Knowing how to react to a catcaller is a conundrum. Do you ignore it and carry on walking? Do you respond? Do you report them? And if so, where? One Dutch woman decided that she would react by asking the offending man to pose in a selfie with her. And they did. With beaming smiles, thumbs up, waves and even an arm around her shoulders.
Noa Jansma is not smiling in the pictures. She looks fed up. As she should be: in a month, she took 24 pictures. But while the men were oblivious to her reasons for snapping them, the 20-year-old student from Amsterdam was uploading them to her Instagram account DearCatcallers with captions of what the men had shouted.
They range from the classic: "Hey beautiful, Why are you sad?" ~"I'm not sad" ~"Why don't you smile at me then? You're too sweet to be sad" to unimaginative: “"Babyyyyyyyy! THANKYOU" *blowkiss*”.
With 48.5k followers, the account has hit a nerve. Jansma has explained that she was trying to use the project to reclaim power over her harassers: “By making the selfie, both the objectifier and the object are assembled in one composition. Myself, as the object, standing in front of the catcallers represents the reversed power ratio which is caused by this project.”
The men in the photos are a diverse group. They are of different races, different ages and they approach her at different times of day and in different ways. What they have in common is the way they reacted to her request for photos – happy to oblige and with no apparent concerns. It would suggest that they had no particular end goal. Reportedly only one man asked why she wanted a picture. Which does raise the question of how the project might actually impact the perpetrators of street harassment. They don’t care and why would these photos change that? It seems unlikely that, having felt no shame in their actions in real life, they will be particularly concerned to be exposed online.
The smiles of Jansma’s subjects would suggest they do not see themselves as threatening. Perhaps they would even be concerned to be viewed in that context
There is often a discussion about what men are hoping to achieve when they shout insults, make lewd requests and comment on a woman’s appearance in public. Are they trying to scare her? Or are they hoping it will lead to romance? In the cases Jansma has documented, it seems that shouting at women in public was simply a regular part of the day for these men. Jansma has clarified that there were more instances of harassment that were not documented as she either didn’t have an opportunity to speak to the man, or she did not feel safe to linger and ask for a photo. And some of the photos include worrying details about the men following her, either on foot or in cars. It’s an important point. Now Jansma has completed documenting her month of catcallers, she has posted that she will be handing the account over the other women around the world to continue the project.
This will no doubt increase the account’s following and stimulate wider conversation but it will not always be safe for a woman to replicate her actions. Inherent in the threat a woman feels from street harassment, is that she could be in very real danger.
The smiles of Jansma’s subjects would suggest they do not see themselves as threatening. Perhaps they would even be concerned to be viewed in that context. And that is why catcalling cannot be excused as harmless flirting. The men photographed in this project might see their actions as complimentary or flattering but they are complicit in the wider construction of a public space that renders women powerless. And that is a scary position to be in.