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‘Hollaback!’ The Video That Made Cat-Calling A Racial Issue

The catcall video that went viral of a young woman walking the streets of New York City for ten hours in a pair of black jeans and black crew neck T-shirt has had its fair share of debates. Hollaback! — a group with the focus to end street harassment — wanted to produce an impact after offering a glimpse of what it’s like for a woman to walk the streets alone. They certainly achieved their goal and received a great deal of praise not only for their bravery in shedding light on this controversial topic, but for dealing with the backlash that comes with it .

I watched this video over and over and over again. As a New Yorker, street harassment is something I’ve learned to deal with over the years. However, this video drew attention to the concept of the “catcall”, and, as a result, highlighted the simple fact that we — the women — should not be forced to put up with this. Many of my male counterparts felt differently; some agree that it is an issue; that we need to learn to respect women and treat them as equals; while others are offended by the nerve of Hollaback! for posting such uninformative material.

I figured that the latter were men who catcall on women, themselves, and can’t help but be offended because they feel aren’t doing anything wrong. And how would they know if they are? Society has suggested they have every right to do so because most women are too afraid to respond or would rather not deal with taking a stand against this behaviour. Secondly, most people (not just men) believe that it isn’t harassment until it’s physical.

“But … but it’s a compliment!” one male friend said.“ A beautiful woman should always expect to be catcalled in the streets. That’s just the way it is.”

He’s right: that is just the way it is. My rebuttal, of course, highlighted how disrespectful and unnecessary it is because of this thing called self-control and if you want to approach a beautiful woman there are places called bars and/or online dating sites.

One argument against the video’s validity is the apparent lack of white men engaging in catcalling; that it demonises black and Latino men. Charles C.W. Cooke’s feature for the National Review gives an overview of almost every aspect of criticism following the video’s debut. He discusses how many writers pulled the race card, among them Aura Bogado, a writer on racial justice for The Nation. Cooke cites her saying that this ”makes it appear as if men of color are the perpetrators of all that is bad on this planet, which can only be balanced with the exigent need to therefore save white women above all else.” Others, like well-known feminist writer and professor, Roxane Gay tweeted “the racial politics to this video are f*****d up”, adding,“Like, she didn’t walk through any white neighborhoods?” The real offense here is that Aura Bogado, among others, are suggesting that minority men don’t know any better and Cooke goes on to say that,

“To contend that the minorities depicted in the video are mere victims of circumstance and that they have been forced by their conditions into badgering innocent women on the street is to contend that those minorities lack agency, intelligence, sensitivity, and the capacity to reason — that they are child-like figures who act on their base instincts and who need excusing and explaining by their betters” [The National Review].

Furthermore, these statements imply that if the woman in the video only walked through affluent neighborhoods where white men are likely to be found, she may have not encountered such harassment. Coming from a low-income neighborhood dominated by blacks and Latinos, these situations when a woman walks alone in the streets are an everyday occurance. However, focusing solely on the issue of race detracts from the real issue at hand. Does this mean that she wasn’t actually harassed because most of the attention came from minorities and not white men? Does harassment begin at a racial level now? I suppose Hollaback! will have to redo this video and have a black transgender walking the streets of the Upper East Side alone and only then will we have actual credibility to raise our voice and seek to end street harassment.

These arguments across the political platform only enforce ignorance and one shouldn’t see color when a person is being harassed. The woman who volunteered to do the video, Shoshana B. Roberts shouldn’t be less credible because she is a white woman. Michael Luciano from the Daily Banter quotes that many critics and Left politicos “simply couldn’t let the video stand as a testament to the bullshit that women go through.”

Now is the time to get past the notion that catcalling is a norm and doesn’t offend and make others uncomfortable. Perhaps we need a new definition of harassment to remind others that it happens the moment a person feels uncomfortable in a situation involving another’s aggressive and/or disturbing behavior.

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Are we all bad feminists?

The release of Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist got me thinking. Aside from my concerns that yet another great book title has been taken, I think it’s really interesting to see the ‘bad feminist’ epithet being turned on its head. The label has gone from being a pejorative term bandied around by holier-than-thou feminist purists to something positive, something to be embraced. This speaks volumes about where we’re at in 2014 in terms of feminism — are we beginning to cut women some slack?

The recent Women Against Feminism Tumblr movement raised an important issue: that people don’t understand what feminism is. The movement suggested that individuals believe that feminism is a bunch of rigid rules that must be strictly adhered too, and that aren’t open to interpretation. With such a false misconception of feminism, is it any wonder they don’t want to be a part of it? I was horrified at yet another anti-feminist social media campaign, but I couldn’t help but think that — hidden deep inside this well of misunderstanding — there was a clear message about feminism: pressure. What do I mean by this? That we women have put so much pressure on themselves to be ‘good feminists’ that we’ve lost sight of what feminism really means. Have we tried so hard to be good feminists that we’ve become bad?

Zosia Mamet’s essay for Glamour magazine really resonates here:

As women we have internalized the idea that every morning we wake up, we have to go for the f–king gold. You can’t just jog; you have to run a triathlon. Having a cup of coffee, reading the paper, and heading to work isn’t enough—that’s settling, that’s giving in, that’s letting them win. You have to wake up, have a cup of coffee, conquer France, bake a perfect cake, take a boxing class, and figure out how you are going to get that corner office or become district supervisor, while also looking damn sexy—but not too sexy, because cleavage is degrading—all before lunchtime. Who in her right mind would want to do that? And who would even be able to?

When I read this, I am reminded of myself a few years ago. I had become so caught up in the idea of being a good feminist, I had forgotten to have fun. At parties I would roll my eyes when boys would chat me up, and I placed so much pressure on myself to succeed that became a recluse. Looking back, I find this totally crazy. Perhaps it’s a strange thing to say, but I’ve become more relaxed about feminism. I take it just as seriously as before, but I now know that being a ‘good feminist’ 100% of the time is just not sustainable. I also acknowledge that I had mistakenly interpreted feminism as being a rigid life model; one to be adhered to at all times.

I think it’s wonderful that women can now publicly admit to being bad feminists. This is certainly a progressive step, and symptomatic of fourth wave feminism, which places choice and the freedom to choose at its heart. Assuaging the pressure on women is now another wonderful addition to the feminist agenda.