By now, you have probably seen the harrowing PSA of the woman walking the streets of New York, being catcalled and baited by over a hundred different men. This is a serious and authentic depiction of street harassment. Our own Sara Benincasa detailed her horror stories of being catcalled — it is no joke.
But, of late, there have been other, more humorous takes on the subject from comedian Janelle James’ “Smile, Bitch” Training Camp (below) to The Daily Show correspondent Jessica Williams’ Feminized Atmosphere special report. (Funny Or Die’s tongue-in-cheek white man walking sketch is only further punctuation on the prevalence of the problem.)
Whether played for laughs or revealed as harsh reality, the matter has recently become part of the public discussion in a big way. Witnessing various incidents second hand, one can’t help but reflect upon his or her own history with verbal harassment. Years ago, I rode the elevator with an attractive woman that I was initially too shy to talk to. Thinking better of it minutes later, I tracked her down in my car, hopped out, and approached her on the street. We dated for a few weeks. Months later, I spotted a woman entering a shopping mall video store and, essentially, approached her under false pretenses, asking if I could help her find anything — as a clerk would. We were married for nine years.
I offer neither of these examples as an excuse for verbally abusive behavior. (Who knows? In hindsight, my ex-wife might now recast that life-changing event in a different light.) When I was much younger, I used to watch the men selling reggae mixtapes on Jamaica Avenue in Queens approach women by grabbing hold of their wrists. I used to wonder why these girls stopped to talk to these guys since, as inexperienced as I was, even I knew this was intrusive. (I grew to understand that the women were, quite possibly, acquiescing out of fear.) By my earlier examples, I’m only allowing that even the most well-intentioned among us can, when smitten or infatuated, lose sight of the line where attraction ends and impropriety begins.
I started to wonder, given that so many men and women — at least early on — glean our notions of romance from pop culture and, particularly, the movies, if we have been watching and internalizing depictions of harassment all along without realizing it. Billy Crystal was most certainly being a bit of a prick during that long ride to New York with Meg Ryan. But the key point is that Harry and Sally had already met and arranged to take said trip together when their friction began. He wasn’t shouting at her from outside the passenger window.
From Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Notting Hill to Pretty Woman, no matter how absurd the initial situation may be, few of the most memorable meet-cutes in cinematic history begin with a catcall from a stranger — handsome or otherwise. Granted, Rose DeWitt Bukater furiously spurned Jack Dawson’s unwanted advances at first. But, seeing as how Jack was trying to stop Rose from committing suicide, he should probably be forgiven for coming on strong.
On the other hand, the movies are filled with plenty of inadvertent warnings against verbal harassment: James Spader’s venomous come-ons got him nowhere with Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink. Hugh Grant’s lascivious workplace impropriety in Bridget Jones’ Diary may have temporarily won him the girl, but it also earned him an ass-kicking in the street. The Pick-Up Artist is an entire motion picture cautionary tale about how indiscriminately running up behind female pedestrians and complimenting them can cause one to end up dodging gangsters in Vegas.
As is often the case, the behavior of our pop culture heroes reflects our better selves, the us we’d most like to be. So, the next time someone irresistibly alluring crosses your path or struts down the block in front of you, stop before you heedlessly call out the first thing that comes to your mind. Before you remark on a stranger’s eye color or request a smile simply because you’d like to see one, don’t. If you haven’t the wherewithal to wonder, “Am I about to be an insensitive asshole?” at least ask yourself, “What would Colin Firth do?”