Say what you like about Michael Jackson but none of us will ever be able to deny that his musical legacy is simply unmatched. As the genius behind enough faultless tracks to keep any party going until the early hours he will undoubtedly live on for long after his death and any controversy that surrounded his life. Nonetheless, re-watching the “The Way You Make Me Feel” video yesterday left me with a sour taste in my mouth that I had never experienced before. Growing up, my sister and I must have watched the video a hundred times, almost exclusively for the dance scene near the end (the one where the silhouettes all rip off their shirts in the street and you can’t always tell which one is Michael) but something just didn’t sit right this time.
The video begins with a woman walking down a dark heavily grafittied street, populated only with adult men talking excitedly among themselves. The general buzz of the street is finally interrupted once she walks past Michael who then shouts after her “hey!” attracting her attention as she turns, looking a little scared, but definitely interested in what comes next. Of course the next few minutes are filled with her trying, at times harder than others, to escape and failing and after a few runs around the block she ends up in his arms. A beautiful tale of how persistence, death by flattery and a little bit of neighbourhood pressure wins the girl.
Now a lot has changed since Michael Jackson’s 1987 release of this video which I do understand, is a music video and not a social commentary. Then again, a lot is still kind of the same. It is still going to lose you no friends shouting and chasing after a woman until she winds up in a dark dead-end alleyway just so you can get her number. And it is still a daily occurrence for women to get cat-called, harassed and generally bothered by unknown men.
I can already feel the frustrated sighs and shifting positions of women and men alike who are tired of this new brigade of feminists complaining about every little thing even though we’ve got it so good these days. It must be irritating for those that don’t care and aren’t interested that people just keep talking about this stuff because we seem to think it fits into some bigger, imaginary societal problem. I like to call that imaginary problem sexism, and I do believe that cat-calling fits into it, as do pet names for your female colleagues and constant commentary on her dress. But for now I don’t need you to believe me on that. Just know that it might not be the end of the world, but getting harassed on the street is damn annoying. So stop doing it.
Let me explain firstly explain what I mean by harassed. I use the term generally to refer to the act of approaching somebody who by no means solicited your attention, and insisting on conversing with her no matter how much she resists. This also includes requesting personal details, asking for sexual favours and forcing her to take down your number because she won’t give you hers.
One thing that MJ’s classic video reminded me is that in Hollywood (and hence society) this image that persistence is romantic is indeed pervasive, but as Robin Thicke showed us last year, it can also be ineffective and frankly alarming. There seems to be this recurring idea that all women need is love and affection which leads some men to believe they can immediately decipher who will be their perfect match. If all you need is love and I’m willing to give you some, what could possibly go wrong? What then becomes negligible is whether or not she is actually interested, or why she would be. Maybe I’m being unfair but never in the history of my harassment has a man approached me with the phrase “Hi my name’s X and I’m a Marxist/feminist with a passion for poetry, something about you made me think we might get along.”
At the age of 24 I’ve been harassed by enough guys that at least some of them must have been half-decent. I’ll never know which ones of course, because I was so blinded by their sense of entitlement I blocked out their whole personality. Even as I write I am angered by my own sense of how high and mighty it sounds to say that I don’t give my time to people that haven’t earned it. But I don’t, not on purpose anyway. Despite the apparent perception that a woman’s time is a public commodity, there shouldn’t be any shame in me saying, “sorry* man, but I don’t owe you jack so I’m terminating this conversation”. Do you have any idea how many times I’ve been called rude for variations of this statement? Why, can someone please tell me, is it so wrong to want to have some choice in the people I converse with?
Here’s the thing, you might be convinced by my walk, talk and dress that I am the girl for you but I don’t know you from Adam, so I don’t care. Besides, let’s face it, it wasn’t my sparkling personality I caught you staring at before you decided to shuffle over. I’m really glad you approve of my wardrobe choice but I actually know this outfit suits me that’s why I picked it. And I’m ecstatic that you’re into dreadlocks, luckily I think they’re alright too, that’s why I’ve been rocking them for the last five years. Unfortunately, I do not need your validation, so this conversation means nothing to me.
The most common argument I hear against this is that women love attention and they love compliments. It is exactly this idea that you know what I want or need because I am a woman that makes me want to run for the hills as soon as I see the gap between your lips widening to form speech. Most humans like to be complimented on the things they’ve worked hard at, but if you approach me thinking that that is what you’re doing by talking about my hair, clothes or looks, you’re wrong. That’s just the type of human being I am. Traditionally, what women are perceived to want or need lies somewhere between babies and red bottoms, so you can understand when those of us whose tastes are a footstep out of the unconventional get our backs up at you assuming that you can provide us with something that we would actually want. And that is not to say that a female who wants seven kids and a wardrobe full of expensive shoes is somehow fair game, she too deserves freedom from all humans that will inevitably be a waste of her time. Again, maybe I’m being unfair. Maybe you’re my soulmate and you just knew it as soon as you saw me and that’s what brought you over. If that is the case, you should probably work a few key reasons why into the formula. Maybe somewhere between the ‘hi’, the pet name and the shallow and unoriginal compliment I’m so used to.
*I’m not sorry.