I can’t count the number of times I’ve been catcalled, then been told – both by harassers and by friends – to ‘chill out, it’s a compliment.’ The truth is, most women will experience gender-based street harassment at some point in the lives. It’s psychologically damaging, limits one’s mobility and access to public places by making them feel unsafe and perpetuates a culture of victim blaming. Unfortunately, it’s also been normalized to a terrifying extent. This is why the short film, Pretty, is so important.
Despite being only 2 minutes long, the film packs a huge emotional impact by depicting a situation that many of us will recognize. We witness an encounter between a man and a woman: The man makes objectifying remarks about the woman’s appearance and gets angry when she doesn’t thank him. She informs him that harassment isn’t a compliment and tries to move on. However, he keeps pushing her, both physically (he grabs her) and verbally (with more comments, after she tells him to leave her alone). We are not given names or details about either of the characters – simply this short confrontation. This minimalism draws our attention to the fact that this man and this woman could be anyone at all and that this story has occurred before and will occur again, with a multitude of protagonists and settings.
Many of the YouTube comments on the film are positive; however, the negative comments on the video are another game entirely. They can be roughly separated into 2 categories: (a) street harassment isn’t a real issue, it’s just being exaggerated by overly-sensitive women, and (b) if the gurl in the video didn’t want to attract male attention, then she shouldn’t have dressed ‘provocatively.’ These comments effectively demonstrate that public harassment motivated by sexism is still not recognized as socially unacceptable behavior. As well as this, they are a jarring reminder of the fact that sexism and victim blaming are both still firmly, deplorably, ingrained in our society. If I sound bitter or angry, it’s because I am.
I resent the fact that when I ignored a man’s lewd comments, he called me a slut and told me to fuck off. I resent the fact that this is just one street harassment story in a long line of many, starting from when I turned 14. I resent the fact that standard responses to one of these stories include ‘what were you wearing?’ or ‘get over it.’ I resent being told that it’s my fault for wearing short skirts. I resent being told to control my behavior to make it easier for men to control theirs. I resent feeling violated and powerless in the face of harassers who see me not as a person, but as a sexual object that’s there to be derided.
So how can we combat this issue? Projects like Pretty are one way to do it – drawing attention to the problem and encouraging open dialogue about it is the first step. Street harassment is about power, and one way to take away that power is to speak up. The Twitter account Everyday Sexism aims to provide a supportive platform for victims of harassment to tell their stories, while the Hollaback! project aims to reignite public conversation about street harassment. Significantly, it is founded not only on the idea that street harassment is a pervasive issue, but also that by working together we can solve it.
We need widespread initiatives that smash the barrier of male privilege and encourage men to empathize with women. We need initiatives that address the idea of a healthy masculinity, that doesn’t use violence or degradation to express itself; initiatives that counteract the representation of women as sexual objects. One example of this is the Men Can Stop Rape campaign, which encourages men to challenge demeaning and misogynistic comments made by other men, as well as urging them to hold critical conversations with these men in order to transform their harmful and problematic behavior.
Ultimately, street harassment is an issue that needs to be addressed. It’s not a compliment when I have to cross the road to avoid a group of teenage boys shouting obscenities at me. It’s not a compliment when I’m whistled at from cars. It’s not a compliment when I’m told to ‘fucking smile, sweetheart.’ So please stop telling me that it is. Street harassment is degrading and debasing and most of all, it needs to stop.