Thursday, August 02, 2012

Via Facebook, international edition

-Unpaid internships: not just in the States, not just in glamorous professions.

-A Brussels woman, Sofie Peeters, makes a documentary about street harassment. Not sure at all what kind of website this is, but the comments suggest something unsavory. The documentary itself is maybe a bit naive (what grown woman in the West has only just now noticed that there are sexualized images of women on billboards and such?) or forced-seeming (how convenient that just as she's making this documentary, she glances out the window and notices a woman in her building is moving out of the building and neighborhood, asks why, and learns it's to escape the street harassment! and with that, its credibility for me was shot), but racist? Maybe? Maybe not? The documentarian insists repeatedly that she's not a racist, but, which doesn't necessarily clear things up.

The documentary follows Peeters around a predominantly immigrant-and-young-artsy-white-person bit of Brussels, where careful editing and her own choice to approach les jeunes du quartier give the impression that she literally can't leave the house without a horde of Arab men demanding her orifices. There are interviews with other women of different ethnicities and one Muslim man, but the overall impression one gets is that this is a woman with an inflated sense of the amount of attention she attracts, and a misguided notion of the danger of The Brown Man. Because she intentionally misrepresents the amount of catcalling anyone, even a naked supermodel, could possibly receive on the street, she comes across as someone who totally would mind if men weren't hollering at her, which makes her maybe not the best spokeswoman for what is, after all, a legitimate cause. Street commentary - depending the context, the recipient - can be anywhere from flattering to frightening. (The only time I ever found this kind of street harassment genuinely frightening was, as it happens, in Belgium.) If a woman can't live alone in a certain part of Brussels, and no one's looked into this before, then yes, that's groundbreaking and important.

But the documentary itself doesn't really convince. The sense one gets from it is that Peeters has no particular context for these "guest-worker" men in shabby neighborhoods, and only cares about minorities insofar as they impact her quality of life. Why do they live in these neighborhoods? Why are they mere "guests," and how might that produce - if not excuse - a lack of goodwill towards the natives? Why aren't they integrated into Belgian society, where they might have acculturated to whichever norms of not catcalling? (Or not - a couple years ago a friend and I were called "salopes" for ignoring some preppy French guys right out front of the hyper-prestigious Paris école whose dorm we were living in. I think it's safe to say Islam didn't factor into it.)

This would be a lot to ask if she were just complaining about this to a friend, but as a documentarian, it would seem appropriate for her to be curious about aspects of these men's lives that don't relate to her, that aren't about hollering at random Flemish women. The message might have been sound, but the perspective just felt off.


caryatis said...

It's tough though. You could make a documentary about the ways different cultures engage with public and private space and with women in public, or you could make a documentary about how street harassment exists (more than most men realize) and is a threat to women's right to free use of public space. I'd probably watch and agree with both films, but I don't think you can make both.

You're right that the anti-street-harassment crowd is selfish in that it's mostly white women complaining about their quality of life, and it's a first world problem (unless street harassment actually leads to rape and murder, which it usually doesn't), but that doesn't invalidate their point.

Phoebe said...

I think it would be possible - no, ideal - to make a documentary that did both. If Peeters really wants to understand why there's street harassment, and why it disproportionately comes from certain demographics, she needs to take a step back and look at these minorities' situation. Not to excuse the behavior, but to figure out what could actually be done about it beyond shrugging one's shoulders and moving away from that community after art school. As in, maybe not-so-integrated guest workers can't be convinced to care about the sensitivities of a culture they're not being invited into in the first place.

caryatis said...

So encourage minorities to assimilate? That's hardly a short-term (or easy) solution. Increased police attention--maybe a few stings and a few arrests--would make for immediate, dramatic improvement in women's quality of life. It might not be very nice to the minorities, but at least it would lead them to adopt a different cultural pattern in this one way. To use a somewhat overblown example, if you're concerned about honor killings, you can wait till everyone assimilates, or you can prosecute those killings now.

Phoebe said...

Not encourage - allow. Sometimes I think American conservatives miss just how tough it can be to integrate in Europe, how socially acceptable xenophobia can be even in liberal circles. It's not that there's no xenophobia in the States, but there isn't that same sense that if you don't seem to be the ethnicity of this particular square kilometer, you'll never belong and nor will any of your descendants, no matter their legal status.

Anyway, there are clearly two issues at hand - the need to better integrate minorities, and the need to reduce street harassment. Why not take the approach that could potentially help with both? This isn't honor killings. Further stigmatizing the already-stigmatized may just fuel resentment. I mean, laws that prevent assault - non-verbal harassment such as grabbing a woman on the street against her will - should be thoroughly enforced. But Peeters is saying she wants to get to the root of this, not to end it pronto, the latter of which could be as simple as deport anyone without a name like "Peeters." And the root of it is integration of minorities.

caryatis said...

You may be right about European/American differences in ease of assimilation. One difference between Peeters and me is that I want to end the crime ASAP--and address the longer-term issues over the longer term.

Phoebe said...

I don't think these are mutually exclusive. Police could crack down on frightening street harassment, and as someone who was rather frighteningly grabbed in Belgium, I'm all for it. But what wouldn't be so great is if police started pursuing every 'hey gorgeous,' especially b/c these things don't just come from certain ethnic groups (again, my ever-so-charming Parisian anecdote, also the uninhibited intoxicated of Heidelberg), but it could well be that white European women mind/notice when it's Arab or African men, and that cops would disproportionately target that catcalling. This sort of thing would only further isolate these minorities, and - even setting aside the fate of these men and their families - might actually make things worse for the white women being harassed by reinforcing an already-screwy caste system.