Street Harassment, Empathy, and Fighting Misogyny with Stories
If you’re a fan of A Song of Ice and Fire and have an hour to spare, you could do a lot worse than listening to Sean T. Collins and Stefan Sasse’s excellent Boiled Leather Audio Hour. In their discussion Collins and Sasse raise an interesting connection, linking the routine sexual harassment inflicted on the character Brienne to contemporary street harassment. This is very perceptive, and raises some interesting questions about the power of media to challenge sexism.
First, some cavets. I am male, and have never been sexually harassed. I also have never directly observed street harassment, or at least any that I can recall, and I don’t pretend to understand what it feels like to be harassed. That said, street harassment is absolutely wrong, and is horribly widespread. Part of street harassment’s ubiquity is undoubtably due to our society’s tolerance for wider rape culture that treats women as sexual object without agency. But it’s also due to a profound lack of empathy on the part of harassers, as the vast majority of street harassers seem to genuinely believe that they aren’t doing anything wrong. I don’t think it’s a mischaracterization to say that street harassers think their catcalls and harassment should be perceived as flattering, not the demeaning threat that it absolutely is. Of course, this perception is something approaching willful blindness, because it requires ignoring the objectification, power imbalance, and implicit rape threat inherent in catcalls.
It may be optimistic to assume that street harassment would decline if more harassers empathized with their victims. But we shouldn’t underestimate the power of stories to challenge perspectives. In A Song of Ice and Fire George RR Martin depicts, often through the eyes of female characters, a world where sexual violence and misogyny are ubiquitous. Brienne is a sympathetic character whose bravery and martial skill are endearing, and whose devotion to knightly chivalry is arguably greater than anyone else in the series, male or female. Through Brienne’s eyes the reader experiences an approximation of the psychological damage caused by constant sexual harassment and a society where rape is accepted.
These themes extend throughout the series. Female (and some male) characters are constantly aware of the threat of rape. Institutional misogyny excludes women from civil society. Characters that deviate from their predetermined social roles are often punished by sexual violence. [A Dance With Dragons spoiler] When a female ruler is deposed she is sexually humiliated in a way inconceivable for male leaders [End spoilers]. Perceptive readers can’t help but draw the valid link between the sexism and violence of Westerosi society and the misogyny and rape culture of our own. This is not a flattering comparison. Hopefully it encourages, among potential enablers of rape culture, an awareness of just how corrosive its effects are.
Stories that challenge their audience’s perspective are an enormously powerful tool for building empathy and breaking prejudices — including misogyny. I can’t help but think that if more widely-viewed shows depicted harassment from the perspective of female characters, men would be less likely to engage in it. Of course, these stories are rarely depicted in popular media, a rarity that probably has something to do with the underrepresentation of women in TV writers’ rooms (via The Mary Sue). Hopefully this changes soon, because these stories are important.