Have you seen the one where men watch videos of their girlfriends being catcalled? Or heard about the TV presenter who wore the same suit every day to highlight gendered double standards? Then you’re familiar with the ‘social experiment’ format so beloved by the mainstream media, and usually used to shed light on some aspect of inequality. The most recent of these twitter-friendly experiments to go viral shows a young actress pretending to be drunk in order to explore how men react to her as she stumbles around Madrid and drinks alone in the middle of the day. The aim is awareness-raising.
The problem is, women don’t need hidden cameras and script-reciting actresses to tell us about the harassment and inequality we experience daily, because we couldn’t forget about it if we wanted to. Perhaps there’s merit in exposing this to men, but I do find myself wondering why the screeds of freely available writing from women and millions of tweets on the Everyday Sexismfeed haven’t done the job yet – or indeed, the fact that since they’re the group doing the harassing, they’re probably fairly familiar with the concept.
Where these experiments go wrong, then, is the centralising of men and their feelings in an issue that is about women and our right to public space. The catcalling video, for example, uses women as props to elicit male reactions which literally follow the mother/sister/daughter cliche where a woman’s value is bestowed upon her based on her various relationships to men. The ‘drunk girl in the city’ experiment ends with a male director addressing the audience directly to solemnly relay his disappointment at people’s treatment of his subject. The women herself never acknowledges the camera, appearing only as a plot device.
Centralising men like this isn’t just tiresome for women who ought to be respected in their own right, but also plays into dangerous myths about who harassers are and how they typically look and behave. Perhaps the most stark example of this is in the backlash around 2013’s ’10 hours of walking in NYC as a woman’, which was criticised for editing out white catcallers, implicitly constructing an image of a harasser as a working-class black man. But even in these more recent social experiments, a narrative is constructed whereby the innocent boyfriends watching footage or the director staring down the camera lens are able to magically situate themselves outside of the patriarchy, transported to a sunny utopia where they are shocked and appalled at the behaviour of these shady bad guys flitting in and out of shot, doing things they would never have dreamt of. How nice their lives must have been before this revelation.
I don’t doubt that this stock male hero is well-intentioned and means it when he opposes the type of harassment seen in these videos. But I also don’t doubt that he’s stood by as its happened in real life, perhaps perpetrated by someone he knows – perhaps even a younger or drunker version of himself. And I certainly have no doubt whatsoever that he’s benefitting in one way or another from the patriarchal society propped up by behaviour like catcalling and street harassment, whether a camera lens and a green screen separates him from it or not. Subjected to scripting, staging and editing, then, these exposes of street harassment only tell half of the story.
Because the power relation that grants men the entitlement to catcall and prey on vulnerable women in the first place is the very same one that says women’s voices aren’t worth listening to, even on issues of their own direct experience. Male saviours who cash in on the respect their voices are afforded to lament the treatment of women while simultaneously talking over them are exercising male privilege – the same male privilege as harassers asserting their ownership of public spaces by leering and whistling. The stubborn endurance of structural inequality is that it’s not about individuals or specified behaviours, but the constant perpetuation of women’s subordination using a variety of tools. The stage on which this plays out doesn’t matter very much when your existence is still the subject of the performance.
So, filmmakers and journalists alike, next time you pick up your camera ready to shine a light on gender inequality, why not just ask the people blinded by its glare everyday? A viral video might help get your hits up, but shouting over women won’t solve the problem of sexism. To those fed up of being silenced and being catcalled, you look more like the harassers you’re trying to expose than you might realise.
Image: screengrab from YouTube user Neurosalas