Friday, October 31, 2014

Bad-Acting Men, and the Women Who Reward Them

This week, the usual suspects got afflutter when Rob Bliss Creative, a self-described “viral video agency,” distributed a two-minute Web film of actress Shoshana B. Roberts, dressed completely non-provocatively, walking silently through Manhattan, absorbing catcalls and sexual taunts from random strangers. It snagged twenty million views in two days. Feminist proclaimed proof—proof!—that patriarchy trivializes women. Misogynists sent death threats. Same old same old.

This video has significant problems. Hanna Rosin notes that, though the final title card claims Roberts got over 100 catcalls, averaging one every six minutes, nearly every face shown harassing Roberts is brown. I’d go further. Nearly every shot features boarded-up windows, graffiti, and men idling curbside, classic emblems of poverty. A white woman wandered into blighted, predominantly brown neighborhoods and expected… what exactly? It’s a classic honey trap.

Worse, despite the editors’ focus on men acing loutishly, nearly every shot backgrounds men not catcalling her. If she got one-hundred come-hithers in a city of eight million people, then even just on the streets Roberts walked, that’s thousands of men notably not embracing the opportunity for misbehavior. So even if Roberts didn’t directly acknowledge the men around her, Bliss Creative gave them exactly what they wanted: attention.

I’ve written previously about feeling skeeved when men harass women. I received several e-mails after one incident put me permanently off Big Bang Theory. My story of “Nelson,” a middle-aged white guy, forcing his attentions on “Daniela,” a young Hispanic co-worker, resonated with several people. Apparently, we’ve all known somebody who treated women with such naked arrogance. Fellas, if you can’t recall anyone, take one solid look in a mirror.

Unfortunately, since writing that, I’ve noticed more complex interactions in play. While enough colleagues finally complained to force Nelson off the line, several other men treat Daniela largely the same. Many are senior technicians whose experience and skills make them difficult to replace. One machine operator, “Jack,” seems incapable of going an hour without flirting with Daniela, tickling her, attempting to startle her, and otherwise displaying sweeping Freudian behavior.

Shoshana Roberts
Watching Jack’s behavior toward Daniela, I’m clearly witnessing the very conduct for which our company wrote its sexual harassment policy. His actions make Shoshana Roberts’ verbal catcalls look tame and courteous. Daniela answers Jack (who is married) by laughing, bantering, and flirting back. Recently, Jack crept up behind Daniela, grabbed her in a bear hug from behind that pinned her arms, and lifted her clear off her feet. Daniela laughed, gave Jack a play punch in the chest, then hugged him.

You’d think they were old buddies. I wholly cannot understand Daniela’s response, given her visible antipathy toward Nelson. There’s literally no difference between how Jack treats Daniela, and how Nelson treated her, except how she responds. Nelson’s attempts to gain Daniela’s attention merited disdain; Jack’s attempts merit reciprocation. Therefore, the only discernable difference between Nelson and Jack, is that Nelson can’t take a hint.

On a personal note, I’ve tried talking to Daniela. No matter what I say, I get monotone two- and three-word responses. I’ve finally given up.

Perhaps economic class matters. Nelson, a fellow peon, has little to offer Daniela, while Jack can offer networking opportunities to climb the company ladder. (We’re emphatically not a meritocracy.) But consider the three responses Daniela’s shown. Jack and Nelson both tried to put the make on her. She responded to one positively, one negatively, for reasons I cannot spot. I tried showing her respect and talking to her like an adult; she received me with indifference.

I never particularly realized, until it happened to a woman I care about, how much time and effort women invest daily in avoiding seual harrassment, degradation, and rape. I have every sympathy with Shoshana Roberts and her message, even if I question aspects of its presentation. So when I see women creating incentives for continued misbehavior, I feel physically queasy. Yet my response matters little; the behavior continues unabated.

Who knows how many men who didn’t harass Shoshana Roberts thought they were showing her respect? Yet all attention accrued to men showing active disrespect. By that criterion, acting loutishly achieves the desired goal. Maybe I’d get Daniela’s attention if I behaved like an asshole. But even thinking that way makes me sick to my stomach, it so thoroughly contravenes my constitution and the way my momma raised me.

If women’s attention is the desired reward, oafish conduct seems to work. If women want harassment to stop, they must first subvert this reward system.

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