The latest viral video is not of an adorable cat, a singing priest or a kid being funny beyond his comprehension.
It’s of a woman walking around New York City for a day and the more than 100 catcalls she received.
So far it’s been viewed 13.2 million times in two days.
The two minute clip is a compilation of the worst remarks thrown at Shoshana B. Roberts, an actress who walked silently around the city for 10 hours while being filmed by a camera hidden in the backpack of filmmaker Rob Bliss, who walked a distance in front of her. Men say “Smile!” “Hey, somebody’s acknowledging you for being beautiful, you should say thank you more!” “Damn!” and “God bless you mami.” One man walks silently next to her for five minutes after not receiving any reply.
The film was made for Hollaback!, a non-profit that aims to end street harassment, which they note can be “sexist, racist, transphobic, homophobic, ableist, sizeist and/or classist.” They conduct research on street harassment around the world and encourage those who experience it to speak up by posting locational pins and a short account of the experience online, creating a harassment map.
Many of the comments on the video are so absurd and/or heinous that they don’t bear repeating, including rape threats towards Roberts, the actress. Some have cried foul about the video’s "leftist" agenda, while other commenters wonder if it portrays an exaggerated version of reality - "Is it really that bad?" "They just filmed in bad neighborhoods," etc.
It is not an exaggeration.
I grew up in New York. The first time I ever became aware of catcalling was walking home from school with my babysitter in third grade. Men would call out "Hello beautiful!" or "Have a nice day sexy!" and she'd respond with the thin smile, half-nod and vacant eyes that I have since become all too good at adopting.
The first time it happened I asked her how she knew the man. "I don't," she said. "Then why is he talking to you?" I asked, firm in my belief that you should not talk to strangers. "That's a good question," she said, shaking her head.
I still don't know the answer.
But I do remember the first time I experienced it. I was in seventh grade (12 years old) and I was walking home on the first warm day of the year.
Two teenage guys were standing outside of the very expensive private prep school on my corner. "Hey cutie, I like your skirt!" one of them called, waggling his tongue. He couldn't have been more than 16. "Come on man," his friend said, "she's really young."
"Yeah, well she's going to have to get used to it," was his dismissal.
I've never gotten used to it or okay with it, and I’m always surprised and disappointed by anyone who says they have. (I'm talking to you, ladies of Fox News’ Out# who claim to enjoy it and offer a “let men be men” rationale, though I'm betting a car takes you to and from work every day.)
The worst is when the harassment moves from verbal to physical. I vividly remember the first time a guy walking by me on the street whistled and slapped my ass. I was 13 and I had no idea what to do.
It doesn't get better as you get older. One day last summer when I was walking to the subway with my wonderful Irish mother, a man started walking closely behind me, saying "Hey sexy" and wiggling his fingers by the hem of my dress. "EXCUSE ME!" I screamed, which was a ludicrously polite thing to say given the circumstances, and he ran off laughing.
"What happened?" my mother stopped and asked worriedly. "Nothing, just this asshole," I muttered and rushed through the turnstile.
This is a problem. Why did it seem so uncomfortable for me to tell my mom (with whom I'm fortunate to have the kind of relationship where I can tell her pretty much anything) exactly what happened? We could have shared in our outrage, maybe talked about our different experiences. But I didn't want to upset her, I didn't want her to worry about me later, and there was a small but powerful part of me that was embarrassed by the whole thing.
How I wish there were no other women who feel this way, but I know that isn't the case. We have to reinforce to ourselves and to each other that it is not we who should be embarrassed but the gross dude who's trying to fondle someone out for the day with her mother.
That's what's so important about this video – it’s starting a massive conversation. According to Hollaback’s director, Emily May, even the negative comments and rape threats indicate that the video has “hit a nerve.”
“We want to do more than just hit a nerve, though,” she added. “We want New Yorkers to realize that street harassment isn’t OK and that as a city we should refuse to tolerate it.” That's the best we can do.
But what about in the moment?
I've tried, dreamed up and talked with friends about so many different tactics for how to respond.
In middle school my friends and I used to act possessed, contorting our faces and making strange noises.
I've tried being weird ("Where'd you get those legs from?" "My dead grandfather"). I've tried being aggressively courteous right back ("No, YOU have a great day gorgeous!") but there is no one thing that works.
Saying nothing can sometimes be the worst - leading, as it does in the video, to further, louder, nastier comments and incredulity that someone could be so ungrateful for being yelled at on their way to work or where ever.
Acquiescing and smiling or saying thanks just feels like giving in, and calling someone out often results in the exchange escalating. A few weeks ago I was on the subway with some friends, all women. A man got on and started drawling all kinds of physical praise at us. "Could you stop?" my friend asked, after which the guy spent the time it took to get from 14th Street to 42nd Street telling her that she looked pregnant but probably wasn't since she was "too fat to get any."
The subway car was crowded. No one said anything, though some people laughed. Seeing how he had responded to her, we didn't say anything either, just put ourselves between them and blocked her from his view.
These are some of the worst instances of public harassment I’ve experienced, but they are not the only ones by far, and they have collectively made the comparatively benign “hey there” and “God bless” that much harder to tolerate. All of these instances took place in New York, but this is by no means a New York-specific problem. I’ve personally encountered it in Ireland, in the middle of the Dutch countryside, in France and Mexico and in other cities across the US. Hollaback isn't New York-centic either - it operates around the world, from Bosnia and Herzegovina to South Africa.
What’s pretty clear is that it isn't us ladies who have to change tact.
Men who catcall need to change. You don't own the sidewalk. I really don't want to know if you like my dress, I wasn't wondering what you think of it. I'm not going to smile just because you say "smile," and how dare you for thinking I should.
And if you're sad that we don't react enthusiastically to you saying hello or good morning to us, you can thank your fellow guys who whistle and leer, ask for our phone numbers, or call us bitches for not responding for ruining that pleasant exchange you were hoping to have.
Or you can try saying good morning to each and every person you pass, not just the ones you find attractive. What a good morning that would be.