This 2 minute video produced by Hollaback! exemplifies some my personal experiences when walking in the public. However, my public harassment is complicated/compounded by the hostile and glaring gaze of women who scrutinize me for having naturally styled hair hanging past my shoulders. As a woman of mixed ethnicity, the side-show vibes of my outings domestically and internationally are perpetually disruptive. Once I had to be escorted out of a Taiwanese market by security guards after being mobbed by a cursing group of women who swore my hair to be a wig despite multiple attempts to rip if off of my skull. But let’s leave that discussion for another post, eh? Back to the topic of unwanted advances.
Please permit me to make an important distinction about the nature of these encounters; these continual intrusions into my consciousness during public outings are rarely given with a spirit of true generosity and flattery. Most times there is an element of trophyism behind the comments. “Compliments” are hurled like sharp weapons meant to carve and reinforce the boundaries of my presumed loyalty to a given group. If I don’t accept the challenge to self-affirm my membership to whatever club is being saluted, then the sparring takes on an insidious tone and I become the subject of random public rage. It seems as if everybody feels entitled to comment on my appearance and I should willing to receive whatever is directed at me graciously… even enthusiastically if (to their thinking) their actions are remotely or abstractly favorable. My personal agency is not regarded as an important variable in that power dynamic; and that right there, is the problem.
Regarding some men, you may wonder if I’m exaggerating. I am not. Unwelcomed advances are a daily occurrence when traveling for work, and it is amplified by the anonymity and transitory habits of airport travelers. It takes a sheer act of will to not be a ferocious person during simple activities like moving through TSA, picking up take-out food, or waiting to board a plane. It’s not in my nature to be so negative. Most days, I’m engaged in an inner monologue of gratitude, creativity, theoretical inquiry, observation and reflection. My inner landscape is a nice place to be because I’ve cultivated a richness through self-examination and creativity. But over time, unwanted advances have the eroding effect of forcing me outside of my own head space–projecting my consciousness forward to calculate how much buffer zone is needed to withstand the next 10 steps in my day. I watch men behave salaciously, truly making idiots of themselves as they clamor to feed their genitals off the buzz of chasing women. Words are thrust upon me with an insistence on engagement; their undertone demanding deference and acknowledgement. It’s impossible to be receptive because the undercurrent of domination only stirs my defiance and disgust.
Honestly, it’s never flattering. It’s always pathetic. It has the precisely opposite affect that it is intended to engender.
There is a strange notion in our society that the “power” to captivate strangers, or be perpetually alluring, is a celebrated aspect of feminine mystique. Let’s be clear that this is a false power. It doesn’t translate into increased social mobility, earning power, political equitability or respect. Perpetuation of the non-personalized feminine mystique does continue to condition many men for superficiality in their relationships. Their brazen compulsion to insinuate intimacy before getting sincerely acquainted through mutuality impoverishes their relationships and relegates them to the land of inconsequentiality. I call this walking into a room “genitals first:” trivializing oneself by promoting one’s sexuality above and beyond other aspects of self that would actually carry more significance in an enduring relationship. You know, the kind of attributes that might actually earn a man genuine attention and affection from a willing partner. Many of you have done that work, and my heart smiles to know you are out there.
Cat-calling is a self-defeating behavior borne of desperation. It is apparent that those arrogant and emboldened enough do it wouldn’t last one hour in my world. The gift of growing older is that the young men don’t bother with me anymore, and that lowers the threshold of irritation I found myself acclimated to. But there are leagues of older men who amplify their ignorance, obnoxiousness and sleaze-factor to make up for the age difference. We can do better than this, yes? It’s time for so many men to stop addressing strangers crassly as if their presumed categorization of our gender presentation, sexual preference, and cultural heritage is worth interrupting whatever may be happening on a given day. To those men, please stop seeking your next needy hit of attention from others on the street, and direct that lifeforce towards being the kind of person we actually might notice on our own. Cultivate your own depth, kindness, calm, intelligence, humor, creativity and radiance… rather than demanding that women, who don’t know you, somehow owe you a salutation for barking at us.
It is undeniable and well-researched that all of the “little” ways women are objectified have a cumulative, dehumanizing, desensitizing impact on all of us. Those who wish to learn more should see the works of Robert Jensen, Jackson Katz, Andrea Dworkin and Gail Dines as a starting place. In fact, the truly powerful Dworkin (1946 – 2005) offered some incisively brilliant words that I’ll leave you with here:
“Have you ever wondered why we [women] are not just in armed combat against you [men]? It’s not because there’s a shortage of kitchen knives in this country. It is because we believe in your humanity, against all the evidence. [….] We do not want to do the work of helping you to believe in your humanity. We cannot do it anymore. We have always tried. We have been repaid with systematic exploitation and systematic abuse. You are going to have to do this yourselves from now on and you know it.” -Andrea Dworkin, 1983
In Spirit, Donna Mejia
November 6, 2014 Update: Wonderful public debate has sprung up around this video concerning race, privilege, bias and feminism. I consider this to be a very good thing. My wonderful friend Debra Cash (writer and massive art intellectual) sent me this truly insightful video response. I personally found it very funny. Share your thoughts if you wish!