Takin’ it to the Streets: The Perfect Victim (Part II)
I wrote in Part I about the problem of a "neutral" women representing all victims of street harassment, and in this post I want to tell a story about how I've seen this happen in my own work. I will also provide strategies for anti-street harassment activists who conform (in various ways) to the "neutral" woman standard to constructively use their own visibility to better represent the breadth of street harassment's victims beyond the traditional archetype.
In October 2010, the New York City Council held a hearing on street harassment where individuals and community organizations were invited to give testimony about how the issue effects New Yorkers, and also provide elected officials with suggestions for solutions. This hearing was the outgrowth of Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras’ visit to a school in her Queens, NY district, where girls of color complained to her about the men in their neighborhood who verbally harass them every day on their way to and from school. The girls' experiences unleashed Ferreras' own memories of disempowerment and unwanted sexualization in her youth, and when this recollection was combined with an impassioned and well-researched op-ed by Elizabeth Mendez Berry in El Diario, Ferreras made the decision to call a public hearing.
Because the topic was well aligned with the blog's mission, Hollaback! executive director Emily May used her media savvy to alert reporters from local and national news outlets to Ferreras’ historic hearing. She also encourage the blog's readers to come to the precedent-setting event, writing "Because you holla’ed back, and they listened." May's publicity efforts were successful in getting media to attend, and afterward over 230 global media outlets ran a story about the hearing—but the victory was bittersweet.
When the media arrived, they proceeded to cherry-pick the room, pulling the most adorable, smartly dressed, overtly feminine, mid-20s, white girls aside for on-camera questions and photo ops. I was appalled at how easily they put the "perfect victim" archetype into motion. May was one of the first to speak at the hearing, and after her testimony was done, most of the press left, which means they missed what the Latina teenager from the school Ferreras visited had to say and failed to write about the girls and women of color whose stories actually instigated the hearing. Finally, the media was paying attention to street harassment in a major way, but they were focusing on a very narrow definition of “street harassment,” “perpetrator,” and “victim,” thereby erasing the broad reality of how the problem tends to manifest and the impact it has on a variety of people’s lives. An old, stereotypical trope was rehashed by the press, and I couldn't help but feel disheartened instead of encouraged by the hearing.
I and other anti-street-harassment activists often wrestle with what a (somewhat) "neutral" woman can do to mitigate the media's tendency to privilege certain stories and perspectives over others, as well as how we might undermine the modus operandi of the Feminist Academic Industrial Complex as one that prioritizes self-gain above systemic changemaking. Though in no way exhaustive or flawless in execution, here are a few strategies (and I would LOVE for others to add more in the comments!) I believe are useful in upsetting the status quo.
One method we can use often is to call attention to the media's privileging of certain stories by spokespeople for an issue that disproportionately effects people from groups to which they do not belong. I try to do this in interviews, articles I write, and at speaking engagements for Hey, Shorty!. We can also call attention to street harassment not being a universal experience for women, or solely a women's issue, but instead one that impacts different communities in a variety of ways. For this reason, I prioritize working collaboratively with a representative group of activists, instead of on my own, so that folks can speak for themselves about their various experiences. For example, at the event I was a part of last night at Charis Books in Atlanta, GA, I presented GGE's work on street harassment in NYC alongside local activists from Hollaback Atlanta, Spark Reproductive Justice Now, and HOTGIRLS.
We can also make a point of redirecting opportunities for public recognition to other folks whose perspectives and experiences are traditionally underrepresented. (Like Paulo Freire said, one must work with not for the oppressed.) For example, Holly Kearl recently reached out to every anti-street harassment activist she knows (and there are many!) so that she can disseminate media inquiries she gets through her work with Stop Street Harassment to a broader spectrum of anti-street harassment advocates in the US and worldwide, like Blank Noise and HarassMap.
Mucking up the status quo is the responsibility of each of us and the decisions we make to build with one another can be to great effect. Sometimes those decisions seem to go against our own self-interest, but if we are more purposeful about seeing our self-interest as being connected to the interests of others, I think we'll begin to yield more effective, broad-based results that get at the root causes of the issues we face. There is some revolutionary work going on in anti-violence groups these days, and I'm excited about what it will mean for all of our work in the future.
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