The awful video of men catcalling actress Shoshana Roberts as she walked the streets of the city that was released by Hollaback last week, and the voluminous responses that it has drawn started me thinking about my own habits. You see I speak to women I don’t know about five times a week, more if I’m out and about a lot. They almost never seem to mind.
I didn’t regard this as remarkable until the brouhaha over the video erupted. I don’t regard what I do as anything special, but then I began to think that I should share my experiences as perhaps a tonic to the controversy, or at least to expose another point of view and to parse what’s up with the other guys.
Let’s start with some background. I moved to NYC in 1978. My primary motive was to attend a great university (Roar Lion Roar!), but a key secondary motivation was that I wanted to be in a place where people felt free to be out loud and proud so to speak regardless of their sexual preference. For someone of my age, yeah do the math, I’m 54, my background of being African American and growing up in upscale mixed and middle class white neighborhoods with some background in business and a lot more in the arts, made me pretty unusual (I think it’s far less so today). Thus, I had my own issues with self-definition and broadcasting that identity, so I admired nonconformists.
When I see a woman on the street in clothing that appeals to me, I like to offer compliments, but I try to do so in a mindful way. I’m keenly aware that this woman doesn’t know I exist. Her life isn’t poorer for that fact, and my attempt to gain her attention for a few seconds is a dialogue with often sordid results. Yet, most of the time, I’ll approach anyway, and say “excuse me, can I just tell you that those shoes/that dress/that color/your accessories/or hairstyle really really rock.” My remarks are always warmly received and if I get a green light to go on, I might say tell her that she’s representing the NYC that I moved her to be a part of, or that people unafraid to put out that kind of stylish energy is what keeps me here despite the high rents, or something like that.
You see, it’s not about lust; it’s about empathy and identification. Underpinning what I’m saying is that if I woke up in her skin, I can only hope that I would be bold enough to dress so expressively. I’m aware that women have thousands more clothing and accessory choices than men, but they also have hundreds if not thousands more archetypes that they must rise above or at least vary from to be distinctive. My comments are a way of cheering the women who are champions at this task.
My takeaway, aside from the warm approval of a pretty woman, is that for a moment at least, I’ve aligned myself with an ally in the struggle to retain the NYC I cherish. Yes, sometimes, it’s gone deeper and lead to a relationship on a few occasions and several friendships, but I don’t enter the dialogue with any expectation of that.
It’s that expectation factor that makes me wonder why anyone catcalls. No woman is going to stop and say, “hey, you invaded my space and attention span with what is at best a hollow compliment, let’s have lunch together.” It’s a dramatic failure of empathy too; I can’t imagine that any of these guys who catcall have given five milliseconds to the idea of what must it be like to be in her shoes.
The most cynical precincts of my mind think that men who catcall are part of the backlash against recent gains by women in getting the tools for upward mobility. Women outnumber men in colleges and in job retraining programs. Feminine social skills are enabling women to rise in all levels of the employment world, while traditionally masculine jobs are on the wane. The backlash notion of course leads to the idea that the catcall is a rape threat, which it sometimes is.
Overall, I suspect that the motives for catcalling may fall into several different categories and most are driven by a big lie that was told to me by a couple of my male elders when I was young. The lie is that a woman who is flamboyantly dressed is doing so just for me. I rejected that straightaway. That woman (any woman, really) doesn’t know who I am and more to the point doesn’t care. My stepping to her with an agenda that leads with lust isn’t going to change that in a positive way.
Instead for me that flamboyantly dressed woman is an opportunity to learn something about presentation, physical self-confidence and poise. So my observations and commentary, where appropriate, are just a continuation of the education that I moved to the city 36 years ago to begin.
Martin Johnson was a full time journalist for 27 years, writing about music, cinema and sports. His work appeared in the Wall St. Journal, Vogue, the New York Times, New York magazine, Rolling Stone, four books and many, many websites. Now he mostly writes because he has to in order to breathe.