The slow, subtle violence of casual misogyny
Last week, a comedian stood on stage and casually called Kelly Khumalo a "side-chick bitch". It did not happen as part of a joke. The utterance articulated a form of entitled misogyny that has been hypervisible and pervasive since the death of Senzo Meyiwa last week. The remark, delivered in an off-hand manner, was underscored by a seething disgust that the comedian believed was acceptable, valid and shared by the members of the audience. It was not exceptional in its manifestation, neither does it occupy a special place in the grammar of misogyny. It is part of the slow assault on women that often takes the form of casual misogyny and is allowed to go unnoticed and rarely called out as part of the violent culture of patriarchy.
The cat-calling video created by Rob Bliss Creative for the Hollaback anti-street harassment campaign that has been doing the rounds on social media highlights the casual misogyny that is often taken for granted. It documents the unsolicited encounters actress Shoshana B Roberts experiences over ten hours as she walks around New York dressed in a black T-shirt, jeans and sneakers. The responses from men range from imploring her to smile; "what's up beautiful, have a good day"; "somebody is acknowledging you for being beautiful, you should say thank you more", to a man following her around for five minutes. Many have sought to trivialise the point the video attempts to make or dismiss the responses as compliments - exemplified in Saturday Night Live's Michael Che's response and Steve Santagati's ridiculous notion that women would not care if all the men cat-calling them were hot, likening the video to "the boy who cried wolf". In these narratives, street harassment is harmless, men are victims of feminist causes and women are far too sensitive.
To argue this is to fail to see how this casual misogyny is part of a culture of violence that manifests slowly and subtly and is often hidden by the sophisticated way that it is embedded in our society. The paper-thin arguments fail to stand up to the fact that this culture produced Elliot Rodger, who killed six people and injured more than a dozen others in response to what he saw as being unfairly rejected by women, and ignores the fact that Mary "Unique" Spears was shot after refusing the advances of a man. Those who argue that street harassment is harmless do not want to see the nexus between the seemingly innocuous comments and physical violence because it does not fit into a neatly delineated definition of violence that endorses the idea that these subtle forms of misogyny are harmless, as if they do not fit within the broader puzzle of patriarchy's influence on our lives, and serves to let "nice men" off the hook.
The video did not reflect a unique, extraordinary experience. Rather, it is part of the everyday experience of being a woman in public spaces, where our bodies are treated as objects and leering glances and uncomfortable remarks are commonplace. As women, we are often reminded that we are denied ownership of our bodies, as they are often treated as if we exist solely for male ownership, fulfilment and consumption. However, while we are not permitted to own our bodies, we are paradoxically held responsible for them, and furthermore responsible for men's actions and reactions towards and upon them. It is a heady mess.
Women are conditioned to be cautious, told to police our bodies, and victim blamed when we dare to wear a short skirt, or exercise the freedoms that are promised to us by constitutions. We are chastised when we do not stay in our place and admonished when we are on the receiving end of violence. The focus is always on teaching women what they can do to avoid falling victim to violence, rather than on changing the structure that creates and endorses it. This absolves men of any responsibility for their actions and dismisses slow and subtle violence, supporting the #NotAllMen narrative and tropes that allow some men to eschew responsibility for the society that we have created and are complicit in.
These narratives need a perfect narrative, perfect crime, perfect victim and perfect criminal to recognise patriarchal violence - and will often reject the idea that the violence was patriarchal in nature. Any instances that fall outside their definitions are dismissed, ridiculed and crushed into non-existence - which is itself a form of violence. The criminals endorsed by patriarchal narratives of violence against women are "monsters" created to further the idea that "real men don't rape/kill/abuse women", which gives criminality a poor, black face to hide the fact that the culture of violence is sustained by the "nice, chivalrous" men in our own homes. It is a trope that goes back to the days of slavery, as highlighted by Angela Davis in Women, Race, Class and Ida B Wells.
As Hanna Rosin pointed out at Slate, the makers of the video problematically edited out white men - which plays into the narrative that it is only certain (black and Latino) men who participate in street harassment or violence against women. Writer Roxanne Gay stated: "Just because the majority of the men who harass you are of a certain race or class does not make that experience universal." In a public statement, Bliss said the editing occurred because a lot of what the white men said was off-camera or in passing. However, Rosin highlights how this allows some men to escape the way they participate in slow, subtle and damaging violence against women: "The men who are sitting in their offices or in cafes watching this video will instead be able to comfortably assure themselves that they don't have time to sit on hydrants in the middle of the day and can't properly pronounce 'mami'. They might do things to women that are worse than catcalling, but this is not their sin."
As pointed out by Ayesha Siddiqi, the race and class critique levelled against the video is "not about the 'authenticity' of the harassment, but about who it continues to privilege under the state and to whose further disadvantage". It is a critique about power and privilege, as highlighted by a Funny or Die parody video, and the loopholes that many look to escape their complicity in perpetuating patriarchy.
Reducing violence to physical acts that leave obvious scars let men and women off the hook when we are complicit in enforcing the terms and conditions of patriarchy. Violence is not limited to the acts that make it onto the front pages. The slow violence that patriarchy and misogyny perpetuate is quietly present, insidiously dangerous, but masquerades as benign. Street violence is part of the arsenal of misogyny that confronts women every day because the war on women's bodies is fought on many fronts. What appears as simply tiresome and annoying is often utterly terrifying and quickly escalates. A lack of physical violence does not equate to the absence of violence. It is not that easy as violence against women is not limited to the physical in its form, effect or scope.
The idea that violence is only physical reduces speaking out about the many ways that patriarchy impacts our lives to fabrications of overactive feminist imaginations. Male privilege is thought to be an ideological category imagined up by angry feminists rather than the realisation that all forms of privilege allow us to live fundamentally different lives and enjoy a plethora of unearned benefits. As a result of this, Zoe Samudzi argues that too often women have to repeatedly "spell out narratives of oppression" and be forced to "gently walk people through it" because of the problematic idea that street harassment is not "real" harassment.
The idea that women have to prove that we are victims of violence is a silencing tactic of the virulent patriarchal culture of misogyny. Equally problematic is how the same culture is obsessed with creating loopholes that allow men to escape being part of the invasive and pervasive war on women's bodies that continues to both silently and overtly infiltrate our lives. The slow and subtle violence of casual misogyny and its dismissive lexicon necessitates definitions of harassment that indemnify certain men, justify their actions and deem specific forms of violence as innocuous and acceptable while perpetuating patriarchal mythology.
Danielle Bowler holds a master's degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which includes often making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: @daniellebowler