By Amy Medvick
I can remember that when I was younger I used to be sore about the fact that I was almost never cat-called, and I was jealous of the girls who regularly were. Getting that much attention from men was foreign to me. I assumed it must be because these girls were so much more beautiful than I was. I would think to myself, “If only I had that kind of effect on men, it would be simple enough to find one I like and date him. It would be so easy!” I was a lonely girl in those days.
Of course, occasionally I would receive one—the “nice legs!” or “nice ass!” variety—though this was quite rare. Always crude, and usually aimed at whatever region of my body was the most noticeable at the moment. I would try to understand them as compliments, hoping to bolster up my self-esteem, which worked a little, though at a price. I was always left feeling vaguely dirty and I assumed this was my own neurosis, some kind of complex female self-esteem thing that I needed to sort out before I could be truly beautiful—whether you go for the inner or the outer variety.
The first time I went to Brazil, I found the men to be so sweet. It seemed they only delivered genuine compliments to strange women on the street. I remember walking down Rua São Clemente in Rio, taking in the sights and sounds. “Linda,” said a nice-looking man as he walked past me: beautiful. How nice!
On later trips, made with a better understanding of the language, I came to realize that in Brazil, just as here, there are shady characters on street corners opining vulgarities at the female passers-by, along side the milder variety of cat-call. I just didn’t have the vocabulary to understand them.
I suspect, in fact, that for most of my life I had been experiencing a sort of language barrier with Canadian cat-calls too. But the barrier wasn’t Portuguese to English, the barrier was that I assumed I couldn’t possibly be the object of such attention. However, as my growing feminist awareness caused me to take more notice of my daily interactions with men, I began to perceive the constant commentary that follows me around as I’m trying to do my groceries or go to the bank or any of the many unremarkable tasks that fill my days. There was an irony to the process, since the more I took notice, the less I was able to even try construing what I was hearing as complimentary.
Now, you might be thinking, What’s so awful about receiving compliments as you go about your day?
But this is the tricky thing: cat-calls are rarely compliments, even though they often masquerade as such.
I never come out feeling more beautiful or desirable, nor do I feel that shy tickliness that comes from a really genuine compliment made in a more appropriate setting. I usually feel less beautiful and less desirable. Nope, cat-calls make me feel singled out, shamed for being noticed, and wondering if there’s something inappropriate about the way I’m dressed. In the worst cases, cat-calling can make me feel nervous or even afraid. In the best cases, I’m only bewildered, not sure if I’m the intended recipient. So often, the things said to me are simply bizarre.
But maybe I need to define what I mean by “cat-call”. I have a rather broad definition: I mean almost anything a male stranger says to me on the street that isn’t “Ma’am, you dropped your gloves” or “Where’s the nearest subway station?” or other similar practical interactions. Cat-calls are intended to get attention, provoke reactions, and put me in my place. These cat-calls often seem to have a sexual motivation, even if the statement isn’t clearly sexual, though there are other varieties as well.
However they manifest, they are a gendered phenomenon—I have never been spoken to by a female stranger in ways that fit into any of the above, or following, categories of cat-calling. Much of this commentary might not strike you as really being a cat-call. But ah, this is why I am redefining the term! There are multiple, public, gendered commentaries flying at women on the street every day, not only the overtly sexual but many others that share a similar intent with the cat-call as it is traditionally understood.
But perhaps some examples will illustrate better what it is like for me to walk down the street.
So, for example, one cat-call I frequently hear is an identification of my hairstyle. Some guy will mutter a phrase with the word “bangs” in it, or simply exclaim, “Bangs!” Something in the tone makes it clear that this has become my name. “Bangs!” he calls plaintively as I pass by without reacting. He sounds sad! I have broken his heart, he says in that one word. Why aren’t I wooed by his ability to describe me?
Clearly, I am cold-hearted. Also ungrateful.
Then, there are the instructional variety. One Saturday, I was walking down Bloor Street, eating chocolate covered almonds from the bulk-food store as I enjoyed the spring sunshine. I noticed this giant man eyeing a tiny woman up as she walked by. The ogling disturbed me. He noticed me noticing his ogling, and then it started. “You shouldn’t eat chocolate. I had to have two fillings because my teeth rotted out from eating chocolate my whole life.”
Oh, OK Sir. I won’t eat chocolate. Because you say so. My appetite is so unbecoming.
There are regulars whom I have come to recognize, always making the same requests. “Smile, be happy!” he tells me every time I pass him. Clearly the Zen wisdom of this man trumps whatever may be happening in my life that day. Whatever my heartbreak, be it of the love, career, or dying-pet variety— it does not justify forcing him to endure my dour countenance. God forbid!
Some cat-calls are truly bizarre. “Do you like fireworks? Fireworks! Yes, you do!” This isn’t a sales pitch since fireworks aren’t for sale. Or maybe it is a metaphorical sales pitch with metaphorical fireworks. I don’t even flinch though, because at this point I’ve heard it all.
“Green!” cries the fireworks vendor. The colour of my dress. Oh look, they’re describing me again. How come I don’t swoon? Well, I don’t really have time to swoon because I’m on my way to a Blasfemmers meeting. By the way, did you know I’m a feminist? Do you still find me so alluringly green now that you know that? Or does that make it more fun? Are you a hipster and is this ironic cat-calling, so tasteless and rAnDoM that it’s cool again? I don’t understand what you expect to accomplish! Please clarify!
No wait, please don’t!
But I don’t say any of that. Instead, I pull and tug at my sweater, trying to hide my shameful greenness.
“You look like Michael Jackson!”… great.
But the worst cat-calls are the ones that don’t at all try to pretend they aren’t really insults.
One night, last summer:
I was waiting to cross the street, heard my phone receive a text. Took it out. Someone was confirming a rehearsal time. The lights changed; I started to cross. I put my phone back in my purse and took out my day-planner to write down the time. Not your typical street-crossing activity, I admit, but not really anyone’s business either. As I passed in front of the waiting car, I hear their voices: “Oooh, what are you writing in your diary? I hope it’s about me! Dear Diary, my vagina stinks.”
For a moment it was like trying to swim upstream as I struggled to comprehend what had just happened. Then it clicked, just in time to shout and gesture expletives as they sped away.
Later that night, walking home:
“Hey, what’s up? What? You won’t talk to us because we’re black?”
Yes. That’s the reason. I’m not talking to you, strange men in the dark of night, because I am a racist. If you were white, I’d be all like, “Heey booyss, hoowss it goin’?” That’s exactly how I interact with strange white men on the street. Because that is a safe thing for a woman to do at midnight.
Two nights after that:
I was downtown hanging out with my Mom. I had been telling her about those two events earlier that week. Also talking to her about some guy who got all up in the grill of my feelings without really knowing what he was stirring up, and how I was trying to figure out what to do with all the disappointment, yet again. Somehow these two topics were combining to make me feel incredibly hopeless about love, and awfully lonely. I left for home feeling dejected, too exhausted to cry as I slowly descended on the escalator to the subway. A middle-aged man was on his way up.
“Hellooo,” he cooed, eyebrows raised. Not particularly creative, but I didn’t have the energy to ignore him. Instead I watched him as he glided towards me, the tired weight of my eyes resting heavy upon him.
“What, so sad?” he said.
I wish we lived in a world where I could say, “Yes, so sad, and here’s why: because despite all this attention I get for doing absolutely nothing, I’m still lonely. It seems like it’s love and admiration that’s being heaped on me by strangers every day when I leave the house, but its not. It’s insult and aggression. If in some strange other universe you appealed to me, and I offered myself, I know you wouldn’t have me. Your anger is palpable. I think you might hate me. At the least, you have taught me that my place is to feel isolated, ashamed of being remarkable, and no matter how I try, your words still echo in my ears every time I talk to a man I genuinely care for. Those echoes make it a struggle to believe I can be taken seriously.”
Yet—yet—once in awhile:
A crisp, sunny February day. I’m out in my new neighbourhood, wrapped up in my vintage velvet coat. A man hovering outside the Roti Shop on my block calls out to me in his lilting Caribbean accent.
“Beautiful. Lady. Good Mornin’!”
And it was. And I felt, indeed, like a Beautiful Lady.
I can’t fully explain why this one felt so different from the rest, except maybe that it was genuine and benevolent. It brightened my day, and I think that was his intention. He wanted nothing from me, and wasn’t angry at me for reacting, not reacting, enjoying or feeling angry or shamed. Amid the din of the cat-calling, when the weight of all the bizarre loneliness inflicted by the flood of commentary threatens to pull me down, I think of this one. The compliment was nice, but that’s not really the important part. It’s just a relief to remember that being a Beautiful Lady should be nothing but a good thing.
And now, to make us all feel better, here are a bunch of cute pictures of cats with phones: