Street Walker

So by now, I’m assuming you’ve seen the “10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman” video by Hollaback that has gone viral. If not, here it is:

I first saw the video pop up on my Facebook feed. For the first few days the video appeared, I ignored it. This may seem counterintuitive, since I am a feminist, and actively interested in researching and advocating for feminism. I live in NYC, and surmised that I, too, experience the phenomena documented on the video on a daily basis. The material I assumed to be on the video is my everyday life. I deal with it just as I deal with swiping my Metrocard. Why should I watch some other woman deal with it? It is boring, mundane, and commonplace for me. Therefore, it is annoying that 30 million people are claiming that it’s something to talk about. I resisted watching it because I was offended that something like this would be seen as breakthrough, novel, or furthermore, a topic of debate.

In the meantime, I went to a friend’s performance the other night, and a bunch of my friends, colleagues, and respected peers were in attendance. After the show, I was casually chatting with some male jazz musicians. One asked me about a recent gig that I played. I explained that when I showed up, the artist contact for the venue said to me, “I’m SO glad you could be here! We specifically asked for female jazz musicians!” I was hired because I am a woman.

I explained to my colleague my feelings on this: First, that I think it was good that I was hired because I am a woman.

Audience members, and young people especially, need to see that women can do things that we don’t usually see them do. I feel it is part of my responsibility as a female jazz musician to show younger girls that they have the option if they want it. And to show younger boys that it is normal and beneficial for women to have active voices and be contributing members of the jazz community. I also believe it is my responsibility to show older men and women something that they may not think is possible – or expect. There are women who can actually play jazz! And we will all benefit as individuals, and as a society, from a more diverse pool of artists or contributors in any field.

I also explained that secondly, even though I do think it is a good thing that I am hired for this reason, it is also frustrating and disappointing for me to hear it.

I want to be hired because I can play. My gender should not come into the decision. My hope is that by taking every opportunity I can to play, even if some of these opportunities only exist because I am a woman, that I somehow help the system. Hopefully, one day females are hired without it being because we are females. I mean, I don’t think anyone starts a career because they want to even out the playing field. It isn’t fun to be a minority. I started playing saxophone and I followed jazz as a career because I wanted to PLAY MUSIC. I keep hoping that on each gig, I am hired based on my skills, talent, hard work, accomplishments, artistic vision, adaptability, leadership, voice, creativity or overall professionalism. I keep hoping that it isn’t only because I’m a woman.

The response from my friend to my story about the venue contact, and being hired on this condition was, “Oh yeah, that is a hot topic right now.”

I was very confused at first by this response. But I quickly realized, he meant that feminism is a hot topic right now, because of “The Video”.

To clarify, there are thousands of other reasons feminism is a hot topic right now. Also, it is always a hot topic. And it will continue to be until we change how things are. This experience I had at my last gig is not an example of how feminism is a hot topic right now. This is another day in the life of a Female Jazz Musician. And “The Video” isn’t an example of how feminism is a hot topic right now. It is another day in the life of a woman living in NYC. This is my life.

My friend asked if I had watched The Video. I said no. He began to describe his reaction to it.

“I couldn’t believe it! I am going to say something the next time I see this happen. I mean, it makes sense, but I didn’t realize…”

Another friend comments,

“Yeah I mean, I never made these type of comments [to women]. I knew they happened, but I didn’t think it was as bad of a thing as I guess it is. I didn’t notice because it is normal.”

So I began to think back on my last couple of weeks, the experiences I had at the aforementioned gig and many others, the responses from those around me…

My conclusion is that the men that I am around on a regular basis DO NOT see, or understand the daily issues (god forbid I say struggles) that are part of my life. They don’t see or understand that this video is nothing new! And probably most men don’t. How could they? They don’t receive this type of aggression when they leave their home every day. So I began to see the importance of the video, in bringing to light an issue that is commonplace for many, and yet nonexistent for others. How can we begin to change something that people aren’t even aware of? So, I admitted finally to myself, the video must be somewhat of a good thing.

I went home and watched it. And yes, it was everything I imagined it to be. NORMAL. Boring. This is what it is like to be a female living in NYC. Every day. But I was glad for a moment that someone took the time to make it, post it, and stand behind it. It at least worked to show a few people a common experience they hadn’t seen before.

Fast forward to the next morning. I once again see some things posted on my Facebook feed. Now, there are going to inevitably be responses (valid and invalid) to any type of media that brings this much attention. Everyone is entitled to an opinion.

However, what stood out to me was a post from an extremely well respected and highly skilled Jazz Musician. It’s an abhorrent article in response to The Video:

This woman is out of her mind.

“First, I have never seen or experienced anything bordering on the “harassment” liberal women claim to experience.”

I don’t think I need to point out that just because you may not notice something happening doesn’t make it not exist. Just because you don’t understand the repercussions of something, doesn’t make them not exist.

Not to mention the immediate contradiction she poses.

“And in nearly 25 years I’ve experienced a grand total of two — yes, two — negative experiences…”

So, which is it? Never, or two?

…you’ll see that it plays fast and loose with what’s considered offensive. I would never count someone wishing me a good day or telling me I was pretty as harassment…Most of the phrases in the video are just harmless ways for men to respectfully show their interest or, in the case of older generations, just — gasp — be polite.

This is just simple ignorance. Which brings me to the problem at hand:

Why is it offensive that the woman on the video experienced these “compliments”, cat calls, abusive comments, harassment, or whatever you want to label it?

It is a problem because it is an example of the hyper sexualization and objectification of women in our society.

If we were talking about a man walking up to a woman directly, looking her in the eyes, treating her as an equal, as a human being, and saying, “You are beautiful,” I think that this would be an entirely different conversation. Although, I have my issues with these type of compliments as well – a much bigger conundrum about how our society values looks and attraction, materialism, and beauty, above other values. A woman’s worth in our culture is based on her level of conventional beauty. (You’d never hear, “You seem exceptionally intelligent today,” as a compliment).

No, we’re talking about a man seeing an attractive woman walk by and feeling the need to pronounce his unwanted opinion in an aggressive manner. This act makes the woman an object. She is no longer a human being, but a visually appealing piece of meat, or worse, a potential conquest for sexual gratification.

As you can see in many of the incidents in The Video, these men expect a response. There is a rampant problem amongst these men that they feel entitled to this woman’s attention. To her sexual interest. She is expected to have no will or choice. She is expected to react in whatever way the man is fantasizing. And she is harassed if she doesn’t live up to this fantasy.

The objectification occurs because the woman isn’t seen as a human being with her own thoughts, feelings, ideas, and body. She is viewed as an object that is visually pleasing to a man, provided to him to please him and interact with him to his sexual pleasure and arousal.

Tatyana Fazlalizadeh is doing a project about street harassment, and I think she states it beautifully in this video:

Many others are posting on Facebook about how it isn’t really a problem. We should be happy to be receiving these “compliments”. There are “bigger problems” we need to be focusing on…

“catcalling…..women pissed at remarks from ‘admirers’ on the street. makes me roll my eyes. pc police in overdrive. women may think back nostalgically to ‘catcalling’ when they fall off the radar as they age. i sort of agree with George Che’s remarks here: “i wanna apologize to all the women that ive harrassed with statements like “hi” or “have a nice day” or “youre beautiful”. i cant imagine what that must feel like. the closest thing I’ve experienced is maybe when a girl recognizes me from tv and they say things like “AHHHH!! OH MY GOD!! SNL SNL SNL!! TAKE A PICTURE!! TAKE A PICTURE!! I LOVE YOU SO MUCH!! WHATS YOUR NAME AGAIN?! THANK YOU!! THANK YOU!! WAIT SAY SOMETHING FUNNY!!” but even that is nothing like the harrassment of having a complete stranger tell me to “smile.””

Unfortunately, there are even well known feminist critics of those who complain about this form of harassment. I go back to my Facebook feed. This time, it has become a race issue. Even Roxane Gay tweeted,

“The racial politics of the video are fucked up. Like, she didn’t walk through any white neighborhoods?”

This is not a race issue. I’m sorry. Yes, it is stupid that they edited out the white men. We all know media is racist, as it is sexist. But it doesn’t change the fact that these comments are a problem that women deal with from many different men every day. Bringing it in to the “racial issue” arena is disempowering the issue, and discrediting the problem itself. It’s taking the focus off of the actual issue and bringing it back into an issue men can identify with.

My biggest problem with all of this, and the reason I am writing now, is that the men in my community do not understand the commonplace of this type of occurrence. They do not understand the implications of these actions. They do not understand the damaging consequences and far reaching repercussions of these abuses. And undercutting an issue that is clearly universal and well documented is not only ignorant, but damaging.

I see more and more that my peers, bosses, predecessors, employers, mentors, idols, and alas, even the new generation of musicians that make up my entire community, are blind to many of the issues that I take for granted as day to day problems. Many of the struggles I see now as obvious and prevalent in society, and more pointedly in life as a Female Jazz Musician, are unknown to all of the people who surround me. And this is one of the most isolating and hopeless feelings to realize.

The interesting thing to me, is that many of the men in my community (Jazz Musicians) are minorities themselves – racially – in the context of the greater society. But within our insular community, all men, all races, are the majority. And they act it. (Did you ever read Animal Farm?)

Let me take it a step further and explain my reality.  Not only does catcalling, harassment, and blatant sexualization and objectification occur for me when I walk through the streets of NYC (and most places I’ve been to).  However, when other women arrive at work after they “brave the streets,” there is legal action, whole HR departments behind them, to ensure that they are not treated this way in the workplace. The difference in my world is, this treatment continues, and is commonplace. In fact, I am “unprofessional” if I do not respond pleasantly to these comments and interactions. (At least on the streets I can act like a bitch!)

This type of behavior is encouraged in my profession! Jazz Musicians have created a culture of misogyny. If they are not active participants, many are oblivious to it, or at least impartial to it. Notice, I did not specify Men here. Jazz Musicians as a whole. And this is not an attack. It is simply the truth. I realize through the responses I see to The Video. I realize through responses to stories about my every day experiences. I realize through “compliments” I receive. I realize through a broad cultural attitude I see of complacency and naivety.

When I am hired for a gig, I ask myself, “Was I hired for my sexual organs?”. When I try to rehearse a band, the musicians talk over me, or argue with my instructions on my own compositions. I am valued for the way I lose weight, or the way I dress, above my creativity or intellect. These are daily thoughts and incidents for me. These are the things I think need to be brought to your attention. Male and Female alike, we need to be privy to the problems that members of our own community face. We need to realize problems that make it harder for people to lead their lives and contribute positively to our society.

We need to be open to hearing about other people’s experiences, and what they mean to them. We need to post more videos about our “boring” day to day experiences, if they are experiences that prevent us from living in equality. Just because something is normal doesn’t make it OK.

We need to pause before making it about ourselves, and our own issues, when someone brings up a problem. Stop tearing down the validity of someone’s experience, or even politicizing it, so that you can avoid the issue.

We need to treat each other as human beings. As equals. If we begin to value each other and celebrate our strengths through our diversity, I believe we will begin to create better music, better art, and become more productive overall. We will grow as a community. If our arts grow, so will our race. The human race.

4 Replies to “Street Walker”

  1. Good work. I never comment on these things cuz I can’t keep track of all the places I sign into, particularly with this ongoing job search. Anyone who feels, as the other woman states, “It takes someone with a caricature of Victorian feminine sensibilities to file “Have a nice day” under sexual harassment. Even if there are sexual undertones to wishing a beautiful woman a good day, or telling her she’s pretty, such remarks are a perfectly respectful way to show interest. ” is out of their minds. The term nobody has mentioned is “passive-aggressive” comments. “Aggressive” is different from “passive-aggressive”. The former is overt while the latter is covert in nature, hence the word “passive”. Passive-aggressive behavior is anything that causes a problem for the object of the covert-style aggression, while the aggressor can sit back and claim they have done nothing wrong, and in fact, it may indeed appear that they have done nothing wrong, for example, in the eyes of the law, or where concrete empirical evidence is concerned. I understand that Roxy is writing from her personal perspective, but those of us who do not live in NYC but have dealings there, but also live in America—anywhere–have also experienced this phenomenon. It is not a NYC problem or even that of a metropolitan setting. The idiot who seems to see me in my car in in the small town where I live (north of NYC) seems to think it’s OK and cute (passive-aggressive) to tell me to fasten my seatbelt and smile when I pull out of the convenience store or other parking space. I don’t care to tell him that after I broke my back I can’t turn to see where I’m going as I back in and out of parking spaces, and that I’m in the habit of fastening my seatbelt once I’m moving forward. What business is it of his? And his telling me to smile should make me want to smile? If he were dealing with my life as I know it, would he feel like smiling? And what would he say if I said *smile* to him? And why would I bother? As for the jazz thing, this was also very real and well-stated. I love (sarcasm) when a long-time male jazz musician friend–someone who I respect– says, “But you’re taking this too personally. You have to learn not to take it personally.” Really? No, YOU have to learn to understand that I respond the way I respond and you respond as you respond to things in business, and we are who we are. Period. If I have to learn to respond the way men respond in the jazz world, then the jazz world truly is a boys’ club with an incapacity to accept women for any purpose. And to that I might offer an expletive, but I’ll reserve further comment. THere was, in fact, one time…many moons ago… when I said to a prominent, well-known player, in preparation for a very important event… “I understand that it’s a drag to watch a chick conductor, but I really need to connect with you or it’s gonna be a disaster.” It seemed to change things with that person, but imagine my level of frustration to have felt the need to say that.

    Thanks for your insights.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for writing this! I can certainly identify with many of the things your wrote. As a female jazz pianists, I don’t know how many times people have come up to me and said, “so you like Diana Krall and Norah Jones, huh?” and I say, “no, I like Herbie Hancock.”


  3. 🙂 Good answer Kelly. When people ask me “what I do” i usually just say “I’m in music,” as “what I do” is so diverse. The inevitable resulting question is, “Oh, what are you, a singer? That’s so cool!” My answer, “No, I’m a composer.”
    “Oh, like a singer/songwriter?”
    “No. A composer. I write for my 17-piece jazz orcehstra mostly, but I did have a piece performed by The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra”
    “Oh wow…what instrument do you play in your band?”
    “I conduct.”
    “But you don’t write all the music right? You just…”
    “Yes. I write all the music. Every part for every player. Every note. Me. And then I conduct…you know…I wave my arms around until the music stops.”


    Liked by 1 person

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