Considering the Normalization of Street Harassment in Popular Culture

Can I Have Your Number? Can I have it? 
Or: Considering the Normalization of Street Harassment in Popular Culture

Four weeks ago I had dinner with a mentor and friend from my Freshman year of college who had moved back to Florida. While catching up, she mentioned taking the survey about street harassment that I had created. She revealed that, after moving back to “suburbia,” she hadn’t experienced street harassment the same way she did when she was living in Philadelphia. For her, being back on campus had evoked the feeling that “men seem to look at women differently in the city” and she had become more conscious of her body in public space since stepping out of 30th Street Station. Her assessment made sense to me, and yet, while growing up in suburban New Jersey, before I had even graduated middle school, I had started to notice men (mostly strangers) looking at my body in public spaces and making crude and inappropriate comments (catcalling). And before I had even graduated high school, I had experienced being harassed on the street, being followed in public and inside stores, and being the target of objectification. I experienced all of this, essentially, as a child. By the time I had come to Philadelphia, I was so conditioned to expect and accept that catcalling was normal and there was nothing I could do about it.

Being an English major has provided me with an environment to question and become more educated on the human condition. I have been able to analyze the qualities and nature of things that have become normalized in popular culture. I have learned to challenge accepted behaviors and interrogate the social conditions that we seem to accept as inherent fact and simply natural. While in fact, these conditions have been artificially created, in this case, through patriarchal and institutional misogyny. Catcalling is one of those conditions that has followed me across state lines and international waters. It has no barriers as long as men and women share public space, and it can open the door to physical harassment and allow rape culture to persist. Street harassment/catcalling is never addressed within secondary education –in a class like Sexual Education, where we should be promoting the safety of women– we have not reached a place where addressing catcalling is on the agenda, and we continue to let vulgar behavior slide and pass it off as “boys just being boys.”  Why am I so bothered by this small detail of life – why can’t I just let it go? Well, why are people so OK with it? Why do we continue to normalize behavior that treats people as objects and assumes that women and feminine appearing people only exist in public space for the pleasure and consumption of men?

After I decided that I would look into the roots of catcalling, I found research reports on the alarming statistics of street harassment. An important organization known as Stop Street Harassment has done studies and surveys that reveal that “Ninety-five percent of female respondents were the target of leering or excessive staring at least once… seventy-five percent of female respondents have been followed by an unknown stranger in public, [and] more than 27 percent have been followed at least six times” (SSH). In 2015 Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations in collaboration with the grassroots initiative against street harassment, Hollaback!, conducted a survey titled, “Street Harassment: The Largest International Cross-Cultural Study.” The survey revealed that “72% of U.S. Women reported taking different transportation due to harassment” and “82% of international respondents reported taking a different route home/to their destination.”  After reading the surveys created by Stop Street Harassment and Hollaback!  I decided to create my own survey to see what unfiltered responses from contemporaries would reveal. When I read the anonymous responses of 100 individuals who responded to the survey, I was both disheartened and empowered. While my own project reflects the work already done by organizations like Stop Street Harassment and Hollaback!, I felt I wanted to take a fresh perspective and let the information I collected guide me in a particular direction. By analyzing the results of the survey, my personal experience, and feminist theory, I realized I could provide a socio-political analysis of the normalization of street harassment in popular culture. I decided to do this through a multi-media approach. This particular analysis, that goes deeper than the surface level issue of simply stating that it’s wrong, will allow the reader to question their own part in the normalization of street harassment. By taking a look at several examples in television and film, I can focus on this kind of behavior as perceived through media and get to the bottom of how our culture normalizes catcalling.

In, “Political Economy of Street Harassment,”  Micaela di Leonardo, defines the act:

“Street harassment occurs when one or more strange men accost one or more women… in a public place which is not the women’s worksite. Through looks, words, or gestures, the man asserts his right to intrude on the women’s attention, defining her as a sexual object, and forcing her to interact with him” (Leonardo 51).

The word “force” is important in this definition because it has become apparent that street harassment is about power – and the power that catcalling gives men.

When I complain about how much catcalling affects my daily life to my family I never get the sympathetic responses I expect. It’s upsetting to see how lightly those around me, who have not experienced catcalling, take to my concerns.  I have heard the responses: “deal with it, honey,” or  “you live in a city, that’s normal,” or “they were just being nice.. it’s a compliment!” or “calm down, it’s not like they would actually do anything.” Or that time a female newscaster on Fox News said, “Let men be men.”

Newscaster says, “Let men be men,” in regards to catcalling.

Well, I’m sorry Aunt Sally, but if you think “nice ass, bitch” is a compliment, then you don’t understand your own oppression. Catcalling causes fear and distress in the lives of so many women everyday. Yet our culture has normalized it by perpetuating the idea that women only belong in public space if they can handle “men being men.” I’ve been told by people to, “suck it up” or “just buy a weapon,” belittled in my attempt to address the issue. I can’t help but feel disappointed when I tell someone that I felt so uncomfortable walking down my own block and hearing the words, “damn, nice sexy legs” that I almost went home and changed, and they agreed that maybe I should have done so. This is disconcerting when what I expect is for the individual to feel just as disgusted at the man’s behavior, not to suggest that it’s my own fault. Although, this conversation was not with another women, there are many who feel it’s never the aggressors fault and that they are not accountable for their actions. This points to the systemic problem of normalizing toxic masculinity.

When a person has fallen victim to the normalization of catcalling, it becomes easier to ignore the reality and harder to see the issue for what it is, another tool of oppression. Addressing the normalization of catcalling in popular culture within our society will help us understand why it happens and eventually what we can do to resist it. I believe this is a communication issue – a media issue – in which messages are communicated through catcalling and that message is often that women are nothing more than desirable objects.

When tackling catcalling, I wanted to start at the very beginning. The Oxford English dictionary has two definitions of “catcall”: 1) “A shrill whistle or shout of disapproval made at a public meeting or performance (‘he walked out to jeers and catcalls’) and 2) A loud whistle or a comment of a sexual nature made by a man to a passing woman (‘women were the objects of catcalls when they walked by the men’s barracks’)” (OED Online). Micaela di Leonardo’s definition of street harassment looks closer at the socio-political undertones. Also, according to the OED, the origin of the word itself is, “Mid 17th century: from cat + call, originally denoting a kind of whistle or squeaking instrument used to express disapproval at a theatre.” (OED online). This historical fact shows that catcalling has always had a negative connotation, and isn’t a new trend.

According to research done by Judith R. Walkowitz, this issue has been around since Victorian England, possibly before the 1880s. In her essay, “Going Public: Shopping, Street Harassment, and Streetwalking in Late Victorian London,” she writes, “In Victorian England, street harassment emerged as a “social problem” and “social issue” when the city center and the national newspaper expanded to create publics that were both heterogeneous and conflictual. In particular, it emerged as a subject of concern when unaccompanied middle- class women and the new class fractions of clerks and “smartly-dressed” shop assistants became a massed presence in the center, thus entering the privileged spaces of politics and commerce and, especially, consumption. Street harassment surfaced as a subject of concern when some women were empowered to articulate it publicly as a violation of their bodily integrity” (Walkowitz, 1).

The heterogeneous public space was a negative environment for women. The public space was intended as “male territory” and the introduction of women into that space conflicted with the “urban setting of clubs and political institutions… [and the] eroticized zone of commercialized sex,” adding to the space “a fashionable shopping area for ladies” created hostility (Walkowitz, 1). Women were leaving their designated social space– the home to socialize, shop, and interact with each other and be seen by men – and their presence in traditionally male spaces was a red flag for the men that saw that woman were changing the social order. Walowitz writes,

“This association of shopping with a marketable, sexualized femininity seemed to entitle male pests to “annoy” respectable women who tried to experience the freedom of the city and to enter the palaces of consumption organized for them” (Walkowitz, 7).  So, street harassment became a tool to remove women from the public space. This helps to explain why catcalling has become institutionalized in the culture. Walkowitz writes, “Early in her adolescence, a girl had to learn to free herself of unwanted admirers. In her gestures, movements, and pace (always dignified and purposeful), she had to show that she was not available prey” (Walkowitz, 7). It becomes the woman’s job to keep herself from the unwanted attention from men – which is essentially victim blaming (i.e., it’s your own fault for looking a certain way). It’s often easier to be passive in a potentially dangerous situation than to be as hostile as the aggressor. When we see representations of women being preyed upon in public space, there is an expectation of them to follow the rules of etiquette by not being aggressive and passively accepting the unwanted attention. When this does not happen, it goes against the social order and the woman is perceived as acting “out of place” and is a threat to the masculinity of the aggressor.

The first time I saw a portrayal of public harassment within a medium of popular culture (television), I wasn’t really intending to be anything but entertained. The Youtube video was uploaded from a skit on MadTV called, “Can I have Your number.” As I watched the first minute of the sketch, I identified with the female character because, as I projected my own experiences onto her situation, I realized what was being portrayed by the actors wasn’t much of an exaggeration. As I watched, first I thought to myself, “oh, god. I hate when that happens,” and yet I laughed because I had been conditioned to think that it was funny. In the video, a man sits in the back of a movie theatre and continually harasses a young woman sitting alone watching the opening credits. For five long painful minutes, I watched this man attempt to hit on this woman. She takes the polite approach that woman are expected to do, which causes the man to dismiss her persistent rejections. Sure it is satire and therefore can be construed as social commentary and making light of the situation, but would MadTV do a sketch about Brock Turner? Probably not, because most individuals recognize that rape isn’t something to joke about.

To appreciate the nature of the harassment in the video, I thought as readers you should judge the situation yourselves:


Darrell: Your boyfriend! Where your boyfriend at? Is he getting’ you refreshments? Is he tall? Is he gettin’ you Mike n Ikes? Oh, you like Mike n Ikes? Is he hefty? Is he comin’ back? Where your boyfriend? Where you boyfriend at? Where your boyfriend?

Yvonne:: Oh—uh I don’t, I don’t have a boyfriend.

Darrell: So LISTEN, umm, I was wonderin’, can I have yo numba? Can I have yo numba?

Yvonne: No, I-I-I don’t give out my number…in theaters, where I’m about to watch a movie.

Darrell then proceeds to ask her for her number a second time, which she declines and repeats that she doesn’t give her number out to strangers. By now, in reality, this guy should have left her alone. I’m sure if Yvonne had it her way, this guy would have never tried to talk to her in the first place. This sketch highlights that kind of insistent and irrational behavior. The fact is that, after she finally says “no” and stops trying to be nice, he still doesn’t back off. And that’s the joke, isn’t it? His total persistence and lack of regard for anything Yvonne says, asks, or does is funny – because the woman’s comfort and personal desires don’t matter. Yvonne does not tell him to fuck off or lie that her boyfriend is coming (because a man will respect another man, but not a woman), and her respect and kindness is met with more harassment. This is another way to ghettoize women, to make them feel uncomfortable and unequal in public settings.

There is more to street harassment and catcalling than yelling, whistling, car honking, and crude remarks. Some street harassment is harder to walk away from or ignore.

There is a spot on Drexel’s Campus in between 34th and Lancaster called Lancaster Walk. The area is crowded with students walking to and from class, people coming from the DAC, and people making their way home or to get coffee at Saxbys. Twice I have been approached and harassed by men there. Once, on my way to the gym in the dead of winter and another on my way to class on 32nd and Chestnut. Both times these men made me feel embarrassed, isolated, and uncomfortable. The first time, I was tricked into talking to a young man. He had asked for directions and suggested that he was new to Philadelphia. After I gave him the best answer I could, he then proceeded to ask me more questions about the area. Finally, as I thought this weird encounter would come to an end, he propositioned me – he asked what I was doing for the rest of the day (it was a Saturday) and if I wanted to come over and watch a movie with him because I “looked beautiful, and would look even more beautiful on his couch.” There was nothing in my answers to his questions that should have prompted this response – I said the only thing I thought would work, “sorry, I don’t think my boyfriend would like that.” Immediately he apologized and walked away. At one point during this interaction my male roommate passed me and didn’t blink an eye. Because men don’t experience being accosted by strangers, he was oblivious to how uncomfortable I believed I looked.  The second time, a young man wanted to “be my friend” and followed me all the way through Lancaster Walk almost to my class, insisting that he only wanted to be my friend. Both instances occurred in daylight and many people were around to see my discomfort. These details are important when fighting the stigma that this behavior only occurs in dark and dangerous places. When I was distanced from these men and safely at my destination, I felt like my personhood was violated. It upset me that I had not been able to protest my own objectification in fear of the repercussions of violating the social order.

The scariest thing about these interactions is how mild they are compared to the street harassment that other women encounter. In the survey I conducted through Survey Monkey, a survey taker responded that they once had a soda thrown at them and were called a “fat cow” – in what universe is that okay? The answer should be none.

There is a term for the power complex that occurs when harassment turns from pure objectification to sinister and verbal/physical violence. In her essay, “The Relationship of Gender-based Public Harassment to Body Image, Self-Esteem, and Avoidance,Tracy Lynn Lord explains what Walkowitz introduces in her analysis of Victorian London behavior.  Lord emphasizes the power-complex concept as the “social control theory.” She confirms Walkowitz’s research,

“The third theory is the social control theory, which holds that harassment is a “means of social control that serves to reproduce and maintain the status quo of male dominance” (Lenton et al., 1999, p. 520). Harassment forces some women out of the public sphere, which men consider their territory, and back into the private sphere. The authors believe that the results of their study, described above, suggest that harassment is likely related to the social control theory, with many women experiencing fear and limiting their activities as a result of being harassed (Lord, 15).”

Lord’s theory emphasizes the way in which street harassment causes women to believe they lack choice and opportunity when it comes to being safe in public. There is no choice when it comes to being catcalled and publicly harassed – catcalling limits and can even determines a woman or femme person’s agency. Even today, women are told to watch what they wear, how they walk, and even check their facial expressions. Walkowitz illustrates and introduces us to such 19th century “street etiquette” that seems almost prevalent today. She writes,

“Conduct books and magazines frequently admonished their female readers not to window-shop or in any other way exhibit “lounging behavior” on the street. While deploring the conduct of male pests, magazines such as the Girl’s Own Paper nonetheless insisted that it was generally a girl’s fault if she was “spoken to” (Walkowitz, 7).

Nearly 150 years later and women are still blamed for being the victims of catcalling. We are blamed for stimulating such behavior by “exposing” our calves, shoulders, midriffs, or cleavage. Walkowitz’s conduct books and magazines have turned into school dress codes and regulations. What was once perceived as popular culture dictated by magazines has translated into rules set to keep girls from distracting boys giving unwarranted suspensions for “exposing” their shoulders or collarbones. These rules sexualize children (because technically anyone under 18 is a child) and teach young girls that their gender will always be limiting. The same “conduct books” and rules keep girls out of the public sphere, out of education, and sends the home to think about the way their bodies ultimately dictate their educational experience. Women are constantly being punished for existing, and popular culture ends up making fun of us for it. In my survey I asked the question, “Have you ever changed your outfit or considered doing so in fear of getting catcalled or harassed?” 53 out of 100 participants said that they had at either once, multiple times, and 2 out of the 53 responded that they did or considered doing so every time they got dressed. More than half of the group is essentially stripped of their agency every time they change clothing in fear of a potential aggressor. I know I am tired of having to constantly worry if my gym attire will attract unwanted attention on the sidewalk.

In 2017 it seems women will attempt to rebuke cat callers instead of following “conduct books” or street etiquette or allowing men to rule their public space. In the same survey I conducted, 39 out of 100 participants said that they had either responded back once, multiple times, or every time they were catcalled. When asked “briefly explain how the harasser responded” if the answer was yes, one of those 39 responders had said that, “Most times if I decline their attention they immediately switch gears to “well you’re not hot anyways” or “fuck you, bitch,” and another explained, “the harasser become more aggressive and vulgar with language.” It’s obvious that there is great difficulty in discovering the best way to avoid and call out street harassment without causing more trouble or creating a larger issue. This fear of aggressiveness or the unknown is most likely what drives the other 61 responders to stay silent and not respond to the catcalling.

What I’ve observed constantly is the lack of catcalling that occurs when I am accompanied by my boyfriend or a male companion. Therefore, this fact reinforces the idea that men are the ones in control of women and that a man does not poach on another man’s property. This fact exemplifies the same social control theory that Lord describes.

In an episode of popular animated Disney Channel television show, Phineas and Ferb, an example of this “alpha-male” behavior takes place. The episode titled “Vanessassary Roughness,” opens up with the evil villain/mad scientist, Heinz Doofenshmirtz, riding on a bike with his daughter Vanessa. A biker is stopped next to them at a light. The interaction is as follows:

Vanessa: Dad, I need a car. I can’t keep riding on the back of your scooter every time I go someplace. It’s totally embarrassing.

Biker: Hey, sweetheart. How’d you like to take a ride on a real bike?

Doofenshmirtz: She’s sixteen!  


This example of catcalling in popular culture is a dilemma because it simultaneously shames the catcaller, but only claims that it is wrong because the female subject, Vanessa Doofenshmirtz, is only 16 and is someone’s daughter. So, consequently it’s wrong – not because it’s objectifying and harmful behavior – but because she’s sixteen and therefore the sexualized comment, “Hey, sweetheart. How’d you like to take a ride on a real bike?” is deemed inappropriate by her father. I wonder if Vanessa was perhaps 21 or older, if Doofenshmirtz would have bothered to say anything at all– or if we were to replace Vanessa with an unnamed woman on the sidewalk if Doofenshmirtz would have said a word. It’s progress for a children’s television show to take the time to deem such behavior as “uncool” and uncouth – especially with its initial shaming of the street harasser, but the reasoning is still off. We evoke empathy from men only when we provide the point of view of a daughter, wife, or mother. We see viral videos on social media platforms like Facebook and Youtube of fathers and boyfriends reacting to their daughters or girlfriends being harassed on the street. It is only in this context that their eyes are opened and they are willing to testify and verbally revoke against such behavior.  

Examples like this one can create a narrative of dependency on men to feel safe. In the Youtube video, ”Dads React to Their Daughters Getting Catcalled,” created by the channel The Scene, one father even noted that when they walked together to get to the screening of the video no one tried to catcall or harass his daughter. It is not a coincidence. Because it is only when I am alone that I am approached, catcalled, or followed, there is a lack of empathy from the men who do not see it happen. And for many men who catcall there is a desire to gain “masculinity points,” from their peers.

When I am alone I make decisions about being in public based on my safety, whether that is to go out of my way to cross the street or walk faster and keep my head down to avoid prompting any potential vocalization. In her research, Lord explains why women do this. She reports that “there is reason to believe that public harassment is related to avoidance behavior, given that women have reported avoiding public places due to fear” (Lord, 24-25). I constantly choose to inconvenience myself and avoid a particular street or area to evade potential street harassment and have changed direction to avoid walking into a perceived harmful situation. Stop Street Harassment surveyed that “about 62 percent of women say a man has purposely blocked their path at least once and 23 percent said this has happened at least six times.” But it is not only strangers that perpetuate this behavior. Public space is the perfect environment for any misogynist to display their masculinity and to objectify, belittle, and berate women in front of their peers.

In the movie She’s the Man, a romantic-sport comedy, the main protagonist, Viola Hastings dresses up as her twin brother, Sebastian Hastings, in an attempt to join the men’s soccer team when he skips the first day of school. Viola wants to play soccer at his elite boarding school after she faces gender discrimination when her women’s soccer team is cut for no reason at her school. Since Sebastian’s classmates have never met him, Viola is able to disguise herself as her brother and attempt to join the men’s soccer team. Viola, the fake “Sebastian,” concocts a plan to prove that female soccer players are just as good as male soccer players. As the fake “Sebastian” moves in with Sebastian’s assigned roommates, it ends up taking more than a solid disguise to convince his male peers that he’s not the effeminate guy they perceive him to be. After some hiccups trying to convince her teammates of her “manliness,” Viola’s hair stylist agrees to help her appear more masculine. During a phone call he assures Viola that they’re, “gonna show everybody the man that you really are,” because the only way “Sebastian” can become a vital part of the soccer team is to be accepted into their boy’s club.

Viola is forced to tap into the misogynistic trope of being a “man” under the guise of being a “player” and having sexual relations with multiple women. In the scene, “Sebastian” – who is really Viola in drag – publicly degrades and dismisses three women, two scantily-clad “ex-girlfriends,” and the real Sebastian’s current girlfriend. While dressed as Sebastian and practicing social norms of masculinity, i.e., catcalling, she perpetuates the “social control theory,” through her performance of masculine behavior. She walks into the restaurant calling one waitress “foxy mama.” Then, despite pleas from an “ex-girlfriend” to take her back, “Sebastian” announces that it’s a “new school, new babe pool,” and proclaims for all to hear that he’d “tap that” as she walks out the door. He calls the second ex-girlfriend needy after he slaps her ass as she walks away. The fake “Sebastian” gives the grand finale by accidentally breaking up with the real Sebastian’s girlfriend.

The fake “Sebastian” humiliates all of these women and thus pushes them out of the public space as a way to project and prove his masculinity for his doubtful group of peers. He practices these social norms by objectifying and publicly denouncing these pining women, going as far as to make crude and sexual gestures to their faces. The whole scene is a set-up, but what matters here is that “Sebastian’s” male peers recognize “his masculinity” only after he treats these women poorly in public and even accidentally breaks up with the real Sebastian’s girlfriend to keep her from recognizing that he is really Viola. As Sebastian’s real girlfriend, Monique, storms out of the restaurant after the fake “Sebastian” insults her and calls her ugly, all of the guys in the restaurant clap and cheer – although the scene is a set-up,  the reactions of his male peers are all very real and they quickly agree to re-evaluate his social standing and finally accept him as “one of the guys.” He gains their respect after Monique storms off and one of the characters, Duke, says “scoot over, make some room for the man.” It is only after the fake “Sebastian” uses the “social control theory” that he is accepted as a man by his peers.

Looking at the “rule of three” – “Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, three times is a pattern” – Yvonne, Vanessa, and Viola’s experiences create a clear pattern; their experiences both mirror and differ in certain ways, but ultimately they show how normalized and accepting the public is of this type of harassment. Looking back at Victorian London Walkowitz makes it clear that this issue has always been present in entertainment. She writes, “melodrama offered an important language of emotion to women… it too purveyed a set of truths and fictions” (Walkowitz, 20). When we discuss, analyze, and interpret our media this way we come across similar truths and fictions, but we also manage to shape new narratives.

After carefully choosing and editing the ten questions I would include in my survey, I came to question #7 and considered how useful the information would be. Ultimately, the question had an obvious answer: Have you ever experienced street harassment that specifically had to do with your gender, sexual orientation, body type, or race/ethnicity? (If yes, please specify in “other” box). When I took my own survey as a test run, I didn’t hesitate to check yes for this question – as a woman my experience has always been about my gender, which is easily conveyed through my feminine appearance.

At 12 years old I was being cat-called because, as so many people had pointed out to me, I could pass for much older. Catcalling and street harassment go beyond the issue of compliment vs. crude remark  i.e., is it a harmless compliment or is it sexual harassment? It is an issue of systematic oppression, of not only women (and young girls), but anyone who is pushed out of the social sphere by men, or more particularly straight white men. It is often sexist, homophobic, and bigoted behavior. When Darrell asks Yvonne in the MadTV skit, “Can I Have Your Number? Can I have it?” – what he’s really asking is can I have you, not as a person, but as a thing to be desired and obtained. And like so many of us, Yvonne resists Darrell’s persistence – she does not get mad, she does not yell or draw negative attention, and she does not get physically violent in her resistance. Yvonne symbolizes the silent and passive resistance that women employ everyday to defy being pushed out of the public space.

(‘End Street Harassment’ flower installations by Pussy Division in Philly, photo from streetsdept.com)

Elyssa Kerstein
is a junior English major with a writing minor. Her eyebrows are always on point and she enjoys dabbling in many different types of art.

2 thoughts on “Considering the Normalization of Street Harassment in Popular Culture

  1. Wow! This article really captured my attention through the embedded pictures and videos. Also, by connecting this topic to a movie, you really allow the readers to connect to the moral. Catcalling is a serious problem, however, I believe that it would be worth mentioning that the many of these catcalls come from minorities and low income populations for whom cat calling is normal. However, it should not be that way. The fundamental point is that people who catcall feel an entitlement to say whatever they want to say about women\’s bodies in a public space.

  2. I really liked this article a lot. I feel like it took a topic that is so relatable, catcalling, and exposed it for what it really is. I love how the author connected both her own experiences and clips from movies and TV shows to show how apparent this issue is. As a woman myself I could really relate to everything she was talking about, and it opened my eyes to the kind of world we live in where in order to be accepted as a man, you must degrade or sexualize women in some way.

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