Tuesday, November 4, 2014

What The Catcalling Video Dialog Doesn't Say

Here is a link to a viral video that tracks a woman walking through New York for 10 hours. Filmed with a hidden camera, it shows cuts of the various "catcalls" and unsolicited advances she gets throughout the day. She isn't provocatively dressed. She doesn't have an inviting look on her face.

While the video certainly makes its point, it turns out that it also made "another" point--perhaps unintentionally: the vast majority of the men exhibiting bad behavior in the video are people of color. The makers acknowledge that there were white men doing the cat-calling--but for various reasons, most of them were edited out.

What gives?
  1. The always provocative Taki's Magazine looks at the statistical breakdown of sexual assaults by race, concludes it's 64x black-on-white, and concludes that the video is hugely unfair to white people given that maybe one person on camera was white.
  2. The NRO notes that if a law prohibiting catcalling was passed (what they say the organization that spawned the video, Hollaback!, wants) it would almost certainly be applied more to people of color than white men--however many white men are doing the catcalling. 
  3. CNN aired a guy (link is to Vox) who explains (they say 'mansplains') that women would really appreciate the compliments more if they were from hot guys--saying what a lot of guys are apparently thinking.
  4. A YouGov poll shows that some people (a small percent) find Cat-Calling a compliment--but most do not.
  5. Indeed, a Daily Dish thread on the video has a few women saying now that they're older ... they miss the attention.
The Video's Construction
When looking into the video, The Omnivore found something intriguing: the construction of the raw footage itself (not the editing) is very specific. What does The Omnivore mean? It means that of what we see, 60% of it comes from one street (125th Street, Harlem, to be specific).

We don't quite know what to make of this--but it does suggest that the spread we see is probably very biased (whatever the post-shoot editing was) towards specific socio-economic groups. It raises the question as to whether the video's creators simply "went to where the good harassment was" rather than taking a representative sample population.

The suggestion that this was done for maximal virality can't be discounted: would the video have been as popular if it had focused on the likely target demographic (The Omnivore presumes): White guys in front of a computer?

Probably not.

Why not? Because what white guys want to hear about catcalling is that it might be okay for them.

The Unasked Catcall Question: What Can YOU Get Away With?
The idea that unsolicited expressions of approval of any kind from a man to a woman are never wanted (or even largely unwanted) just doesn't pass the sniff test.

Huge (massive) chunks of western society are based on this very precept--that if you are desirable then your attention is desirable. If you believe that nicely-dressed movie-star handsome men with social signifiers of wealth will meet negative results from modest come-ons to attractive young women, you are simply not paying attention. The entire Ferrari industry is based on this: Owners are 98% male--a figure that is not accidental. Entire streams of obnoxious "prank videos" anecdotally show the Ferrari's sex appeal.

When the socio-economic dials are turned all the way up, it's clear that you can get away with cold-approaches--that expressions of approval are going to be met with more positive results--that you might even score dates that way.

But what about when the dials are turned down? YOU, Omnivore reader, are not a Ferrari driving 1MM dollar a year household income making, movie-star handsome guy. Can YOU get away with a cold-approach?*

Let's ask.

Probably Not: And No One Wants To Hear It
Unless you are super-high status your friendly advance is probably unwelcome. The bar for welcome vs. unwelcome is likely to be pretty darn high. The 2009 post Schrodinger's Rapist makes the case that any time a man approaches a woman (saying "hello"--much less "you look nice"--and certainly not "God Bless you, mami") she must (statistically?) assume the man could be a rapist and therefore a personal threat to her. Even if you are 100% not a rapist, she can't know that and so your intrusion into her personal space will very likely be read as a potential danger. This is actually pretty logical and if you have a big problem with it, the problem is probably with you. But the key element here comes when she tells the reader that some men should never cold-approach women. Which men, exactly?
This means that some men should never approach strange women in public. Specifically, if you have truly unusual standards of personal cleanliness, if you are the prophet of your own religion, or if you have tattoos of gang symbols or Technicolor cockroaches all over your face and neck, you are just never going to get a good response approaching a woman cold. That doesn’t mean you’re doomed to a life of solitude, but I suggest you start with internet dating, where you can put your unusual traits out there and find a woman who will appreciate them.
Now, the most charitable reading of the piece is that she really, truly, means that there is a incredibly tiny percentage of men who she's talking to there--those with brightly-colored cockroach tattoos--or those who never ever bathe (their home-brew religion, presumably prohibiting it?)--but if you read the introduction to the article it's about fairly mainstream men just approaching women. It isn't even about catcalling per-se--just an attempt to start a conversation with a woman on a subway or something. That's not the "some men" digression who would, by her constraints be almost no one ever exposed to the post.

It also (maybe?) assumes the woman in question can distinguish gang-symbols from other tattoos, right? The Omnivore can't. So maybe--what--any tattoo is in the exclusion zone? And then where are we? Well, the piece doesn't exactly break it down--and no one else is actually going to--but the reactions to it are virtually universal. On any site where you see the precept that men cold-approaching women makes women uncomfortable you'll see responses like this:
1/27/12 4:22pm ok, so here's a question. I find a girl walking towards me that is achingly beautiful. Not beautiful, maybe, in the traditional sense, but I find her to be ridiculously attractive, and would love to strike up a conversation. Since catcalling is stupid, and obviously useless, what other options would you have?
I always just try to say hi, or some sort of little, polite nod, or perhaps even a little hand wave saying hi, but that never stops the lady for enough time for a chat. I ususally get a little polite hi back, and sometimes I even get a smile, but other than that, not much. I have gone 
up to girls and tried to strike up a conversation about the weather (how boring) the surroundings (how mundane) or how I love the way she is matching, which has gotten more weird looks than anything.
So, what should I do?
When he's told: "Leave her alone," he doesn't like it. The conversation eventually devolves to discussion of his privilege.

Or over here:
Also women seem to disregard the feelings of men on this matter. We have feelings too, just as much as you. But in this society we can’t express it so it’s often disregarded due to it’s limited expression.
I respect a woman whom can come out of her shell and greet me as a human being. I don’t like that I say hi to a woman and she gives me that look. The look that is guided by this principal. It is unnecessary. And it hurts.
It is clear both from the responses--and the responses to the responses--that no one is saying: "Hey, if you're pretty normal it's okay." No--no one says: "If you aren't covered in gang tat's that section isn't about you."

That's because it does apply. The reason guys keep having a negative reaction to these pieces and the The Truth Hurts.

The Truth Hurts
Guys who feel (insecure?) entitled to "be friendly to women" intuitively understand that, while it is not stated, there are men out there for whom this this clearly is a workable strategy. They also know that while they are not that man (the 1MM+/year guy with the handsome looks and the super-car) they feel they are maybe kinda close (and, hey, they're also nicer than that asshole, too, right?).

Being told "No, it's harassment. It's never okay" is read, rightly, as the speaker telling them directly it's never okay for them. When the video dials the social-capital all the way down, the message becomes safe. The guys watching the video are not as threatening as those guys in the video. When they read the cold hard statement that no male attention is welcome, though,  they can feel the embedded class exceptions even if they can't necessarily articulate them.

While, for many women, it is true that unsolicited male attention is always un-wanted, the existing structure of society suggests that this is not universally the case. It may, however, very well be true for the video's target audience (the 1MM+ Ferrari drivers are generally not reading Schrodinger's Rapist or watching the video--and are probably not catcalling in the same fashion). The guy in front of his computer who has had no luck with on-line dating sites like Plenty Of Fish and feels like maybe that girl on the subway could be the one for him (or just that she should appreciate his positive expression)? That message doesn't feel fair. It's grouping him with all those dangerous POC's!

In other words, Schrodinger's Rapist? The Catcalling dialog presented with young men of color but targeted at white guys for the deeper "Don't do this" discussion? It's kinda an insult.**

* Let's be clear though: that guy in the prank video might "get away" with scoring a date with his super-car (which, perhaps, boosts him barely over the line of asshole to maybe there's something to this guy?)--but he's still an asshole (and not just for his post-Ferrari blow-off).

** It isn't intrinsically, though. The Omnivore is pretty sure that while ultra-rich super-handsome guys can probably successfully pick up women with a friendly-sounding "Good morning, beautiful,"  this says more about women actually being human than that being a polite way to behave. Just like sometimes good looking women can apparently talk their way out of traffic tickets, that doesn't make it a good principal for polite society. The problem is that the dialog can't say "Look, yeah, if you're UBER-PRIVILEGED you can make this work and women who don't care about the social justice aspects will probably warm up to you--but for the other 99% this is likely to be unwanted"--that would just be ... a disaster.


  1. [veronica here]

    Thing is, women can sense men's boners. Really, we can. When some dude plops down beside me, at like fucking 1:30 am, on the subway, even though I am ignoring and him and even though I am wearing headphones, and decides to tap my shoulder --


    (True story.)

    Anyway, yes, I know that my ass looks good -- you have no idea what it took for me to get it this way (for reals) -- but I do not want *that man* telling me. It's gross. Actually, it can be a little scary. I don't know this dude. If I'm too nice he'll keep coming at me, which FUCK FUCK FUCK STAY AWAY. If I'm too mean, he might hurt me.

    Thing is, on the rare occasion I am attracted to a guy, I will show that, with a smile, with attention, with body language. (Which, I mean, it's not like I'm a master of flirting or anything. But I can do the *basics*.)

    I suspect dudes who can pull of the cold approach (without a Ferrari) get this. They're probably decent looking, and they know how to observe women. He gives her a smile. She returns it. He moves closer. The women "open up", faces him, puts her attention on him.

    This is from a smile and a few small motions.

    *Then* he approaches with a "hello."

    And if she's not interested: a frown, she looks away, bitch shield, and he moves on.

    They should really teach this stuff in high school.

    (And, by the way, having to wear a bitch shield all the time gets tiresome, but it's the only way to get through the day.)

    (And this is for me. Imagine what pretty girls go through.)

    1. You're right that this should be taught in school. I wonder if it was ever really taught at home and we've just lost that. I suspect that, instead, the sense of entitlement to just barge in and make the move (either coarsely or more classily) was more societally validated and what we're seeing now is a response to a *loss* of that.

      As it becomes more legit for women to speak out against it, guys who felt entitled to those moves feel more and more alienated.