Our Toxic Culture Once Made Me Covet Being Catcalled
By Tabitha Blankenbiller
I feel deep guilt over how I once viewed catcalling — but my complacency was rooted in an entrenched system of hate.
“Dress up!” enthused the Facebook event for the Halloween night bookstore reading. “Wear a costume!” I’d gone Festive Lite with what I could get away with wearing to my office. A new spooky knee-length ModCloth skirt that mimicked a Christmas sweater with skulls. My favorite fake fur-cuffed coat that made me look like an anime vampire. Textured nylons cut like big, chunky fishnets.
Cute, I thought as I stepped out onto the porch that morning.
Cute, said the barista who steamed my pumpkin spice latte.
Cute, said the woman at Pier One Imports who rang up my half-off decorations.
“GORGEOUS!” A disembodied voice lunged at me from the darkness as I left the bookstore and paused in front of the window, admiring my favorite new outfit in the faint reflection, debating whether I could angle my phone into a decent full-length selfie. I froze, cursing myself for flaunting my style in my knee-length Halloween skirt. The nerve. The idiocy. The faceless holler may as well have been the voice of God parting the Portland rain clouds to rebuke the folly of my vanity. “Oh hey baby, you’re gorgeous!”
A disembodied voice lunged at me from the darkness.
I tore away from the window before the phone shutter could click. My steps, twice as fast as the pace I arrived in, were toe-stubbing stomps against the pavement. I squared my shoulders as I rushed, like the double-your-size advice they give for surviving bear attacks. When I turned the corner I heard it again — “gorgeous! You’re gorgeous, baby.”
When the last streetlight’s glow faded behind me, my stomps galloped into a run. I tackled the driver’s side of my car and locked the doors, holding my breath. After a few beats it was clear I was alone, and my heart slowed. I could breathe.
But no matter how loud I turned up the radio, I couldn’t let the incident go.
It’s not that big of a deal, I tried to tell myself as Kanye West snarled through the speakers. This wasn’t a unique experience. Women were humiliated on every street at every second of the day for walking or running or pausing to check the time or ducking into a coffee shop or waiting for an Uber or sitting on benches. We were punished for existing, yanked from our thoughts, activities, and destinations because men had to remind us that they saw us. Of the way they saw us. To wedge in the idea a little deeper, just in case we may have forgotten for five seconds, that we were not real people.
What obsessed me as I merged onto the freeway wasn’t the anger. It was the shame. It was the critical loathing in my heart, that self-appointed demon that watched and kept score of every action and inaction. You wanted this, she reminded me. You craved it.
She was right.
When I was a freshman in high school in a tiny little mountain town without real streets, I spent lunch in the hallway with my fledgling clique. We were a collective of odd-girls-out from band, choir, drama, honors society, spearheaded by my best friend Emily. Emily decided who was in or out. And for a two-month stretch that winter, she decided that Erik, a delegate from the campus stoners, was In.
“He’s hilarious,” she said, and I didn’t have the latitude to disagree. I sulked while our midday conversations shifted from roundtables on Sailor Moon and the cute guys who worked at the mall to a silent half-hour of listening to Erik describe what he did to the girlfriend he claimed to have. Which was basically a rehash of all Crazy Town’s lyrics in “Butterfly.”
The last day that Erik sat on our hallway turf was the day he decided to tell us which girls out of our group he’d be willing to rape. He pointed us out like a game of Duck-Duck-Goose from left to right, starting with Emily.
“Definitely,” he declared. “Bonus if you buy some tits.”
The next girl was a “probably,” then “probably not.” When his finger stuck on me his lip snarled like it was caught on barbed wire. “You. You’re pushing it.”
Through a mouthful of cafeteria pretzel, I laughed. A giant guffaw to cover up the gunshot wound tearing up my side. I was too . . . what? Too fat? Too homely? Too crooked-toothed? What was this digression removing me from womanhood into this category of Other? What had I done wrong?
No one reacted. Erik kept eating his Cheetos and Emily gnawed down the same twin Nutri-Grain bars she ate every afternoon. It wasn’t until the next morning that she decreed that “Erik’s kind of gross.” At lunch, we shifted to the other side of the hall. When he tried to sit down, Emily turned her back to him, walling off the conversation. She had the power to shoot him down. Lanky Emily with her senior yearbook Best Eyes and actual prom dates. She was rapeable. She wouldn’t spend high school alone and unseen, then fumble through college sleeping with anything that was vaguely willing as that scuzzy hallway voice kept bubbling up from the ether: you’re pushing it. You’re pushing it.
What was this digression removing me from womanhood into this category of Other?
After leaving the high school in a town with no real streets, I dreamed of being a beautiful Thing. I spent those years in the theater next to Emily watching Ewan McGregor and Leonardo DiCaprio fall in ride-or-die love with Nicole Kidman and Claire Danes. The beautiful girls, the love objects, materialized on stages and party dance floors as magnificent jewels set in lip gloss and garter belts. Nothing was said; it was all that first, magical glimpse. He needed to see you. You had to be seen to be loved.
I spent those last months of my teens and first years of my twenties desperate to be caught in someone’s glimpse. I lost weight and changed my hair. I bought, and learned to actually apply, eyeshadow. I got a job after classes sorting thongs by color and lacing corsets at Frederick’s of Hollywood, and I listened as my coworker, who moonlighted at Hooter’s, describe the horrors of men in dark parking lots just off the freeway.
“I share all my tips with the security guy,” she said. “He doesn’t let me out of his sight. It’s life insurance.”
“At least they’re interested in you,” I said. She was a beautiful Thing in bright orange Hooters shorts that people bought gristly chicken wings to sit and ogle.
“They’re not ‘interested,’ they’re just gross,” she said, and I tried to face the other direction when I rolled my eyes.
I wasn’t catcalled until I was 27. This is the strange result of growing up in a small town that didn’t have streets, and not learning how to dress myself in a way that instilled confidence until I was midway through my twenties. By the end of that decade I discovered a style of dresses that hugged my body instead of fighting and pinching it. I was wrapping up my MFA program and nudging my way into the Portland literary community. For the first time in my life, I had reasons to dress up and go downtown.
I was leaving a book release party at Cassie’s Bar and Restaurant a few blocks from Powell’s. It was March and freak snow was dusting the city. I clopped out of the restaurant in a circle skirt dress and cardigan sweater — in my bid to will spring into being, I hadn’t been smart enough to bring a coat. I stopped at the corner and waited for the crosswalk light to turn.
“Nice dress,” a man in a thick marshmallow coat called from the far side of the street. I glanced over and smiled the same placid vanilla-latte smile I flash at anyone who compliments my outfits — usually sales associates at MAC Cosmetics or my favorite employee in my grocery store produce department. Not extending the same courtesy to a stranger on the sidewalk seemed bigoted and shitty.
In our ableist society, a disabled body is necessarily a desexualized one.theestablishment.co
“Thank you!” I called back as the light still stayed glued on Don’t Walk, despite the vacant, whitening street.
“And those shoes . . . damn, girl.”
I didn’t say anything. By now the attention was getting embarrassing, and I felt the emptiness of the street as a flutter of instinctual panic in my heart.
The marshmallow man was pacing in a circle, beating his arms at his sides. “Fucking bitch, you think you can just ignore me like that? I’m talking to you!”
I took off with the reflexes I didn’t know I had. The heels, the ice and snow, were inconsequential to my doe-like need to flee. I could hear his sneakers patting behind me in clipped, assured paces.
“HEY!” I heard a new voice cry out behind me. The tear of rubber against pavement. Halted sneakers. “The fuck are you doing?”
A cab driver had pulled straight up to the curb and was waving his arms at Marshmallow Man, who was halted, gesticulating in the dark. I didn’t wait for the signal. I bolted into the open street, my feet terrifyingly light, too terrified to feel my heart knock against my chest. I didn’t stop until I was safe in my front seat, doors locked, high beams blinding the parking garage.
“That wasn’t fun,” I muttered to myself, betraying my disappointment.
In the five years since Marshmallow Man I’ve been harassed at work, online, on the streets of Portland, and on the sidewalks of that little home town. My confusion has evolved into rage, not only at my own experience, but at those shared by my friends, my relatives, my co-workers. The anger at the forced, practically requisite humiliation is genuine, welling from personal experience and human empathy.
My confusion has evolved into rage, not only at my own experience, but at those shared by my friends, my relatives, my co-workers.
But so too is the underbelly of guilt. I can’t divorce myself from the knowledge that I spent a sizable chunk of my adult life chasing after this attention as if it were a blessing. As if it could absolve my loneliness.
Maybe someday I can heartily forgive myself for being wrong. I might be able to say that the early ’00s were a different time, when a serial sexual predator was not the president-elect and I hadn’t ever heard of the “male gaze.” Perhaps the slender silver lining of this national nightmare of an election has been how it spotlighted, in the most unforgiving fluorescent light, the way women are made to feel smaller and more insecure simply for the act of existing. That the same culture that makes catcalling a daily occurrence is also what makes us feel unworthy of positive attention and love. It’s all hatred, just different tentacles.
There is a difference in what I can objectively write and what I can feel. I do not feel absolved or at peace. I don’t excuse my complacency, even if it wasn’t intentional. When is complacency intentional? I can only own up to my idiocy, and in that admission I am simply sorry. I’m sorry that I coveted pain. I am sorry I let the words you’re pushing it drown out they’re just gross. That I let Erik the Token Stoner stand in front of anyone else as the voice of reason. I’m sorry that I still don’t know what to do — only to freeze and vanish.