Hollaback: desperately seeking outrage

In the social-media theatre of outrage, f-bombing six-year-olds are out and cat-calling men are in. The latest viral video, a public-service announcement by Robert Bliss for the anti-street-harassment campaign, Hollaback, is a two-minute Cinema Paradiso-style montage of mainly black and Latino men saying things like ‘Da-amn!’ and ‘Beautiful!’ to actress Shoshana Roberts during a 10-hour walk around New York City.

The video is in the genre of short-film cinéma vérité in which a filmmaker creates a situation (woman walking through the city; black man trying to unlock his bike) then secretly films what happens next – usually in order to reveal the awful truth about people. The staged scenario acted out in public means it is largely accepted as factual or close to it.

Thus, the SF Gate intones: ‘Undercover camera reveals street harassment women regularly face’.  ‘If you don’t get it, after watching this video’, says Slate’s Amanda Hess, ‘the problem isn’t just the guys caught yelling at Roberts. The problem is you.’ Even the usually trenchant Hanna Rosin’s main complaint is not that the film gives a distorted picture of how men and women interact on the street, but that it doesn’t show enough white men. It leaves ‘that icky impression of a white woman under assault by the big bad city’, she tells us.

But is street harassment really a huge problem for the women of New York City? Hardly. The nightmare vision of city streets as harrowing gauntlets lined with sexist men simply doesn’t ring true for the New Yorkers I spoke to.

‘Yes, benign “how you doing?” comments can sometimes be annoying’, said one, ‘and some can be creepy if persistent, but most of the time they are innocuous’.  Another told me she encountered this everyday but didn’t care except when the comments were rude or focused on body parts.

Context is everything. While men’s behaviour on the street can be obnoxious, it isn’t always meant to intimidate. And it doesn’t necessarily feel threatening to women who encounter it. More importantly, cities are by definition places where people with different priorities, beliefs and interests clash – often in ugly and disharmonious ways. That we negotiate these differences, that we push back and create a new consensus, is what makes cities great and is what freedom is all about.

It’s hard, then, to take seriously Hollaback’s claim that street harassment is ‘one of the most pervasive forms of gender-based violence’. It is also worrying that Hollaback’s answer to bad behaviour is to criminalise it – a move that would undermine basic civil liberties.

Moreover, it is grotesque to suggest, as Hollaback does, that banter in the cities of the US and Europe bears any relationship to the experience of women in places like Afghanistan, where something as simple as attending school can be life-threatening. Whatever woes women in the developing world suffer, they do not have their origins in men’s behaviour, but in the backwardness and marginalised circumstances in which they live.

As bad as all this is, perhaps the worst thing about viral campaigns like Hollaback is not the lame politics behind them but the sneaking suspicion that the politics doesn’t matter; that they do not arise from a demand for change, but from an insatiable desire for outrage.

Nancy McDermott is a writer and mother based in New York.

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