Since returning to Seattle, I’ve been without a car in the city for the first time since I was a college freshman. Because busses cost money and I’m poor, I’ve opted for walking as my go-to mode of transportation, and strangely enough, I’ve noticed that, as a result of walking, the frequency with which I’m catcalled has increased tenfold. About a month ago, after a particular week of what seemed like endless catcalls, I read a post on Apocalypstick that addressed catcalling and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
As far as I can tell, the point of Almie’s anecdote was to express that she felt weird and a little disgusted with herself for being flattered by this stranger’s catcall, and to question whether or not those feelings of weirdness and disgust were valid. As a lady who gets catcalled fairly regularly and never feels flattered by it, I can say with surety that if the same thing happened to me, I would probably be flattered too. But that’s probably because I think there’s a very distinct difference between a catcall and a compliment, and I don’t see Almie’s experience as a catcall at all.
When I think of a catcall, I think of men sticking their heads out of moving cars like dogs to whistle or shout at you as they pass. It always seems to be a drive-by, or walk-by, experience. When you’re catcalled, there’s no acknowledgment of your distinct personhood or even of your humanity, really; you’re simply being appraised as an object, as a body without a person inside of it, and I suspect that’s at least part of the reason why it’s referred to as a catcall instead of a human-call. A catcall has nothing to do with being complimentary and everything to do with asserting power, like “Woman, I can tell you exactly what I think of the way you look because I’m a man and my opinion is important!” Catcalls strip you of control and force you to be passive, because there’s nothing you can do to counter a catcall: you can’t stop the cat-caller and say “Excuse me, sir, but I’m offended by the way you’re objectifying me” because it all takes place in passing, and you can’t even really shout profanities at them or give them the bird before they’ve made their way out of hearing distance. All you can do is let it happen to you and silently seeth later. All of which is to say: catcalls are not flattering, and in fact, there is no quicker way to make me openly hostile than to utter a catcall in my direction.
And that’s the difference between a catcall and a compliment, as I see it: catcalls make me angry, and compliments don’t. Here’s a story: when I was a senior in high school, I went on a trip to Chicago with my journalism class to attend a high school newspaper convention (right?) and when we had a little free time to explore the city, I found myself in the overwhelmingly huge Virgin Megastore. As I was riding an escalator up to the third floor, a male store employee turned around from his position a couple steps above me and got my attention. He was probably around my age, maybe as old as twenty. But he turned around and with a shy smile he said “Excuse me, I just have to tell you: you’re really beautiful.” And I said thank you, and he smiled more, and then we stepped off the escalator and he went back to work. I think it’s awesome when a male stranger pays me a compliment and then walks away after I’ve expressed my gratitude at their kindness, because that means they weren’t just leading with a compliment in order to get something else, like my phone number or a date. When a man looks me in the eyes and speaks to me instead of at me, and when a man says he’s not trying to hit on me and then doesn’t, that makes me feel empowered instead of powerless, and that’s what a compliment is meant to do. Of course there are exceptions, and men can definitely compliment you to your face in a way that’s sleazy, but my guts tell me when someone is being gross or when someone is being genuine, and I trust that feeling because it has almost always been right. And I like to think that all intelligent women who have a healthy sense of self-worth are intuitive enough to tell the difference, too.
Do you agree? Disagree? What’s your opinion about, or experience with, catcalling?