As everyone on the Internet knows, a few weeks ago, the Hollaback video of a woman walking the streets of NYC for 10 hours and enduring untold catcalls and harassment went viral, and subsequently everyone weighed in. Most women identified with the experience of walking down the street to shouts and disruptions. Many men agreed that it’s a sad state of affairs when a woman can’t walk down the street and be left alone. Some other men (and men’s rights activists) said, in short, that women should shut up about this non-problem.
A friend of mine who is currently on a hit TV show drew a parallel between his interaction with comedy fans, who want a photo with him or for him to tell jokes on command, and women being catcalled and harassed on the street, and basically said, Get over it, ladies. I was disappointed in his assertion and hesitant to respond in any way, but the conversation about street harassment isn’t going anywhere. And with his comparison, an important shared issue arises: boundaries.
Certainly, there are some similarities. Both are perpetrated by people with no sense of boundaries who harbor a notion that you, a celebrity or a woman, belong to them -- fans, catcallers; that you exist is FOR them. And thus, they are allowed to judge you and engage with you and disrupt your dinner or walk, because you are there FOR them.
A TV star is a public figure, and so the public has a sense that they know him or her. They recognize him from television and perhaps they want to take a photo with a celebrity or tell him that they liked a specific joke of his. He isn’t seen as a stranger on the subway to be left alone but rather as a familiar face whose career choice erases the boundaries between public and private. And some crazed fans probably say that he was “asking for it” when he went into comedy or joined the cast of a popular TV show. There’s a sense that celebrities aren’t regular people, that they relinquish their right to a private life by becoming celebrities. They're making a bunch of money and attending super-cool celebrity parties, and the price that they had to pay was their privacy.
In the eyes of catcallers and street harassers, women on the street are almost like celebrities in that they seem to exist for judgment and for consumption and without humanity. Catcallers have no sense of boundaries, so, like a celebrity, you are seen to be “asking for it” by walking down the street as a woman. You are there FOR them. By simply existing, you are there to be judged by them.
But there’s a difference: When you’re a woman, you are prey. Catcallers will deem you worthy or fuckable or valid. And it’s rarely a good-natured “hello” or “that’s a nice skirt” type of compliment. All too often it’s a guy following you for blocks, or remarking loudly about your body and the things he’d like to do to it. Or a group of guys who have you outnumbered, so even if you wanted to fight back or tell them to fuck off, you’d only escalate the situation and make things worse, so you keep your head down and just try to get through. It strips you of agency or humanity and makes you no more than a set of tits bobbing down the street.
Judging by his post, my friend seems to find the actions of some comedy fans annoying, and I agree with him. Every comedian I know has been commanded to “tell me a joke,” and it’s offensive. The person suggesting it has no idea how many damn times we’ve heard that before and how awkward a position it puts us in. If you DO tell a joke, at best (to put it in super pretentious terms) you’re giving your art away for free, and at worst, you’re about to spontaneously bomb for an audience of one (I’ve been there and it’s painful). If you refuse to tell a joke, you’re a poor sport, and need to lighten up and go with the flow (after all, you’re a comedian).
A few years back, I had drinks with an improv comedy celebrity (inasmuch as there can be a celebrity within improv comedy) and our 90-minute date was interrupted by fans five times. He was gracious and appreciative that people were so excited to see him at the bar, but I got a real sense that he lives a life in which he is seen as the property of improv comedy participants and fans. That he is not his own -- his life is there FOR them, so of course they can disrupt his personal time.
I’m trying to give my friend the benefit of the doubt and lean on the saying that he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. Privilege is a powerful thing, and if you don’t have hands-on experience with something, you’re often blissfully unaware of the issues at play.
A few years ago, right around Christmastime, I was walking down 17th Street between 6th and 7th Avenue in Manhattan, and a group of rowdy teenage boys was coming toward me. I could hear them from down the block and they sounded drunk. I could tell that they were young and seeing them made me think back to the times before I was 21, when my friends and I would somehow score beers and run around Boston being loud. Those were hilarious and happy memories, and as this crew of a dozen teenage boys approached me, I had a lot of fondness in my heart for their teenage antics.
Then they surrounded me and thrust their crotches at me, forcing me against a tree on the side of the street. I had my headphones in (listening to “Pumped Up Kicks, ” which is pretty damn ironic) and I just screamed, “Are you fucking kidding me?” over and over. I didn’t kick because I was way outnumbered, and it all happened so quickly. It was crummy, and I cried a little bit because I was so upset, but it rolled off my back.
A few weeks later, a guy pal gave me directions to a show and told me to get there via 25th Street between 8th Avenue and 7th Avenue.
“Nah, I’ll walk down to 23rd Street, then up 7th to 25th Street,” I said.
“But you’re closer to 25th Street right now. Why would you walk down to 23rd Street then back up?” he asked. “That’s a waste of time.”
“Because 23rd is more crowded and well lit,” I said. I told him what had happened and how ever since, I go out of my way to walk on well-lit, main streets with crowds or shops where someone can see or help if I am ever surrounded by a dozen drunk guys again. He was dumbfounded, because he couldn’t imagine having to think strategically about what street to take in New York City to avoid finding yourself in a shadowy area alone.
So I want to say this to the friend whose parallel between annoying fans and catcallers caused such a firestorm last week: We’re friends, and I really dig you, but think about that annoyance that you feel when loudmouthed fans with no sense of boundaries want to talk to you and get a photo and engage with you, and change that to fear; change the fans to physically intimidating strangers who want to talk and engage and touch you. Then make that a daily occurrence (on some days, multiple times a day), and multiply that by a few decades. Then tell me how you feel about it.