Wednesday, September 18, 2013

"Sometimes I really hate men."

This roundup of Facebook status-update crimes just popped up where else. It's pretty funny, and gets at some of the issues here, but in a far more clever way than the post I'd halfheartedly half-written in response. Basically the gist is, do not confuse Facebook for your mother. (Item 3, but really all of them.) If something goes well in your life, do you really think everyone you met briefly in a class six years ago is happy for you?

But there are other interesting observations, such as that past a certain threshold, complaints about getting hit on stop reading as feminist activism and start reading as bragging about one's own gorgeousness. The example provided:

On my walk home from work, I was whistled at twice, honked at twice, and one car almost caused an accident slowing down to stare at me. Sometimes I really hate men.
This item caused all kinds of controversy in the comments. Complaining about harassment isn't bragging!, some insist, adding that only a man would possibly think this. Catcalls aren't compliments!

So. I'm quite sure I'm not a man, but I immediately knew exactly what that item was referring to. True, victims of sexual violence are not necessarily any which way physically. No, being stalked isn't even remotely like being scouted by a (legitimate) modeling agency. And as I've said here so many times before, street harassment is typically less about looks than perceived vulnerability, thus explaining why you might have been much better-looking at 23 than 13, but getting far more street attention from men at the younger age.

But are we really going to claim that women who are admired every time they leave the house, asked out every time they go to a coffee shop, proposed marriage to every time they take the bus, that such women are not being praised for their looks? That being certifiably stunning isn't at all a form of advantage? That women never, ever brag about this sort of non-threatening attention, but knowing that it's socially unacceptable to announce that one is hot, include a quasi-feminist disclaimer?

And are status updates a useful vehicle for protesting honest-to-goodness male sketchiness? If we take into account that status updates (by men and women alike) are about constructing an image, the terms change. The instances women experience of feeling genuinely threatened don't make for catchy, upbeat witticisms suitable for a general audience. So we may hear about oh-so-creepy dudes on the subway who want to know what you're reading, but not about the ex who follows you around town. The men whose idea of street attention is 'Hey good-looking,' and not the ones who try to physically trip women as they pass, or who expose themselves, etc. The very nature of the genre lends itself to exactly the kinds of attention that are more on the 'flattering' end of the spectrum.

It gets complicated, though, because the sort of attention that is a compliment - and we know this, in part, because women past a certain age so often complain about no longer receiving it - can also be perceived of as menacing. Even something as seemingly non-aggressive as being told you're beautiful can, depending the context, be wildly inappropriate. So it might seem the safest bet to say, fine, yes, we suspect on some level that some 'complaints' are bragging, but we'll never really know which count as such, so we should give the complainers themselves the benefit of the doubt.

Which would be fine - and which is, practically speaking, the only way to go - if it were not for the following: These conversations can define the essential female experience - or young-and-female experience - as being hit on all the time, thereby excluding whichever women are not from female solidarity. The feminist sphere can at times end up mimicking exactly that which it's trying to combat, acting as if the only women who matter are the ones who are young, pretty, and appealing in a general sense to men.

5 comments:

caryatis said...

Hmm. I deliberately talk about being harassed on the street/masturbated at more than I would otherwise, because it seems to me men don't really have much awareness of how common this is. At least, I hope it's perceived as complaining rather than bragging. And yes, my Facebook feed can be kind of a downer.

Phoebe said...

Caryatis,

It's all in the tone/phrasing/context, I suppose. It seems unlikely that complaints about the kind of creepiness (young) women all experience, whether beautiful or not, end up reading as bragging, at least to anyone reasonable. (Nothing to be done about unreasonableness!) The problem is that because it's simply not done to ever suggest that these complaints are ever thinly-veiled bragging, an atmosphere can form such that women who aren't particularly noticed by men in public - and such women exist, and tend to be either older or not very conventionally attractive - end up excluded from The Feminist Conversation.

I mean, it's complicated. Women who are harassed shouldn't self-censor in the interest of sparing the feelings of women who don't receive as much male attention as they might like. And it's obviously more wrong to pursue someone who's been clear about not being interested, than to *not* pursue some other women because those women are physically unattractive.

But once the general conversation in a feminist sphere shifts to how dreadful it is when 'we' are recipients of constant attention from men, something happens. Conversations that may begin as legitimate complaints can kind of escalate (or devolve) into bragging-framed-as-complaint. Which is going to annoy both the woman who really was complaining about a creepy/scary incident, and whichever other women are present who don't share the experience of being told how gorgeous they are every time they leave the house.

And this happens not simply because some women (like some men!) enjoy bragging. It's because the entire narrative about hetero romance centers around the idea of female passivity. So a woman complaining that she's being paid too much attention to might be doing that, or she might be describing the early phases of a desired relationship, but in a way that gives the impression that she's in no way shape or form doing the pursuing. And it's not always entirely obvious which thing one is hearing in a given situation.

Petey said...

"Even something as seemingly non-aggressive as being told you're beautiful can, depending the context, be wildly inappropriate."

Well, given the assumed context here of "things men say to women upon first contact", it's that pretty much always wildly inappropriate?

I mean, doesn't that give grounds for an ASBO in the UK or a Taser shot in the US?

No socialized man is going to think saying that is anything but inappropriately aggressive. You can say, "you're look like you're having a good hair day", or "I like your shoes". But "you're beautiful" is kinda creepy in that context, and assumably the male knows he's being inappropriately aggressive, no?

Phoebe said...

Petey,

There are degrees of inappropriateness, and I would make a distinction between the kind of attention women past a certain age often recall wistfully, and the sort that's outright unsettling.

Obviously there will be women offended by being told by strangers they're beautiful, and it *is* inappropriate, so these women are well within their rights. And as a method of getting a date, it's not likely to go anywhere. That said, there are other women who don't hear this constantly and appreciate it. Which distinguishes that kind of comment from even more menacing forms of attention. There are also women (this I can attest!) who aren't particularly bothered by chaste street-type attention from total strangers (apart from the "smile!" thing), assuming it's not a confined space/dark alley, but who are plenty unnerved by that sort of thing coming from male acquaintances who ought to have already gotten the not-interested vibe, when this makes some space (work, etc.) uncomfortable.

Long story short, no, men shouldn't do this, but also no, certain versions of 'this' aren't always unwelcome.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this. It really annoys me when people refer to women complaining about harassment as a "humble brag" or any sort of bragging.