An Indian anti-street harassment PSA video, “Dekh Le” (created by Whistling Woods International, a film school in Mumbai, India) has gotten a lot of press recently for holding up a mirror to street harassers:
This video was released on December 16, 2013, the one-year anniversary of the horrific gang rape that was reported around the world. It shows men staring at women in various public spaces, while in the background, a Hindi song plays, saying “Look how you look when you’re looking at me.“
This video is great because it opens up conversation about street harassment, particularly staring/leering, which is regularly minimized as something to which women and girls “overreact.” I love that the creators chose to target leering behavior on the anniversary of the Delhi gang rape. It sends a strong message that rape culture is reflected in all of the behaviors that make women uncomfortable in public spaces. It also gets at the connection between street harassment and rape. Does most leering escalate to rape? Not at all. Are women and girls conditioned (with good reason) to fear that escalation? Absolutely. Sometimes a creepy look does escalate to an unwelcome comment, to groping, to following, or even to sexual assault. It can be incredibly difficult to predict in the moment how a situation will play out, which is why an action as seemingly minimal as a leer can send off alarm bells in a person’s mind. And even if it doesn’t escalate, having to endure rude objectifying staring and unwelcome comments in public several times a day is a psychological strain on its own and can result in people altering or restricting their use of public space. All by itself, leering is an invasive, oppressive behavior.
In the video, men’s stares are shown reflected back at them in mirrors that the women wear (a reflective helmet, a necklace, sunglasses, and a mirror on a handbag). The men see their ogling faces and immediately turn away, clearly ashamed of their behavior. I had a strong reaction to this moment, thinking “get real! that would never happen!”. To be fair, there have been reports of women who have talked to their harassers in the moment, explaining how the harassment makes them feel, and have had the harassers apologize and acknowledge the harassing nature of their behavior – so a positive response is not outside the realm of possibility. On the whole, though, I’m guessing the more likely response would be more along the lines of defensiveness: “I’m not like that” or “some women are clearly looking for attention” or “what, can’t people even look at other people anymore?”. This PSA is showing us an unlikely reaction to force us to think about why some people feel free to leer with no sense of shame, and why our culture allows that behavior to continue.
Leering is very different from “looking” or “noticing.” It stems from a deep-seated sense of entitlement to gaze at women as objects. This way of thinking is reflected and reinforced by the idea of the “male gaze” which refers to the dominant perspective in films, ad campaigns, and even comic books catering to a straight male observer; in other words, a heterosexual man is usually doing the looking, and a woman is usually being looked at, often as an object serving “merely as an instrument of sexual pleasure.”
The international anti-street harassment organization, Hollaback!, has been chipping away at the culture that enables street harassers for almost ten years now. In 2005, the year the organization started, a woman riding the subway took a picture of a man sitting across from her, masturbating. When the police refused to help, she posted the picture to flickr. It went viral, making its way to the cover of the Daily News, and sparking a citywide conversation about street harassment. Smartphone cameras are clearly an effective “mirror” to hold up, showing not only what specific incidents of street harassment look like, but how we as a culture look when we permit these behaviors to continue. The Hollaback! app allows for uploading both pictures and harassment stories to its blogs, now in 71 cities and 24 countries. [Side note: Buzzfeed reports that "in several regions of the world, some men feel entitled to leer at women in public places," insinuating that this problem only happens in certain countries and cultures. This is blatant, incorrect otherizing of the problem. Street harassment happens all over the world, including the United States].
Some of the scenarios in the PSA strike me as being a bit subtle, which makes me wonder about how they will be interpreted. The guy on the bus, in particular, looks like he’s trying to make eye-contact and attempting a friendly smile. Even though the woman he’s smiling at gives him clear signals that she is not interested and does not appreciate it (thereby establishing that this is harassment), I worry that some viewers will interpret her response as an overreaction, because his facial expression looks more hopeful than salacious. On the other hand, this scenario could open up some great conversations about how, yep, persistent staring is still harassment, even if the leer-er is making a friendly face.
I love that this video uses mirrors instead of literally trying to turn the tables by showing women ogling men (which would be a total flop, since the power dynamic does not go both ways). It would be great if this ad went a step further and included a concrete call to action (maybe something about bystander intervention), but I think this is a great start.
As far as I know, this video is an online-only PSA which is meant to spread virally – and it’s doing a good job with over 1.3 million views! Hopefully some of these views are coming via mainstream websites, so it’s not just those of us interested in feminism/street harassment/advertising who are getting the message. Nothing gets me down like preaching to the choir. Have you seen any other great PSAs that focus on leering, or street harassment in general? Drop me a line!