by Emily Coccia
Confession: sometimes I enjoy being catcalled. I know, I know, I shouldn’t. I’m an intelligent feminist who should know better than to feel complimented by these objectifying yells from across the street. But somehow, I can’t help but smile sometimes. Walking to work this summer, I couldn’t help but laugh when the paperboy whistled at me, or when the garbage men called me “beautiful,” or when the delivery guy implored, “Just one smile, it’ll make my day!” After all, it seemed like harmless fun. I knew exactly where I was; the sun was shining; other people knew to expect me at a certain place at a certain time, and they knew how to reach me if I wasn’t there. There never really seemed to be a cause for worry. Simply put, I felt safe. And if I felt safe, what was the harm in getting a little self-confidence booster on my walk to work? Is there really any danger in letting someone tell me my smile makes his day?
But somehow now, the situation has changed. When I’m walking down a street whose name I don’t know in a neighborhood I don’t understand, trying desperately not to look as hopelessly lost as I am, something is different. When I’m in a city for the first time in my life where everything blends together in one indistinguishable chain of unfamiliar buildings, something is different. When I’m communicating in a language which is not my native tongue and trying to function in a culture that is not my own, something is different. Now those whistles and pleas of, “Come on, beautiful, just a smile,” don’t seem so innocent. In fact, they’re pretty menacing. In Genoa, walking down a small side street that would be classified as an alley in the US—which I notice slightly too late is fairly deserted—the slightest movement terrifies me. I scurry silently along, praying that I won’t attract anyone’s attention, tensing as a man outside smoking mutters something. Adrenaline coursing through my veins, I turn my head at every noise. Even on larger streets, listening to a truck driver yell, in what I recognize to be the informal imperative grammatical structure, “Smile at me! The least you can do for me is smile,” I don’t find it sweet, or remotely endearing. I find it threatening and demanding.
In this moment, I recognize the real problem with catcalls. It isn’t that the words themselves are necessarily threatening (though they can be); the problem lies in the suggestion behind them that lingers long after the sound has dissipated. The problem lies in the idea that someone, some man who probably towers over my small 5’4” frame, is always watching, always scrutinizing my every move. And while it may be fun and innocent for most, women carry the burden of fearing the day when they might encounter someone for whom it is more than just innocent teasing, someone who takes all this as more than just a game. We live in a state of constant hyperawareness about how we act and dress, of what we say and where we walk. And this perpetual discomfort and fear bubbling right below the surface of our consciousness, emerging when we leave our comfort zones—this is a problem. So while that delivery boy might not frighten me, by playing along with his game, I might just be perpetuating the cycle, encouraging more and more people to participate. And even though this is my comfort zone, I should think about the woman for whom the streets of Georgetown are as unfamiliar as the back alleys of Genoa, for whom this man’s begging for a smile might seem as scary as an Italian truck driver’s command. After all, I think that’s what feminism is about—about standing together in solidarity, about watching out for one another and recognizing that something that inspires fear, even in just one person, is still scaring one person too many.