The Deeply Flawed Viral Catcall Video Had Unintended Lessons to Teach

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The street harassment video created by Hollaback that went viral this week has started a long-needed conversation about catcalling — and about the way we frame the movement against catcalling.

When it first arrived on our feeds, the initial reaction among many women was something along the lines of: “Finally we can show men how it feels to walk while female!” The harassment women and LGBTQ people experience when alone or without straight male company had been effectively laid bare, the curtain drawn.

But soon thereafter, prominent feminist voices began to point out a not-so-small problem with the video:

The creator of the video made things worse by claiming to have “edited out” the white people, which seemed like a pretty terrible excuse for feeding into a racially problematic narrative.

Meanwhile, many others are taking the occasion to express ignorant and offensive opinions of different types. And by people, of course, I mean Joyce Carol Oates:

I will simply rebut this by noting that the two most traumatic harassment incidents I’ve experienced were right in my native, bougie, liberal neighborhood, the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Others confirmed my experience:

At the same time as the video was critiqued for lack of diversity, dudes were going bonkers about its otherwise anti-catcalling message. Responses ranged from sending rape threats to the woman in the video to a Fox News host calling her “a piece of woman” (helpful!) to men on the Internet merely taking a desperate stand for their sovereign right to holler at cuties at will. Because freedom.

As a native New Yorker who has barely ever lived anywhere else, my feelings about these street harassment PSA campaigns are decidedly mixed. I’m contentedly accustomed to receiving lots of chatter and hellos on the street; I even enjoy it when it feels neighborly and friendly. Much of it feels native to the city’s closely connected culture.

Yet I’ve also been on the receiving end of a handful of incidents of street harassment that were genuinely scarring, particularly the occasions when I was a very early adolescent and it compounded my miserable insecurity. Certainly more recently, there have been many times when I’ve had to steel myself to do errands, knowing I would have to “run the gauntlet” of unwelcome comments.

But as my mixed experience shows, our reactions to receiving catcalls and hollers on the street are subjective. One recipient’s “hello” is another’s harassment. So why is street harassment categorically problematic, even if it seems benign to some?

It’s bad precisely because it’s a daily manifestation of the belief that women’s bodies are public property. And that must be the focus of any pushback against it: women are never up-for-grabs, consumable. Approach us as human beings. Whether it’s on a corner, at a Wall Street firm, at a bar, or at a Dave Matthews concert (I see you, bros), women’s bodies are not subject to your unwanted commentary. Period.

The anti-street harassment movement must be conscious of fighting the noxious race and class subtexts that come up in these discussions. Maybe it shouldn’t even be called “street harassment,” which has class connotations. Maybe it should just be “public harassment.” Whatever it’s named, cutting white men’s sins out of the picture won’t cut it in terms of getting the message across. Because as so many people have noted this week, the problem is universal, sweeping across neighborhoods and other boundaries. The problem is a culture that believes women’s mere presence in shared space invites commentary, that women’s appearances are always up for discussion, anytime and anyplace.

And yet, I’m deeply gratified that this conversation has come to the surface. My friends and I have been whispering for years about how uncomfortable we are both with street harassment and with anti-street harassment narratives, which too often frame things as this video did.

The hundreds of conversations I’ve witnessed in the past 36 hours, —including women coming forward with their own harassment stories — and analyses of both the video and the responses to it*, have punctured a lot of silos and silences the topic. So I hope we continue talking to each other. That would be a heartening development from a deeply flawed short film.

*I got a cathartic chuckle out of the Funny or Die parody, which featured a white dude receiving high fives and job offers as he strolled the streets: