Forums for Reestablishing Agency
By Monet Harris
Originally published in the November 2014 issue.
“You can keep your thoughts on my body to yourself,” she asserts, staring out from a wheatgrass poster along the Ave.
The response, written in black ballpoint pen, is “Grow up.” Succinct and dismissive, the two-dimensional exchange is an echo of the larger dissonance surrounding the methods women take to combat and air their grievances with sexism and its day to day manifestations like street harassment. What person scrawling across the poster does not realize is that the control of your person and how it is perceived is an important part of growing older with assuredness. With growth comes the lesson and realization that there are people who will try to either take your agency away or force their wants onto you.
In her series Stop Telling Women to Smile, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh culls key sentiments from conversations with different women and pairs them with hand drawn portraits, the idea being to give the subject the opportunity to speak to catcallers in a way that is both direct and elusive. For her friends, Fazlalizadeh pastes the posters in their neighborhoods, allowing for reclamation of power in the spaces where the harassment happens. Commonly misfiled under “compliment,” a catcall is a manifestation of male entitlement that limits safe spaces due to the inherent threat of verbal, physical and even fatal violence.
For most women, the anger gets pushed down just below the surface in the interest of self-preservation. What the posters provide is unspoken validation of the thoughts we have but are unable to express in the moment or even among others who might dismiss such feelings as an overreaction. Fazlalizadeh credits iHollaback and Stop Street Harassment, both .org websites, in helping put a word to what she had been experiencing for years living in Philadelphia and New York. Both organizations compile data and aim to challenge public opinion through education with heavy reliance on personal testimony. The point being to give women a chance to speak on an issue that affects them without interruptions from the tone deaf who assert that objectification is the same as flattery.
While safety is the primary concern, it is dishearteningly often that we only find the climate for productive discussion once someone has already been hurt. In September 2014, TMZ posted surveillance footage of NFL player Ray Rice assaulting his now wife Janay. Filling in the gaps left by a shorter and choppier clip leaked previously, the time stamp winds down on her unconscious body being dragged from a hotel elevator.
The response on Twitter was torrential and divided with many demonstrating a lack of understanding regarding domestic violence and the power dynamics that make it hard for victims to leave their abusive partners. To counter the insensitivity and ignorance, writer Beverly Gooden created the hashtag #whyistayed and survivors of domestic violence used the trending topic to share their stories. Speaking to the Huffington Post, Gooden emphasized the importance of community in providing a safe platform for survivors and the opportunity for other women to comment and share experiences. Collected in a constant stream, the hashtag provided an easy way for users to exercise agency and contribute to a conversation where they would have gone unheard otherwise.
More content-based than Twitter, Tumblr is a blogging platform that allows users to build their own from pieces pulled other blogs. Many young women and girls follow each other based on shared interests and it allows for exposure to new ideas as they post and re-blog over time. There is a post going around making (humorous) light of a girl who joins thinking she will just post nice pictures only to be indoctrinated in militant feminism. A hyperbolic example, it does reflect the transition toward awareness created by this kind of open forum. Where the academic devaluing of female work made it difficult to access content in the past, the internet has made art and literature widely available and this vast history changes hands with a mix of praise and re-evaluation as intersectional issues are brought into account. Education re-shapes perspective, and when the time comes for a friend or family member to confide abuse or a stranger to make a comment that does not sit well, the learned woman will be able to respond from a position of empathy when needed, but empowerment above all.
However, as is the nature of public forum, the loudest voices come through clearest. Twitter and Tumblr are particularly prone to this trap, where the conversation can veer into dog piling and condescension which trivializes the discussion and alienates some onlookers. Women’s issues are still incredibly divisive and even the most sensitive subjects can get overrun with victim blaming and derailing, which necessitate mobilization of methods of discourse such as #whyistayed.
What needs to change is our inability to sustain solidarity in everyday occurrences and not just in the wake of headline news. Safety and autonomy are valid needs for everyone but women are often put in the position of having to ask. That condition being bad enough, we should not face inquisition or be spoken over when we know our issues best. Internet communities are becoming bonding grounds for women and girls to not only connect but unite in ways that empower on a regular basis and re-shape culture every day.