another note on nonsense

23 May

In response to my original post on cat-calling and my responses to it, I got an interesting question that I wanted to bring up here. I cross-posted this to Feministing, and here’s what I was asked:

Why is their “responsibility to actively work to change those systems”? What’s in it for them?

Not trying to be a jerk but asking a legitimate question.

I suspect alot of men actually want you to talk back and that their silence has more to do with them being embarrassed by the scene you are making then the behaviour of the guy. It’s a tough situation to be in b/c doing what you do only makes you look like the crazy one, yet doing nothing makes some women feel powerless. I feel for you.

Super valid question! So valid, in fact, that it made me articulate myself a little more clearly, so I wanted to post my response here as well:

I don’t think this is jerk-ish at all; you raise a valid question. Here’s my thoughts on why men, too, share responsibility for calling out and attempting to countermand misogyny:

1. When you’re in a privileged subject position — male privilege, white privilege, straight privilege, cis privilege, able-bodied privilege, etc — you are always already reaping the benefits of that privilege. This is true whether you like it or not, whether you know it or not, whether you want to be or not. So you can either actively work towards equality, which means admitting that your privilege is not earned but is instead received at the expense of another, or you can be a signatory to those unequal systems of power that privilege you and disenfranchise others. Being a signatory happens in two ways: passive or active. The cat-caller in question is an active participant in his privilege, but by not speaking against him, his friends and all the other onlookers (male, female, whomever) are being passive participants, passive signatories. So it’s the responsibility of those who witness to speak up and out against these systems of power when and how they can in order to work against them. There’s no neutral position.

2. It’s their responsibility because, as I said, I’ll leave, and they’ll all be standing there in the wake of out interaction, and if those onlookers want to actually be agents of equality, they have to — have to! — not allow the conversation to end with me. They need to use their privilege and their access and their power to continue engaging and challenging misogyny, even if it is uncomfortable.

3. It’s their responsibility because if onlookers would agree with people like me and refuse to associate with bigots and misogynists like the cat-caller, then Mr. Cat-Caller would have no safe social space in which to be a misogynist. This is about creating communities that will not abide that kind of behavior and as an outsider, there’s little I can do to affect that community. So it’s up to the insiders.

I hope this makes my position a little clearer. You’re absolutely right that these situations are uncomfortable and that those scenes embarrass us all, but I think we need to be willing to experience the kind of discomfort that this elicits in order to change these systems. I appreciate your sympathy and willingness to engage with these issues.


9 Responses to “another note on nonsense”

  1. Laura June 12, 2012 at 6:16 pm #

    Hey, just want to say that this post is one of the best, most succinct descriptions of how oppression, oppressors and the oppressed all interact in our daily life. Not only do you lay out everything clearly, you also explain it in such a way that it’s relevance to “everyday” existence is laid bare. I really appreciate your sharing this experience; your posts have armed me with some ideas about how to deal with verbal abuse (I live in a super-fratty college town where strangers in cars and on street corners frequently feel the need to shout out their charming ideas about my body/what I would like in bed, etc.) and language I can use to explain myself to others. It’s so, so great to see a woman on the internet (which can so easily turn into a misogynist/racist/oh my god I should never read comment sections hell) explaining herself so bravely and completely. So, I guess, thank you for this and thank you for practicing what you preach, and thank you for helping me do so as well.


    • martinalynne June 12, 2012 at 8:26 pm #

      Wow. Wow. Wow! That’s such an incredibly kind thing to say. I really appreciate your support and kindness — I truly can’t say enough how gratifying it is to feel like my little outburst is actually maybe beneficial for someone else in the world. So thank you thank you!

  2. Terri (@RagsMachine) May 28, 2012 at 6:58 pm #

    I’m a bit late to the conversation here, but my husband was often a supervisor of men and sub-contractors on construction jobs for the government. As such, it fell to him to take aside any of his employees who practiced cat-calling. It was a routine part of his job…which I suppose was contingent on all sorts of government regulations.

    • martinalynne May 28, 2012 at 7:49 pm #

      Not too late to the party at all! I love that your husband was part of policing this kind of behavior, but how sad is it that telling other grown men to not act like asses was part of his job description?

  3. Kate May 24, 2012 at 10:21 am #

    Hi M. I don’t really have much to add but I wanted to make sure and let you know that you made me really stop and think about how often I ignore catcall and similar behaviors and why my default is always to keep walking, face forward and expressionless. So thanks, from another PhD student. And you’re great, I read every post and hope you keep writing in this space in some way or another!

    • martinalynne May 24, 2012 at 4:17 pm #

      Thank you so much! I really appreciate your kindness and your presence here, even when my presence is somewhat variable these days.

  4. rivula May 23, 2012 at 1:33 pm #

    I really agree with and identify with your position. I’m wondering, though, how you would respond to criticism that a confrontation (like the one you’ve described) is not the most effective way of spreading our views.

    The real scoop: I was so impressed by your first post that I told my husband, who is my go-to feminist compatriot, about it. But he thought that such a confrontation could have more negative effects than good: the cat-caller probably has not thought very much about his views of women, but being called out by a woman might turn him into a hater of ardent feminism, for example. My husband and I ended up having a long conversation about this, and we never saw eye-to-eye. He made a few points like the one above, and I agree that there may be some truth to them, but still he couldn’t offer a good alternative to a confrontation. I suppose that’s because there isn’t one! I think the only way to really combat this problem is to face it, as you did. Or prevent it entirely — and that’s a major reason I teach how and what I do (I’m a phd student), and I hope that I’m planting and/or nourishing the seeds of change in my students.

    • martinalynne May 23, 2012 at 1:41 pm #

      Well first of all, I’m super touched by your interest in what I’m saying and by your encouraging, kind words. Really — it’s so lovely to hear. And this is my position: you and your hubs are both totally right, even in your disagreement. He is right in that yes, my approach has a lot of potential pitfalls and could very well lead this kid to be more misogynistic. But you’re also right that we need to face these situations in order to combat them. I think the sticky and uncomfortable thing about this whole mess is that there is never singular meaning, you know? We’re always simultaneously being read in multiple ways and there’s really no way to control for that. So I think the ultimate goal is, yes, to teach, because in the classroom I have a power and an authority that I am better able to take advantage of that when I’m on the street. We have to, as you so elegantly put it, nourish those seeds of change. But we also sometimes need to get fucking pissed, in public. And part of me also thinks that there is a real benefit to creating social situations that refuse to support misogyny, because even if this kid becomes a more ardent anti-feminist, if he lives within a system that doesn’t accept his behavior, then his beliefs and actions have much less power and potency. In essence, performance matters.

      Anyhow, that’s my further two cents. Thanks so much for being part of this whole conversation! I’m honestly moved.


  1. in which I will brook none of that nonsense « the life academic - May 25, 2012

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