Emily Heist Moss debates a controversial claim recently presented in The Atlantic that said disempowered men street harass women as a means to feel more powerful.
In last week’s Atlantic, cultural commenter Ta-Nehisi Coates penned an essay on masculinity and powerlessness in the face of eviction and racism. In broad strokes, he argues that certain expressions of violence and aggression are the only tools available for a generation of disempowered men looking for any way to stake a claim on manhood. As an example, he cites street harassment:
Street harassment is a kind of implied violence, a tool most embraced by those who lack the power to set laws, men who are in doubt of themselves. Real men objectify women with dignity and decorum.
His comment struck such a chord with readers that Coates was compelled to dive back into the comments and clarify his stance, “Profane exhibitions of power—rioting for instance—are not exhibitions of lower morality. The morality isn’t in the exhibition, it’s in the actual belief. Men who cat-call are not men with less morality then men who don’t, they are—more often—men with the same morality, but with less power.”
In this country, race and class are certainly correlated with power, but street harassment is so universal that race and class alone can’t explain it. If Coates is right and the root of all “hey babygirls” is a sense of powerlessness, that suggests that powerlessness cuts across demographic lines and lives somewhere deep and dark in the heart of 21st century American masculinity.
A few months ago, I wrote an open letter to guy who harassed me outside a bar. I asked men to try to “gender swap” their perspective and understand that their individual actions, though often meant lightly, contribute to the larger landscape of objectification and sexual violence. I received dozens of responses, including one from a white law student who asked me to gender swap my perspective:
“Just walking down the street can make me feel helpless when I pass a woman sometimes. I can’t shake it. If I could shake it, I would. Trust me. It’s no fun…Do I want to be this guy? Hell no! But who knows another way to become a man? Who can show me how to connect with a woman and respect myself?”
This letter-writer is not Coates’ South Side father facing down eviction; this is a person who by nature of his race, sex, and education is solidly among the privileged. And yet, warranted or not, it’s crystal clear that he feels, in this small facet of his life, disempowered. He feels duped by the system, raised on a notion of gendered gamesmanship only to find the rules have changed while he wasn’t paying attention. If he lashes out at women, he says, it’s because he doesn’t feel equipped to communicate in any other way.
The feminist movement has done a substantial, if incomplete, job at reframing the question of what it means to be a successful American woman. It is no longer about bundt cakes and apple turnovers, nor is it exclusively about skirt suits and executive suites. Generally speaking, the last 50 years of feminism has slowly worked toward a self-actualized version of ideal femininity, one that allows individuals to answer the question: What makes me feel happy and fulfilled? Are we done with that evolution? Surely not, but there is ample academic and cultural space in which to have those conversations.
There has been no masculinist movement, at least not a public one. Young men do not have their own Gloria Steinems and Betty Friedans to help them articulate the inequalities they confront. While girls have the early pioneers and the Sandbergs, Mayers, and Morans modeling new versions of womanhood in the public eye, new masculinity is largely conducted in private. This is still a generation of men who grew up with fathers who were the primary providers, with mothers who did the majority of the childcare and housework, with a celebrity model of masculinity committed to bulking up and bedding babes. Though intellectually many of them know they want a different life for themselves, there is no roadmap. As the letter-writer wrote, who can show me how to connect with a woman and respect myself?
After I read Coates’ piece, I shopped it around to a few straight male friends to see what they made of his claims about the relationship between powerlessness and street harassment. One wrote back, “Despite how much we might talk about cultural differences in views of masculinity, in America, to be a ‘Real Man’ means to have power over women.” For all the work toward equality we have done over the last half century, we have yet to knock down that tentpole of American manliness. Feminism was able to offer women an array of options, but we have yet to offer boys any sort of compelling alternatives to the visions of masculinity they have inherited or absorbed off of big screens and billboards.
I asked my friend why my male friends don’t cat-call. What makes them different? Privileged men, he explained, echoing Coates, have other ways of reminding themselves of their power; hiring young female assistants, flashing money, buying drinks, or casually talking about how Hillary’s too old to run or how Palin is a totally bangable imbecile. They don’t need to holler at women to feel that they are hitting their Real Man quota.
For a man without other methods of tapping into that outdated piece of American masculine mythology, his only choice is to use his voice. Hey babygirl, he says. Looking good, sweetie, he coos. Damn mama, he sighs. I would love to get into that, he declares. He whistles, he hoots, he hollers. He points, stares, gestures. He demands your attention with the only tools he’s packing. And for a minute, when you look down at the sidewalk, or roll your eyes in disgust, or flip him off, he feels powerful. He feels like a Real Man.
Role/Reboot regular contributor Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.