The first time it happened, I was in Hell’s Kitchen, steeling myself against whatever the man walking toward me was sure to say. If you live in urban areas long enough, and if you’re a woman, you learn the little signals that let you know a dose of street harassment is coming: He’s searching for your gaze and doesn’t avert it if your eyes catch his; he’s either alone or standing in a stationary cluster of other men, none of whom are looking at one another but who are clearly associated. Most of all, he’s got the look, which boils down not to physical clues—he could just as easily be dressed in Silicon Valley chic as in the clichéd construction-worker gear—but an expression (or is it an expression you redraw in your head once he’s passed, once he’s said whatever it is that he’s going to say, once he’s confirmed that yes, he won’t you pass with the dignity of silence?).
This was one of those men, so I held my gaze forward, kept my pace even, did not look down, the things that #YesAllWomen learn to do, the things that most men are surprised to learn their sisters and girlfriends have quietly mastered, the things many women are surprised to learn they’ve mastered. And then, sure enough, it came, in a graveled voice steeped in 1970s New York tough-guy movies: “Nice color.”
It was a nice color, the fuchsia scarf wrapped twice around my neck, particularly set against the all-black of the rest of the outfit. It was a good shade for me, and even if it hadn’t been flattering it was noticeable. That was the idea; that’s why I’d chosen it. I felt vaguely sheepish after his utterance: I’d been bracing myself against another category of comment that tends to come from male strangers, not the sort of thing an officemate or my mother might say offhandedly. How silly of me, I thought, assuming the worst just because he looked a certain way. And then: How arrogant of me. I’d long known that catcalls weren’t compliments, nor did I take them as any assessment of my actual appeal, rather as an assessment of power and claiming of public space. But to steel myself for a catcall and to have it replaced by something cordial provoked not actual arrogance but the foolishness of wondering if one was arrogant after all.
When I say this was the first time it happened, what I mean is that this was the first time I can recall picking up on the fact that a stranger was going to say something to me, had braced myself for it, and then heard a compliment on my outfit that was downright pleasant. Not a comment on my womanhood (“Come over here, baby”), general appearance (“Hey, beautiful”), or body (“Nice legs”), but words specifically about the outfit, and without using it as an entrée into further conversation, and absent a slithering tone that might imply that while he might be complimenting the outfit he was really saying something about my body. Brotherly, fatherly. Friendly.
The fuchsia-scarf interaction stuck with me, and as I noticed it happening more and more, it recalled how I felt when I first hit the age where men would say things. I remember walking down the main drag of my South Dakota town with three friends; as a car passed us, a young man yelled out, “Hey baby!” It was the first time anyone had acknowledged me as a sexual creature—which I was, as much as any 11-year-old girl stuck in a classroom full of oblivious boys is—and it was a thrill. Once it started happening more frequently, the thrill turned to annoyance, with streaks of anger, fear, and amusement scattered about. Still, my initial reaction to that first catcall was to read it with the naive generosity of a sixth-grader: It was attention, presumably complimentary, and it felt nice. I interpreted the fuchsia-scarf interaction through the more jaded lens of a thirtysomething New Yorker, but that lens was still generous: It was a compliment, not a seedy one, and weren’t the random public interactions one has in this city—not catcalls, but the momentary delight of one stranger conversing with another, then sailing on, never to be seen again—part of why I loved living here? Did I want to live in a world where strangers couldn’t interact with one another without my creepometer going off?
It kept happening, in ways it hadn’t before, at least not regularly. I thought maybe it was me: I was marching toward 40, was this how men treated women stepping out of youth? As “ladies,” not as public objects? That is, I made the classic mistake of thinking that things strange men said to me were about me, not about sex, gender, and power. But it came up in conversation with Katrin—whose footsteps are farther away from 40 than my own—after a stranger gave her the same sort of ostensibly gentlemanly comment. I shared my own experience, and she’d noticed it too: “What, do they think they’re our girlfriends now?” she asked.
I laughed, because it’s funny. But the more I thought about it, the more it irked me. Were men trying to get in on the niche of female solidarity that sees women bursting forth with compliments for one another—were they trying to be our girlfriends? Was this an exhibition of “PC Bro” behavior? For just as that most friendly, least threatening of words—hello—when a compliment is uttered between strangers who have some sort of perceived power imbalance, the message goes beyond the words.
Catcalls are marked by their crassness, either by their blatantly sexual content about women’s bodies, or by the direct implication that the utterance is a mating call (“Hey, baby”). A compliment about one’s outfit, absent sexualization, isn’t necessarily crass; often, it’s kind. But this kind of supposed compliment goes to the heart of the real problem of street harassment: surveillance of women. It performs another neat trick in that if you complain about it, you’re easily accused of overreacting, even from those who would nod at your right to huff and puff about the “Hey, baby” variety of catcaller. It’s more polite than a catcall, but it does much of the same work: It makes sure that women are still evaluated on their appearance, makes sure that women know they’re evaluated on their appearance, and makes sure that it’s men doing the evaluating. It makes sure that we know we’re being watched. Nicely, of course, or at least that’s the line—lady, you can’t tell me you’re seriously threatened by me telling you I like your scarf?
And no, I’m not. Violence, assault, intimidation: Yes, of course those happen to women in public spaces, all the time, every day. Anti-harassment campaigns like Hollaback are correct in focusing their efforts on these aspects of street harassment; they’re a more concrete threat than mere annoyance. But fear of violence is not why I seize up when I sense that the man walking toward me is about to say something. In fact, that seizing isn’t usually about fear at all, but about weariness. Weariness about the fact that even if—let’s hand out the benefit of the doubt here—men who say things to me, and to you, really do just like the color of our scarves, there’s still a presumption that we want to know about it. And I do want to know, sure, and I delight in hearing a compliment from a female stranger on the street, or from a friend of any sex. But the compliment as undercover catcall—even if it is offered in genuine kindness—shows a presumption that men and women share the streets in the same way, when we don’t. A well-meaning man might issue this kind of utterance as a genuine attempt at friendliness (“Do they think they’re our girlfriends?”) but it reveals that he has no idea that I’ve heard those words before, or words like them, and that they’ve been used not as a compliment about my dress but about the flesh that’s underneath and what should be done to it.
The compliment as undercover catcall makes me think of “PC bro” culture, a phenomenon taken to ludicrous heights on South Park with the advent of “PC Principal.” (And, more seriously, by James Deen.) PC bros—in South Park and in life—are a mix of men genuinely eager to make the world a better place for the oppressed and enforcing “safe” language in their efforts to do so, and men adopting the language they’ve learned due to the heightened visibility of oppressed people in order to further their own agenda. (In one episode, it’s charged that “PC” stands not for “politically correct” but for “pussy crusher.”) I’m genuinely sympathetic to earnest men here—I’ve always believed that feminism makes the world better for everyone, but it’s uncomfortable to be in the position of someone who’s making good-faith efforts to transform patriarchal culture, only to find out that those efforts are missteps. It’s easy to be harrumphy about men whose motives are more obviously suspect. It’s harder to tell the dude who recognizes that catcalling isn’t okay but then keeps its surveillance alive through the compliment that what he’s doing is catcalling’s gentler cousin: different face, one that’s kinder and nonthreatening, but with a shared bloodline nonetheless.
Do I want to live in a world where male and female strangers are barred from speaking to one another because women are tired of it all? Depending on the day, that’s tempting, but ultimately, I don’t; awareness of sexism should expand us, not cloister us. I suppose what I’d want to happen is for men to just know what they’re saying when they say it—or rather, for men to know what women hear when they speak. To know that the two are not the same.