How Being Catcalled in NYC Helped Me Make Art

Empowerment from a place of harsh discomfort.

It was one of those sunny, possibility-rich NYC mornings and I had an extra pep in my step on my way to grab coffee, when a car swerves to the curb and starts honking and yelling, “Hey pretty-you workout?” I was so caught off guard I procured a surprised/disgusted/demented look, turned the volume WAY up in my headphones and barreled past them, trying to find some semblance of positive energy again…I wish I could say that experience was an anomaly.

For me, NYC was a massive change from the three-stoplight WI town in which I was raised. The closest thing I ever experienced to heckling was cheering people on at a track meet. My few months floating down the streets of the concrete jungle garnered the usual (I cringe that I used ‘usual’) whistles and “Smile, beautiful,” which I would ignore. But twice I was stalked on my way home and once stopped to ask my name. Through my first couple years in the city, I wouldn’t admit it to my parents, but I was actually scared to walk around, even in well-lit areas, after dark.

My body posture would instinctually change the second I encountered men I didn’t know.

It wasn’t until I went home for a few days after my first year of being in NYC that I realized my body posture would instinctually change the second I encountered men I didn’t know. I would hunch over slightly, like I was protecting myself from an oncoming onslaught, and I would adopt a sort of low-eyed scowl-a big departure from my genuinely sunny demeanor. I had started making myself physically and mentally smaller as a defense mechanism to not be seen and acknowledged in public.

The Rob Bliss Creative Video

We’ve all seen it — the woman, strapped with a camera and microphone being harassed on the streets of NYC.

For me, the Rob Bliss Creative video opened my eyes to the reality that this was happening to almost EVERY woman in NYC, but no one had really highlighted it in this way. I remember sharing it on my social media page to celebratory emoji’s and a “Once more for the men in the back!”

Seeing this video sparked something in me. I felt less alone. I felt a sense of community. And with that came strength and power!

A Song Inspired by the Video

Four years later, I heard Nat Zegree and Eric Holmes’s song “Hey, Beautiful!” inspired by Bliss’s video (from above). I remember feeling the same emotions as when I first saw the video, the driving pop chords and ferocious, smart lyrics blasting through my headphones.

It was then that my co-producer Greg Kamp and I knew that we had to foster this story.

Turning the Song into a Musical Short Film

Greg and I promptly met with Eric, Nat, and director Kenneth Ferrone to craft the visual scope of this song. We added extra characters to Ashley’s journey with the addition of her friends, making Ashley’s song as a call to action, inspiring her friends to call out the harassment they faced that day too.

We knew Ashley’s song was an anthem for women, and we added theatrical storytelling through the medium of short film to create accessibility for all, a parallel objective.

Upon releasing the video…

I was getting texts from guy friends in my outer circles saying:

“LOVED the song…is it REALLY like this?”

Yes, guy friends. You got a sneaky message in the process of swooning over Ashley Loren’s crystal clear belt.

Getting a chance to have an open dialogue with people in my life who might not otherwise encounter or think about this kind of thing was really powerful for me. “Hey, Beautiful!” gave me tools to draw attention to these daily stories of harassment.

BTW, all these cat-calls from our HB actors (who by the way are all truly the kindest, most respectful men in our industry) were compiled from REAL stories shared with Nat and Eric by their female friends.

Reflecting the Present

And as a producer, I feel it is my duty to share the stories of those who might not otherwise get a seat at the table, and as a woman, I feel privileged to share these stories in the wake of the #metoo and #timesup movements. I was fortunate enough to hear NY Senator Alessandra Biaggi speak at a Women’s Event in NYC a few weeks ago. She is presiding over hearings in Albany, for the first time in over a quarter of a century, calling out fellow senators and staffers in the assembly for sexual harassment in the workplace.

Dozens of women’s stories are finally being told and, for the first time, HEARD. It gives me hope to know the charge is being led among our leaders to call out this harassment in any form (spoiler alert: like Ashley in HB!). It gives me strength and pride to know I’m making art that contributes to this cause, giving voice to the stories that need to be told.

Sarah Ellis is a NYC based actor, producer, and proud Co-Founder of MT Shorts, a creative platform that elevates the voices of emerging composers through original musical short films. Learn more at mtshorts.com

INSTAventures: @sarahruthliss

Join our MT Shorts community: @mt_shorts

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Sarah Ellis

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