Monday, November 10, 2014

Catcalling and power

At 31, I'm ten years past 21, an age that still doesn't sound, to me, all that young. I've lost whichever youthful-and-vulnerable quality leads men to approach women in public spaces to tell them to smile. But it's not over till it's over, or something. I was recently at a coffee shop with my husband, when an older man (of the Caucasian persuasion, I'll note, for intersectionality purposes; he also looked well-to-do, which I know really narrows it down in this part of NJ) started, and basically didn't stop, discussing my choice to decline the whipped cream that comes with the apple strudel. He began by loudly admonishing the waitstaff for "forgetting" my cream, and then when I confirmed that I hadn't wanted it in the first place (saying this more to the server than this guy, but it's a small place), he kept offering me some cream he hadn't finished. I told him I don't like whipped cream, and got to hear extensively about why I'm wrong, why it's delicious, why this particular whipped cream was unusually delicious, and so on. I got another round of this quite a while later, as my husband and I got up to leave.

Now, I have no idea whether this man intended any of this as flirtatious. I didn't feel at all sexually threatened by any of it, just a bit imposed-upon while trying to revise this academic article I'd been working on for, oh, about a year, and had to get done over the weekend. If I'd been alone, it might have been otherwise, but the fact that I was not makes me think this wasn't a hitting-on situation. What struck me was that the chances that a man's food choices would be up for public discussion are basically nil. What a woman's eating, or not eating, is eternally the business of strangers.

Part of it is the whole women-and-weight thing. Never mind that I hadn't exactly ordered the diet platter (strudel and a by all accounts whole-milk cappuccino!), but I guess rejecting whipped cream because of not liking its taste is inconceivable. I must have been depriving myself of some pleasure, and it was this man's business that I enjoy some cream, perhaps his cream. But it's more centrally a matter of personal space, of approachability, of this sense that a woman is a person who, by virtue of being a woman, invites nosy inquiry.

And that's really the essential. Not every woman is chased down the street by men who find her beautiful. And not every public-space encounter can be rounded up to something as ominous-sounding as rape culture. But if we're looking for some common-denominator The Female Experience, it could well involve something having to do with men thinking they're entitled to personal and mildly squirm-inducing banter. I don't think this man was a terrible person, or doing something horribly offensive. What I think this interaction demonstrates is just the baseline difference between public space for men and for women.


Conor Friedersdorf said...

Do you think women also feel more entitled to invade the space of other women?

Phoebe said...

Ooh, good point! Yes, I do think so. There just isn't (usually) a sexual element, and there's virtually never the threat of sexual violence. Which... might mean "rape culture" is, in some incredibly indirect way, a little bit relevant after all.

It would also be worth examining how willing men are to invade the space of other men, something I could only guess about.

Moebius Stripper said...

Yeah, what Conor Friedersdorf said. Phoebe, if you'd stripped the encounter you described of all context, it would have applied to every second interaction I've had with my older relatives, especially the female ones: eat, eat, you're too skinny! No sexual element, but nonetheless unwelcome, and there's no graceful way to put an end to it.

Phoebe said...


Agreed that this comes from women as well, and agreed that it can be annoying without bringing the gender of the instigator into it. That the gender of the recipient is fairly constant does seem relevant. Female space can be invaded in a way that male space cannot.

I'd say, though, that there's a big difference between "eat, eat!" from someone you know, and from a stranger. It's not an invasion of space for a relative to talk to you in the first place. But I'd also reiterate that there is some difference between this sort of thing coming from a woman and from a man. It's partly, as I said above, about the lurking sexual element, but it's also that when a woman approaches in this way, there's an element of solidarity. A sense that to be female is to be weight-conscious (and, on that note, expect a post sometime soon on that topic). When a man does it, the issue is more about your weight as a measure of your attractiveness to men.