Saturday, November 1, 2014

“Pretty Woman”: Yesterday’s classic hit is today’s sexual harassment

Thanks to a shocking new video exposé, we all are going to have to adjust our thinking—and our culture.

Okay, now we know:  Saying “hello” on the street to a stranger is an act of sexual harassment, if the speaker is a man and victim identifies as female, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or gender questioning.  If the victim is a member of an ethnic minority, the harasser may be a racist as well.

We owe the activist website a great debt of gratitude for bringing this matter to the public’s attention.  A volunteer actress, working with an undercover photographer, spent ten hours on the streets of New York documenting unsolicited, inappropriate comments.  The results were stunning.  And it has the entire world talking.  At last count, its You Tube video had racked up 23 million clicks.  Even in a world where the words “gone viral” have become shopworn, this is something else.  Call it strato-viral.

Among the media who realized the full implications of this project early on and have helped spread the message is  In a story headlined “What 10 hours of street harassment in NYC looks like,” CNN quoted in pointing out that “Street harassment disproportionately impacts women, people of color, LGBTQ individuals, and young people”—in other words, absolutely everyone except old white guys.  It is not possible to find an issue more aligned with and relevant to our nation’s current civil rights struggles.

CNN followed later in the week with an opinion piece entitled, “Attention, men: Stop with the catcalls.”  Writer Mel Robbins noted that the woman in the video was “harassed 108 times” as she walked the streets of New York.  Not shown in the video were the wolf whistles, catcalls, leers, and winks the victim had to endure.  Robbins goes on to say this to inappropriate, insensitive, drooling men:  “A woman (or a girl) walking down the street just wants to be left alone.   She's not interested in what you think about her body or her face.  If she was, she'd ask you.”  Excellent advice.  Robbins then presents some pointers on how men should approach women.

It has to be conceded at this point that the project does have some issues.  Chief among them is that not everyone agrees with the producers' hard-line definition of what constitutes sexual harassment.  Robbins' opinion piece demonstrates this.  While decrying the aforementioned 108 incidents, she makes it apparent in her advice section that she doesn’t think it’s always inappropriate just to say “hello.”  

Further, the video shows neither the “ten hours of street harassment” nor the 108 specific incidents claimed in both Robbins’ piece and in the video posting itself.  In fact, if you cut out all the silent portions and distill it down to just audio of the actual comments, as I did on my home editor, what you’re left with is 52 seconds.  To get even that much, the producers had to include such greetings as “hello” and “how are you.”  If you cull the video down even further to include only those remarks that clearly cross the line by including such words as “baby” and “beautiful” and “sexy” and so on, you get 35 seconds.  To be fair, that doesn’t include the silent portions where some clearly creepy dude paced the actress for several blocks, which was very much over the line.

And there is at least one other significant flaw.  The website states that “street harassers fall evenly across lines of race and class.”  That’s not what the video shows at all.  But the producers have acknowledged this issue, posting on their website, “We regret the unintended racial bias in the editing of the video that over represents men of color.” 

But if you think these flaws in any way invalidate the video, think again.  Some might in fact feel that a video publicly labeling men caught on camera saying “hello” as sexual harassers might cross the line into hate speech directed against the male gender.  But banish that thought.  Even saying “hello” could be precursor to an inappropriate overture.  Think of it as a “gateway” greeting.  It’s fairly innocuous taken by itself, but could and probably will lead to a lifetime of abuse.

It might be reasonable to ask who this person is that’s shown in the video walking the streets.  I won’t repeat her name here, but the ihollaback website site links to her official biography.  She’s an actress, and describes herself this way at the top of her page:  “Height: 5'4".  Weight: 129 lbs.  Dress: 4.  Bust: 34DD.”  Now, if you’re tempted at this point to think “hmmn,” don’t.  Sure, if you ride the logic train of those qualifications all the way to the station, it might suggest certain conclusions.  But do not judge.  The producers were trying to make a point.  They made it.  All is fair in love, war, and the documentation of sexual harassment.  Besides, in the video the actress is in no way dressed provocatively. 

Minor flaws notwithstanding, the video succeeds in opening our eyes.  This is, in fact, about far more than sexual harassment.  As the website rightfully points out, sexual harassment is a form of “gender-based violence.”

So where do we go from here?

To answer that question, it might be helpful to go back and look at how we arrived at this sorry state of affairs.  One major milestone along our cultural path to ruin was Roy Orbison’s 1964 smash hit, “Pretty Woman.”  Let’s break it down, showing just precisely where the lyrics went wrong, and examine together what correct thinking looks like today by our new and enlightened standards.

Lyric:  “Pretty woman, walking down the street.”

See, now right here the singer is already off course, for two reasons.  The first is the use of the word “pretty.”  This inappropriately excludes the dozens, perhaps hundreds of others on the street who also have the right to feel good about their bodies.  Victoria’s Secret got into trouble for this very thing just this week.  Critics rightly pointed out that its current “The Perfect Body” bra campaign unfairly holds up for praise only those models with slim body types.  Three students in Britain protested, writing on their website, “We would like Victoria’s Secret to apologize and take responsibility for the unhealthy and damaging message that their ‘Perfect Body’ campaign is sending out about women’s bodies and how they should be judged.”  Well said, and this makes my point perfectly.

The second problem with this lyric is the word “woman.”  In today’s diverse and enlightened society, we now know that there are dozens of genders (Facebook recognizes more than 50), and that just because someone has the appearance and dress of a female, it doesn’t mean that he or she is one or identifies as one.  It is the right of every individual to make these kinds of personal choices.  It’s not appropriate for the singer to impose his perceptions or values on anyone.  It’s simply wrong to make assumptions about anyone based on physical appearance.  In every case, the only correct thing to do is to address the person the way he or she wishes to be addressed.  And to do that, you have to know that person’s preference.  Since the singer has not been introduced to the pedestrian, and since we now know, thanks to, that self-introductions constitute sexual harassment, the person’s gender identity has to be remain a question mark throughout this song.

Lyric:  “Pretty woman, the kind I like to meet”

Objections to the words “pretty woman” have been noted; no need to repeat them.  The new problem here is the phrase, “the kind I like to meet.”  Clearly, the singer is contemplating the possibility of verbally or even physically approaching the pedestrian, which, as we have noted, would be very inappropriate.

Lyric:  “I don’t believe you.  You’re not the truth."

Although it's not clear exactly where the singer is going with this, it seems that he's having some kind of reaction to the pedestrian's dress or appearance, which really is none of his business.  This sets the stage for inappropriate thinking and behavior, up to and possibly including an invasion of the pedestrian's privacy and personal space. 

Lyric:   No one could look as good as you.”

This continues the inappropriate thinking already noted above in the discussion about the word “pretty,” and expands it.  Clearly, the singer is now having a sexual fantasy.  Given that thoughts are father to the deed, this is very dangerous thinking that could lead to inappropriate actions.

Lyric:  “Mercy.”

It’s not clear here whether the singer is merely thinking the word “mercy” or has spoken it aloud, and if the latter, whether he has done so within earshot of the pedestrian.  If so, it’s a catcall and is way over the line.  If the former, it’s dangerous thinking that could lead to a catcall, and therefore equally unacceptable.

Lyric:  “Pretty woman, won't you pardon me.”

Okay, now he’s done it.  As predicted, he intercepted her, which is very wrong of him to do.  He’s taken the first step toward gender violence.

Lyric:  “I couldn't help but see, pretty woman, that you look lovely as can be.”

Now he’s continuing and expanding his inappropriate behavior by making unsolicited comments clearly of a personal and sexual nature.  But wait.  It gets even more invasive.

Lyric:  “Are you lonely just like me?

Another unsolicited personal question, and the implication here is repulsive:  If she’s lonely, he’s the cure?  How disgusting can you get?  But wait.  It gets still worse.

Lyric:  “Wow.”

That word is printed as “wow” in some web versions of the lyrics, and is omitted in others.  In the song, it sounds like the singer’s attempt to imitate the growl of a cat.   It’s a catcall.  And it’s clearly inappropriate.  But he’s not done yet.  Not by a long shot.

Lyric:  “Pretty woman, stop a while.  Pretty woman, talk a while."

This is the precise kind of inappropriate, harassing behavior documented in the ihollaback video, where we see a creepy guy following the actress, pestering her to stop and talk and so on. 

Lyric:  Pretty woman, give your smile to me.”

Again, we saw this exact form of harassment in the video, where someone called out a request for a smile as the woman walked by.  That lyric and one before it are clear and unconscionable examples of sexual harassment, behavior the singer is glorifying.

Lyric:  “Pretty woman, say you'll stay with me.”

Does he mean stay and talk?  Or is he suggesting something more?  This is a borderline solicitation. 

Lyric:  “I need you, I'll treat you right.”

What does he mean by “I need you" and "I'll treat you right?”  This statement, while not explicit, seems very sexual in nature and therefore is absolutely inappropriate.  

Lyric:  “Come with me baby.

Come with him?  Really?  He's physically intercepted her and now is proposing to take her somewhere?  And where does he get off calling the pedestrian "baby"?  In a best case scenario, it's over the line.  In a worse case, this could be a precursor to kidnapping and violence.  Even so, the singer doesn't make it explicitly clear what his intentions are.  But don't worry.  He will.  He's about to move out of the murky realm of implication and suggestion, and right out into the light, bringing his sexual predilections into full view.   

Lyric:  “Be mine tonight.”

And there it is:  a clear solicitation for sexual favors.  This could, and should, get you arrested today in some jurisdictions.  Hopefully, in the not too distant future, such behavior will be illegal everywhere.

Lyric:  “Pretty woman, don't walk on by.  Pretty woman, don't make me cry.

He might cry?  Really?  Here it's getting pathetic.  But if he' invading her personal space while making these pleas, as we saw men doing in the video, it's also frightening.
Lyric:  Don't walk away.  Hey." 

This is more harassment just like the kind we saw in the video.  These unwanted overtures can be unsettling, even scary, especially if the harasser is pacing the victim down the sidewalk.

Lyric:  I guess I'll go on home, it's late."  

Okay, so he's giving up, right?  But don't relax.  What he's about to say next is truly frightening.
Lyric:  There'll be tomorrow night.”

The implications here are staggering.  The harasser does this kind of thing every night?  And no one has raised a finger to stop it?  Local authorities, and society at large, are unconscionably uninvolved and detached, continuously allowing this behavior to go unchallenged.  Where is our humanity?  Where is our outrage?

Lyric:  Is she walking back to me?  Yeah, she's walking back to me.”

We are supposed to believe that the behavior we just witnessed—which is a shock to the conscience of every right-thinking person—will win him sexual favors?  Really?  Again, this is just pathetic—about as realistic as the opening overtures of a porn scene.  And just as unacceptable in a public setting.

Below is a re-write of the song to remove all offensive elements and bring it up to modern standards.

Approaching person, who has the general physical and dress characteristics of a female but whose gender self-identity is not yet known. 
Walking down the street.  
Approaching person, who has the general physical and dress characteristics of a female but whose gender self-identity is not yet known. 
The kind I’d like to have someone introduce me to.  
Approaching person. 
I wonder how you self-identify. 
Approaching person.

In order to remain within the bounds of appropriate thought and behavior, the song pretty much would have to end there.  And to accommodate the new lyrics, the underlying music will need some adjustment.

As will our thinking.


A video version of this analysis can be found here:
Video:  The Sexual Harassment of "Pretty Woman" deconstructed and fixed.

If you like this kind of snarky writing, please check out my novel Messages, where I apply the same treatment to the TV news industry.  And, you can find more snarkograms here.

©2014 by Forrest Carr.  All rights reserved.

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