Gayle King Is Wrong: Street Harassment Is Not a Compliment
By Leslie Maxwell
By now you’ve likely seen the video released recently by Hollaback!, a campaign to end street harassment, in which a woman walking around New York is harassed more than 100 times over a 10-hour period. (If you haven’t, it’s worth watching.)
Men of all ages harass her. White men and black men harass her. Men shout “Smile!” and “Damn!” and say, “Hey, beautiful!” A man walks alongside her, pestering her to talk to him, asking if he can give her his number. Perhaps most frighteningly, a man walks next to her silently for five minutes.
This woman’s experience is significant because it’s not unique. Women experience street harassment every day. I have my stories, and so do most women: getting honked at by passing cars, being followed for few feet or even a block or two, being yelled at by passing car. I’ve been sung to.
On CBS This Morning, co-anchors Norah O’Donnell and Gayle King discussed the video after watching a short clip of it. O’Donnell said the video resonated with her because she experiences some form of street harassment regularly.
King had a different take:
I’m just sitting here, Norah, going, I’m not going to get upset because somebody said, ‘Hey girl, you look good.’ You know what I say? I twirl and say ‘thank you’. It would be different if they’re, you know, throwing you on the ground and saying ‘Hey, I want to boink your brains out.’ For the most part, some of that stuff was inappropriate, but for the most part, they’re just saying, ‘Smile, you look good.’ But there is a difference between someone that goes over the line and somebody that just says you look great.
O’Donnell responds by explaining, “That’s different when someone says, ‘Hey, you look fabulous.’ It’s different when a guy is catcalling, Gayle, and saying, like, ‘Hey, baby.’ That feels threatening.”
But King remains unconvinced, “I don’t know. I guess it just depends. To me, there’s a line, and you have to know where the line is.”
By the end of the segment, O’Donnell and King agreed that there is indeed a line. But they clearly didn’t agree on where that line is.
The line is not, as King seemed to indicate, when a man throws a woman down and tells her that he wants to “boink her brains out.” The line is way, way, way before that.
These men are not complimenting women. These men are not telling women they look great. Their goal is to get attention from women – and because they are on the street, their goal is to have an audience.
Getting a woman’s attention is about power and control. If a man can get a woman’s attention and there are witnesses to that attention, then he has power over her. If he can get her to smile, it’s power. If he can get her to acknowledge him in any way, it’s power. If he can get her to say “leave me alone,” it’s power. Any response will do when your aim is control.
Street harassment and the desire for control that motivates it is a problem. It perpetuates a centuries-old notion that women exist for men’s pleasure. In the first-year writing course I teach, when we read excerpts from Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792, students are surprised at the limitations women faced in the late 1700s, at the education many were denied. Yet when we get to the part in which Wollstonecraft writes that many men are “anxious” to make women “alluring mistresses,” students make parallels to the way women are still often seen today.
While King may not see anything wrong with a man telling a woman he does not know that she is beautiful, there is something wrong with it. It objectifies her by suggesting that she is nothing more than something to look at. It suggests that her happiness might depend on how a stranger on the street sees her. And any man anxious to make a woman anything other than who she is seeks control.
These desires – for power and control – are why the line is far before we get to knocking a woman to the ground wanting to “boink her brains out.” So no, street harassment is far from “harmless,” and it’s certainly not a compliment. Women are not and should not be seen as “alluring mistresses” – and it’s time we push back against that outdated notion.
Leslie Maxwell lives, teaches, and writes in Durham, N.C. Read more of her opinions in the News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C) and other writing in The Fourth River and decomP magazinE. Find her online at lesliemaxwell.com.