‘Seasoned feminist’ Jessica Valenti has written in the Guardian about catcalling and the detrimental effect it is having on her self-esteem as she grows older. Valenti mourns ‘the hellishness of my teen years’, ruined by unsolicited comments from strange men, and feels even more sorry for herself now, a slightly older mother who gets fewer catcalls and feels like she is becoming ‘invisible to men’.
Feminists are never happy: whistle at them, and it’s an act of abusive male entitlement; don’t whistle at them, and you’re ignoring women, treating them as invisible. What are men to do?
Our relationship towards social interaction is changing. Strangers avoid speaking to each other on the street and men just don’t catcall as much as they did 30 years ago. Even if they did, feminists like Valenti forget the difference between words and actions. If a bloke told me he liked my legs, and if I didn’t feel like taking it as a compliment that day, I could easily brush it off with a well-known hand sign or shout back at him.
Valenti’s complaint about having once been catcalled too much and now not being catcalled enough reminded me of an episode of the British hit series Green Wing in which Joanna, the age-obsessed head of office, is so upset by not being catcalled by builders that she strips to the waist in a bid to get their attention. Valenti can’t seem to decide which is stronger: her need to fear men or to be desired by them. ‘When you’re brought up to feel that the most important thing you can be is attractive to men, the absence of their attention – even negative attention – can feel distressing,’ she complains. Like much of modern feminism, this is clearly all about her and her emotional needs. It has zilch to do with real politics or women’s issues.
So on the one hand, feminist arguments have become a way for women to avoid public life. Not content with calling on society to censor certain images and adverts in order to help women feel more ‘safe’ in public, now some feminists want to be invisible in public.
Last year, a young woman walked the streets of New York City for ten hours wearing normal clothes, and was filmed so as to expose the prevalence of street harassment. Not once in the video is the young woman insulted; nor is anything obscene said. Most of the time strangers simply say things like ‘hello beautiful’ or ‘god bless you mami’. Hollaback, the feminist campaign against street harassment, argues that this kind of social interaction ‘creates a cultural environment that makes gender-based violence OK’. Rather than suggest women respond then and there, they want to encourage them to take photographs of the culprits and submit them to the site, in order to create a ‘crowd-sourced initiative to end street harassment’ and ‘take on one of the final new frontiers for women’s rights around the world’.
The new reluctance to be involved in public life can also be seen in the ridiculous trend in New York where young women ‘choose not to dress for a man’s gaze, even when the weather seems to dictate the baring of skin’. Young women wearing suede, polo necks and woollen socks in June is not so different to young Muslim women who cover themselves head-to-toe in burqas: both want to cut themselves off from daily interaction; from the everyday dialogue of public life.
Then there’s the flipside: feminists who miss being catcalled and hate being invisible. I wish they’d make their minds up. Needing catcalls to validate your self-esteem is almost as bad as treating catcalls as quasi-criminal acts that wreck one’s self-esteem. But all the time, it seems to be the feminist’s self-esteem that is most important, and to hell with the needs and chatter of everyone else in the public sphere.
It’s hard to take these women seriously. Valenti once wrote an article advising against sleeping with a man who has an all-male bookshelf, and the young woman who appeared in the Hollaback video is now suing the filmmakers for making money off the back of the film’s popularity online. But this idea that women should be separate from the hustle and bustle of life is very dangerous. Women’s liberation fought for the right of women to leave the home and become involved in the public sphere; feminists now want to convert this realm into a series of safe spaces and censored zones. If you don’t like what someone says to you on the street, say something back, put your headphones on, or just laugh – it’s really not that bad.