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Be Angry: Resisting Public Sexism
By: Diana Emiko Tsuchida
This essay is the winner of our 2012 Hollaback! Essay Contest.
I’m not quite sure if every woman can recall her first public catcall. For me I vividly remember this moment as an end of innocence. It happened when I was twelve while walking home from summer school. Dressed in purple pastel overalls with a pink and purple striped shirt I was on the receiving end of a “Whoooo baby!” by a group of young teenagers in a car whizzing down my street. While what I wore that day has no impact on why I was hollered at, I mention it because after that incident I rarely wore those overalls again. To me, they were tainted with the memory of being objectified only a hundred feet away from my house. When I wore them, I distinctly remember feeling dirty. I remember that was the first day I told my mom about being hollered at and she was a little shocked with how enraged I was. My mother, a strong and righteous woman, would never be nothing less than protective of her daughter. However her reaction was an amalgamation of understanding yet dismissive. I remember how she comforted me with, “It’s going to happen. I know it can be rude, but sometimes it’s kind of a compliment.” I felt alone in my anger and confused with her small reassurance that it’s “okay” to be made an object of on the street. Fourteen years later, I still want to believe that perhaps I misinterpreted or misheard. Yet likewise today at twenty-six, many of my friends tell me to brush it off when we get called at on the street and that I should tone it down and not be so angry. Why do women muzzle each other? Why do we not collectively stand our ground as a group of women who, more likely than not, outnumber the men who shamelessly harass? While I continue to struggle with comprehending this attitude I also grasp why many women respond apathetically. We have all been bamboozled, manipulated, and ultimately forced into buying a patriarchal form of oppression that retorts with “boys will be boys.” At twelve and twenty-three, I know that my mother and friends were annoyed and offended, but the sobering truth of the matter is, no other woman in my life, has ever been as angry about street harassment as I have. It would appear that the women I deeply love have grown so accustomed that they are numb. In this essay I wish to expand on the pervasive influence of contemporary media imagery and the ways it significantly affects the social dynamics between men and women. This incessant “flattery” through harassment is deeply rooted in a cycle of fetish and hypersexualization that measures female worth based on male attention. While there are several nuanced and interlocking factors that uphold and perpetuate street harassment, this essay will focus on the impact of media representation and female public visibility that will underscore the necessity of being frustrated with the status quo.
Contemporary media images and discussion make a mockery of the problem, reinforcing and naturalizing this daily psychological violence. Allstate Insurance has managed to make a television and YouTube sensation out of the subject using their “Mayhem” gimmick in which Dean Winters personifies driving-related disasters#. One of the first commercials to air was “Jogger Mayhem” where Winters played a “hot babe out jogging.” Donning a pink headband and lifting matching pink weights, he talks to the camera and says, “I’m a hot babe out jogging. I’m making sure that this [pointing to his front] stays a ten…when you drive by.” As a car pulls into view, Winters starts to jog at the same slow and steady speed as the car that is following closely beside him. He winks to the mesmerized driver. Winter then says, “You’re checking out my awesome headband when…oops” and suddenly the car crashes into a light pole. This humorous approach to the well-known social “exchange” between jogging women and ogling men reveals much more about how pervasive it is, trivializing the matter so much as to claim that women positively respond and wink back to the men behind the wheel who stare. The fight over public freedom even extends far into the reaches of cyberspace. Take one of Beyonce’s recent (and apparently, controversial) videos to her song, “Run the World (Girls).”# The subsequent YouTube battle-of-the-sexes that commenced since the video first released continues to be a source of horrific fascination as even mentioning women running the world results in incredibly sexist backlash. In the song Beyonce sings about “reppin’ for the girls all over the world” while “raising a glass to the college grads” and how women are “strong enough to bear the children, then get back to business.” While the chorus repeats “Who run the world? Girls!” more of the song refers to how women can persuade their way into building a nation. While there is much more controversy over whether or not Beyonce’s artistic vision and execution of the song actually accomplishes a feminist goal, it is undeniable that the mere suggestion of switching gender roles or upsetting power dynamics unleashes a firestorm. Several YouTube users play on the lyrics and write that girls run the kitchen, that they need to get back in the kitchen, and that the only thing that girls run is their mouth. It would appear that even in a pop song the mere threat of encroachment into taking control of what has been traditionally masculine space is enough to create a watershed of sexism, hidden behind the cloak of anonymity through the Internet. In the streets, it is essentially the same. The safety and distance of being a stranger, albeit a perverted one, holds no accountability.
Curbing women’s public access and making light of restricting their space has detrimental effects for actually living a life that feels free. In Full Frontal Feminism, Jessica Valenti describes how women live according to the “rape schedule.” That is, whether consciously or not, women live with the constant fear of assault and act accordingly to protect themselves from an attack, whether it be walking a different way home to avoid sexual harassment or holding car keys like a weapon. She argues that it is essentially like being imprisoned and that this state of fear is so naturalized that women simply live with it rather than trying to confront or grapple with the foundational problem of sexism.# As it manifests in street harassment, we have learned to alter our public behavior and navigation to avoid the objectification. Yet in the world of media images, women are confronted with a schizophrenic message about their self-worth; one that is highly contingent on foregoing the bra-burning, man-hating feminism of yesteryear and embracing the hyper-feminine image of today’s go-getter woman. In Enlightened Sexism, Susan Douglas argues that contemporary sexism is cleverly concealed through the assumption that feminism has done its part, equality has been achieved and women can now return to the habits that were stifled during the “one-time” feminist movement. She traces the rise of makeover, engagement and matchmaker television shows to demonstrate how these ultra-feminist pastimes are once again in style and are popular among young women who find feminism disdainful. Douglas states, “Enlightened sexism is a response, deliberate or not, to the perceived threat of the new gender regime. It insists that women have made plenty of progress due to feminism—indeed, full equality has allegedly been achieved—so now it’s okay, even amusing, the resurrect sexist stereotypes of girls and women.”# With the onset of shows that range from brides-to-be who backstab each other for free plastic surgery or makeover shows that insist the key to success is making a good (read: sexy) first impression, women are inundated with contemporary messages that place a high premium on their bodily worth. Douglas argues that returning and glorifying the fundamental biological difference between the genders helps to create the illusion that the grunt work for female empowerment is accomplished and that women should be in touch with a sexualized public version of themselves. “Girls and women need to be reminded that they are still fundamentally female, and so must be emphatically feminine. Thus enlightened sexism takes the gains of the women’s movement as a given, and then uses them as permission to resurrect retrograde images of girls and women as sex objects.”# More importantly, these images heighten and romanticize heterosexuality as the norm and continue to assume that there is nothing alarming about the playful and flirtatious nature between men staring at and calling out to women on the streets. Just like a female jogger trying to keep her body a “ten” while causing all kinds of unintended mayhem, this unfiltered media message promotes the idea that women’s bodies are publicly available for consumption.
Reflecting on whether or not women actually embrace the degrading behavior on the streets and find it “flattering” adds to the confusion of how to deal with this social imprisonment. And who or what is to blame for the “pass” that some women give harassment? In their study of the psychological effects of street harassment on women, Kimberly Fairchild and Laurie A. Rudman hypothesize that the more benign responses to street harassment such as ignoring it or even finding it flattering coincide with self-objectification. In other words, these women might internalize being objectified more than women who choose to speak back, address the harasser or avoid certain areas. They state “Women who perceived stranger harassment to be a compliment or innocuous might be already highly self-objectified. In essence, their response might reflect society’s view of stranger harassment as something women should ‘expect’ by virtue of their gender#”. Societal pressure on femininity is a significant factor, as mainstream female worth is based highly upon attaining perfect body parts. Women are rarely seen as a sum of these parts but instead are broken down into the ideal thighs, luscious lips or a bouncy behind. And why would this not appear natural to mainstream audiences? When networks cater to “us” and we end up with television choices like “Bridalplasty” and “What I Hate About Me” there, as Valenti writes, is an epidemic that we need to fight on a larger scale.#
We must find the strength and energy in being indignant about the state of our societal plague. Popular images like Beyonce’s video may be a simple reference to the dichotomy of genders and classic battle-of-the-sexes banter, it is indicative of the deadly disease that limits a woman’s right to assert her public presence. The sexual terrorism that women experience day in and day out is representative of a particular resentment towards women’s public visibility and the assumption that men are inherently given the right to ogle and harass–just by virtue of being men.
Simply put, being angry is a good place to start.