The Evolution of Catcalling

Jessica Lees explores the issue of catcalling and its effects on those subjected to it, discussing how the history of this behaviour has led to a deeply rooted misogynistic practice.

Past:

The first use of the ‘catcall’ is believed to have come from the Shakespearean era where it was used to mock a performer, the audience would shriek and cry like that of a cat. This then progressed to ‘mashers’ in 19th century America who were described as ‘aggressive male street flirts’. In the 1940’s, cartoonist Tex Avery created a wolf cartoon by the name of Slick Joe McWolf. The main characteristic of the wolf was to drool and whistle due to being so overwhelmed by seeing an attractive woman. This was especially seen in the cartoon Red Hot Riding Hood, a reimagined telling of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, which depicted the wolf showing his attraction towards an adult Red Riding Hood. This cartoon was rated ‘U’ and so was deemed suitable for all audiences therefore it is not unusual to suggest that young boys and men viewed these behaviours as normal, amusing and acceptable. 

Present:

The overused advice given to women feeling uncomfortable after being catcalled is to ‘take it as a compliment’. This rhetoric has always been somewhat of an enigma. For most, the usual compliments one receives are from the people closest to you, in the right situations. Your best friend compliments your outfit before a night out, for example, genuine compliments are not full of aggression, and this contrasts to the ‘compliments’ coming from a (typically greying) man in a white van, beeping and honking,“oi beautiful”, followed by a few ugly hand gestures, on your morning walk to college. Catcalling is a form of objectification; it is used to assert dominance and to heighten the caller’s self-esteem. No consideration is given to the women who experience it.

Although, there is another side to catcalling that is rooted in internalised misogyny and the desire for male attention. I recently read an article by Laura Fox who stated how she hated that she missed being catcalled. She noted how prominent catcalling and male attention was in her life when she was underage, compared to when she was a grown adult. This change served as a reminder to her that she was ageing and, in her view, was therefore no longer seen as attractive to the male gaze. This way of thinking is rooted in internalised misogyny. Fox identified  that she missed vocal attraction from the male gaze, rather than the aggressive and unsettling act of being shouted at and verbally intimidated, which is the true nature of catcalling. So how can we change this? The general solution would be to change how we view our bodies and redefine what beauty and attractiveness is for us, so that we are not handing over our self-esteem to be shaped to the ideals of men. It’s not wrong to want to be perceived as attractive, but it causes issues when we give certain people the power to decide whether we are. 

Artwork by Cerys Gadsden

Those who catcall are generally met with confusion and general embarrassment for their actions from the general public. Media and cartoons like Slick Joe McWolf allow for the idea that it is acceptable and brave to protest their attraction in this bold way. In such cartoons, the catcalling wolf manages to get the girl, in reality, no woman is interested in the crude comments and screeches of this attraction. Furthermore, if a woman were to be interested in a man from these comments, the caller would be taken aback. This is because catcalling is not a sign of genuine attraction or a plea for love and a desire to compliment, it is purely to intimidate and project dominance onto women and to cause similarly minded men comedy. Catcalling is classic evidence of toxic masculinity. However, whilst it may be funny to these men, women and underage girls are fearful. My personal experiences of this have all been at the age of 18 and below, usually on my own at night or in the early mornings where I felt the most vulnerable. 

The statistics on street harassment are startling. YouGov conducted a national poll on street harassment in 2016 and found that 85% of women ages 18-24 had faced sexual harassment in public spaces. This statistic is extremely unsettling and around the world the statistics remain high. For example, in Croatia evidence found that 99% of women experienced some form of street harassment in their lifetime, and 50% experienced it by age 18. Source: Stop the Street Harassment. There is a large amount of evidence showing that ‘locker room talk’ and street harassment can lead very easily to  serious crimes and assaults, often minor harassments are used to test the waters before enacting more violent and detrimental desires. Evidence of this can be found with most people who commit crimes against women, but one specific example of testing these boundaries can be seen with Sarah Everard’s killer. Despite being a police officer, Wayne Couzens repeatedly engaged in street harassment (such as flashings) before going another step further to the kidnapping, abuse and murder of Sarah.

Future:

We have established that catcalling is not a profession of simple attraction, a claim of one’s beauty or any sort of romantic notion. It has and continues to be an act of something that is uncomfortable, unsolicited, and frankly violent. Most women have experienced catcalling and street harassment. For women and girl’s street harassment is in our past, present and future, but how do we change that? The common advice for women is to ignore it. Some say that there is power in that, to appear unfazed by the words and comments. After all, there is certainly danger in speaking back and inevitably getting into a confrontation with a man who is already drunk on dominance.. But is it really a question of what we as women should do? Why should we be burdened with correcting the hideous natures of certain people? Instead, this is where men should put in the work. If you are one of our male readers, I urge you to speak to your friends who catcall or have disturbing ‘locker room talk’, decline to join in and put yourself in the shoes of that 16-year-old girl walking home alone from school. Essentially, treat people with the respect that we all deserve and work towards making our streets a comfortable and safe space for women and girls to walk free from fear, degradation and intimidation.

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