would reveal themselves as “faggots” or whatever.
Either position isn’t acceptable to me, but I do not know what I would do if I were in a position where I was trying to maintain my masculine advantage due to sexism; for street credibility or at Wall Street. Luckily I am the person I am, and will not have to state my opposition to people who have long been my neighbors, coworkers and friends.