Leonard Pitts Jr.: The catcalls heard ’round the world
By Leonard Pitts Jr.,
They say they are going to rape Shoshana Roberts.
She’s the star of a hidden camera video that has gone viral. Posted by Hollaback!, a group that campaigns against the street harassment of women — “catcalling” — it shows Roberts taking a silent stroll through New York City. Over the course of 10 hours, she records over a hundred instances of unwanted attention from unknown men.
It ranges from “What’s up, girl?” to “God bless you, mami” to “D–n!” to a couple of guys who, in separate incidents, follow her for blocks.
The video is not without flaws. Although Rob Bliss Creative, the agency that produced it, has said Roberts was approached by men of every racial hue, the clip is edited to make it appear as if only African- and Hispanic-American men harassed her. Hollaback! has apologized for what it calls “unintended bias.” For what it’s worth, another term for “unintended bias” is, bias.
Even so, I think the clip manages to make its point: namely, that it’s a gluteal pain, if you are an attractive woman, trying to walk down the street without being messed with. Many men seem to feel it their absolute entitlement and peremptory prerogative to intercept you, to demand notice, to compel conversation, to offer evaluations of your physical assets.
The argument over catcalling has simmered since August when the New York Post ran an op-ed under the headline, “Hey, Ladies — Catcalls Are Flattering! Deal With It,” by a woman who said such attention boosts her ego. A panel on Fox “News” responded predictably. “Let men be men” said co-host Kimberly Guilfoyle.
Last week, as the Roberts video made the rounds, the network was again predictable. “She got 100 catcalls,” said Fox “personality” Bob Beckel. “Let me add 101: ‘D–n, baby, you’re a piece of woman.'”
A piece. Of woman. D–n, indeed.
Certainly, there is room to debate the difference between flirtation and harassment. But it is disingenuous to pretend — as Fox and others on the right do — that there is no there there, that nothing troubling is revealed in that video.
Meantime, Roberts has people saying they are going to rape her.
The threats, made online, have come from men angered by the video. This is not unique. Women journalists have gotten rape threats. Women crusading against misogynistic video games have gotten rape threats. Model Chrissy Teigen has gotten rape threats. Various other women who have dared espouse opinions have gotten rape threats.
It is noteworthy that we are not talking about a threat equally applicable to women and men — i.e., death threats — but, rather, one specific to women and, as such, designed to make a statement: You are smaller, weaker, more vulnerable. Stay in your place — or be put there.
It is a threat with which women were all too familiar long before the Internet was born. It lurks behind the easy smile of men you don’t know — and, too often, of men you do. For one woman in every six, it isn’t even a threat. It’s a reality, a lacerating memory.
The realization of which should kill any temptation to laugh off what Roberts’ video depicts. Even in our enlightened era, even with Oprah running her empire and Hillary contemplating the presidency, we still live in a society where it is too often the case that woman equals prey.
And that gives the lie to the notion that the behavior of the men in that video is harmless. It might be a good idea, at least for those of us who lack firsthand experience, to imagine enduring that a hundred times a day. Imagine it if you were smaller, weaker, more vulnerable. Imagine it and remember: One’s perception of a threat is in direct proportion to one’s susceptibility to said threat. Better yet, imagine if it were some young woman you loved.
I asked my daughter — 24, like Shoshana Roberts, pretty like Shoshana Roberts — to look at the video and tell me what she thought. Her response made me ache a little.
“That’s every day,” she said.