I've been watching the latest and greatest catcalling controversy unfold, and it's turned into an argument about race. Or:
I’m finding this anti-catcalling movement especially fascinating because it’s slowly beginning to dawn on its Social Justice-warrior supporters that a movement against catcalling is inherently “classist”*—as a rule, upper & middle class men don’t engage in this; it’s an annoying but essentially harmless custom of lower class men.I read The Hairpin, Slate, Salon, The Cut, etc., because being a conservative Catholic among liberals is my comfort zone and because I'm addicted to the cognitive dissonance of "Yes, misogyny exists, but not like that," and 'Yes, racism is real, but you're the actual racist here." Hanna Rosin thinking her readers are stupid enough to believe a bunch of white guys got edited out of the video made me wonder if liberal, white intellectual types ever leave their brownstones and talk to people who look different from them.
As the video shows, the average catcall isn’t terribly offensive in and of itself (“Smile”, “God bless you”, “What’s up, beautiful”); catcalling begins to feel like harassment when it happens incessantly (the point of the video, one supposes).
I doubt that the video makers intended for the takeaway to be, “lower class behavior is kinda gross”, but that’s what it boils down to. We’re left with the amusing spectacle of Oppressed Women oppressing the Oppressed Proletariat for their oppressive behavior. Get out the popcorn!
So. I like being catcalled, and I now realize that's because I'm half Italian and yelling is an important part of our culture. After two years living in the Midwest, I'm starting to suspect that most of the people I meet consider me to be not quite white. If only they knew I was 1/8 Norwegian, they'd accept me as one of their own. My sister and I were visiting Chicago a few weeks ago and a black man called out to us, "You look really nice tonight!" We freaked out and then yelled thank you. No harm, no foul. Life in the big city, and much less annoying than being drooled on by a small-town drunk from Freedom, WI.
This is the US. There's a lot of different kinds of people here, including high-strung, highly educated people who think it's unsophisticated to strike up a conversation with a stranger. What other country has such an angry, confusing mix of cool, superior Scandinavian introverts, work-ethic-inclined New Englanders and hot-blooded, outspoken others, and the many who are mix of some or all--and, Hanna Rosin, most are not nearly as dumb as you think, you insufferable snob. A woman from a background where men don't yell compliments, in which someone using a harsh tone is as terrifying as being hit over the head, has a right to her feelings and boundaries. Being called on in public by a physically stronger man who has the potential to be anything he's physically capable of being, day after day, can be, and is for many women, exhausting.
There's no tidy solution, except maybe cultivating a bitchy resting face. I make sure to look slightly pissed off all the time, which is why catcalling in my life has only featured as an amusing sideshow and not an ongoing energy-drain. It also works great when sneaking into a hotel lobby to use the bathroom. Speed up your pace a little, slap on a irritated expression, and no one will think you're not a guest.
That won't stop the "Smile!" comments, of course. We need a stronger substance to fill in the missing link of public manners here: something that will make everyone happy. It's time to return to women the power to tell a man off. In our white bread, washed-out way of life (God bless them/us), the worst crime a woman can commit is to get mad or use the wrong tone, regardless of race or "class." Let's take note of how it's done among more effusive cultures, where a woman can show outrage over a man's behavior without being told to "just ignore it." Now, this doesn't mean that quiet, tired women should start yelling at men in the street, which would be a ridiculous expectation of someone without the temperament to support it, not to mention potentially dangerous, but simply that existing in a culture that expected women to stand up for themselves (which American culture does not) would even out the power balance a little. I suspect that much of what bothers women about street harassment is the unspoken sense of powerlessness it brings, a direct result of the tyranny of niceness.
The best of all our histories supports this. So sit back, and kindly refrain from the intimacy of whispering.