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Discuss: The Catcall Conundrum

Every May, I head up to Bethesda for The Front Row, a fashion show curated by Bethesda’s local boutiques.  The show is always fun, with a special guest (Andy Cohen, Kelly Cutrone) and an open bar, but there is one part of the event that I truly hate.

For the past two years, one of the models for the show was a very attractive, very buff man who works as a personal trainer–washboard abs, calves like a Greek god, etc.  The second this guy steps onto the runway, some of the women in the crowd go absolutely berserk–like The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show berserk.  And should he strut down the catwalk in swimwear, well, I hope you brought earplugs and some extra strength headache medicine because your cochlea are about to take a beating.

This year, the middle-aged women behind me were screaming so loudly that they made Justin Bieber fans seem reserved by comparison.  Their behavior was truly embarassing–snapping pics with their iPhones, saying things like “yum, yum,” and yelling at a decibel level that put their glasses of white wine in jeopardy.  And as I attempted to turn my ears away from the sonic blast, I began to wonder: Why is it okay for women to whoop, holler and catcall at men, but not okay for men to do the same to women?

For example, the movie Magic Mike.  Every woman I know is psyched to see this movie.  And why shouldn’t they be? A half-dozen hot, shirtless guys dancing on a 40-foot tall screen has girl’s night out written all over it.  But what would we say if all of our male friends, boyfriends and husbands were lining up to watch a movie about six buxom, G-string clad women?

I’m certainly not trying to ruin anyone’s weekend trip to the movies, but I’m slightly uncomfortable with the double standard.  I’ve seen women chastise their boyfriends or male friends for simply looking at an attractive woman with a slightly wanton eye, but we’re permitted to cheer and whistle for a shirtless Channing Tatum and it’s all in good fun?  Something about that just feels out of balance.

What do you ladies think: Is there a different set of rules for women than for men?  Are we being too hard on the guys or not hard enough on ourselves?  Or am I just over thinking this whole thing?  Leave your thoughts in the comments.

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    36 comments

  1. Mel says:

    I completely agree with you!

    I am a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco, where harrassment (specifically towards foreign women) is troubling. I think catcalling or harrassment of any form is not acceptable- regardless of gender.

    July 6, 2012/Reply
  2. UB says:

    Women behaving that way are just as bad as men behaving that way… sometimes worse (if the same women complain when they are being subjected to cat calls).
    Plain, simple, the end!

    July 6, 2012/Reply
  3. CatG says:

    ” But what would we say if all of our male friends, boyfriends and husbands were lining up to watch a movie about six buxom, G-string clad women?”

    Uhh…Striptease, Showgirls…pretty much every movie featuring strippers and scantily clad women, advertisements, magazines….

    “What do you ladies think: Is there a different set of rules for women than for men?”

    Yes. (Straight) men's sexual interests are more than catered to in our culture. Women's not so much, which is why Magic Mike is creating such a stir.

    You can complain about women acting like twits, and I happen to agree with you, but then when you consider the problem of street harassment (and who the perpetrators/victims of that are, and how INCREDIBLY common it is) and just the entire culture we live in then your concerns about women being playfully obnoxious in one small forum or a particular controlled set of circumstances seems, well, pretty silly.

    July 6, 2012/Reply
  4. LGF says:

    Amen, CatG

    July 6, 2012/Reply
  5. CatG says:

    I would also like to add I have never, in my entire life, heard a man claim he felt “threatened” when a woman catcalled at him. It may happen, but I'm guessing pretty rare. Women, OTOH, often have to deal with the threat factor when that kind of behavior is directed at them. While catcalling is obnoxious no matter who is doing it, to put the two on the same level is a false equivalency.

    July 6, 2012/Reply
  6. Lawlala says:

    That reminds me of the time one of my coworkers started having chest pains and the EMTs and firefighters came to take her to the hospital. They were barely able to help her because they were surrounded by a flock of female coworkers who openly discussed their “physical features” and shoved each other out of the way to get the best look.
    Disgusting!

    July 6, 2012/Reply
  7. Kate says:

    Exactly, CatG. Spot on. It's a false equivalency. Yes, women yelling at men on the runway is inappropriate, because this is their professional work, and it does not call for that. Equating that to a strip club, where (although it is still the strippers' work) the atmosphere encourages that behavior, doesn't make sense. And you're exactly right about the threat levels. Women are so often threatened on the street and yelled obscene things at. It's hard for women to walk anywhere in DC without experiencing this.

    And in what ways are men penalized for going to strip clubs or partaking in the sexualization of women that our society promotes? When men go to strip clubs, it's “boys will be boys.” (And by the way – I have no problem with either sex going to strip clubs. But to suggest that women get off easy while men are shamed is so untrue.)

    July 6, 2012/Reply
  8. Mel says:

    I whole heartedly agree with Kate and CatG. Our societal norms encourage the objectification and sexualization of women ALL THE TIME. Because it is the norm, people don't generally notice, but they do when the tables are turned and men become the object of attention.

    July 6, 2012/Reply
  9. Ash says:

    AAAAAAAAAAMEN!

    July 6, 2012/Reply
  10. Ellie says:

    Agree 100% with everything CatG said. I actually almost laughed out loud when I read “But what would we say if all of our male friends, boyfriends and husbands were lining up to watch a movie about six buxom, G-string clad women?” It's called p-rn, and most guys watch it, quite often, and definitely more often than their girlfriends/wives think they do. Kind of nice women get to play catch up, thanks Magic Mike!

    I do agree that women should not be catcalling at men walking down the runway, but I also would not agree with men catcalling at women doing so. It's because that's not the setting for such behavior, not that the behavior itself is unacceptable.

    July 6, 2012/Reply
  11. Jen says:

    I disagree with CatG et al, to a point. Women behaving badly is not ok in every situation. The false equivalency I see here is that this is at a fashion show. If you want an equivalent situation, these ladies need to go to a strip club and hoot like idiots. This “controlled set of circumstances” is a fashion show, not a strip club.

    It's embarrasing. If we want DC to ever be taken seriously as any kind of contender in the botique fashion industry, our actions need to be worthy of respect.

    July 6, 2012/Reply
  12. SEB says:

    I agree with you, Belle. I don't think such objectification is acceptable for either men or women. I think it's dehumanizing. I don't believe that feminism means 'paying back' men for the rampant over-sexualization of women in mass media and culture – I think it means demanding higher standards of treatment and equality for all people, regardless of their sex.

    I understand where other readers are coming from when they point out that women are objectified in our culture so much that people don't really notice anymore. However, I'm all for raising the bar for mutual respect and equality higher, not lower.

    July 6, 2012/Reply
  13. Kate says:

    The question wasn't “should women catcall men on the runway.” We'd all agree that is not appropriate. The question we were responding to was, “is there a double-standard in favor of women.” The answer to that is wholeheartedly no, it does not favor women. We've all agreed that women shouldn't catcall men on the runway. But that is one of a few examples of women objectifying men. And, as is seen here, it's almost always called out. Whereas men very rarely receive repercussions for objectifying women. Do men every really get in trouble for street harassment? Do men get called out for going to see movies which objectify women (which, in all honestly, is about 90% of them). But for people to come along and say “yes, women and men do it equally, and they are both to blame equally” is so disingenuous.

    Of course, we should have mutual respect and equality. But to blame women for this equally with men doesn't make sense.

    July 6, 2012/Reply
  14. Alli says:

    I agree! I feel the same way about the book “50 Shades of Gray”….would I want my husband/boyfriend openly picking up a Playboy? It is the same thing, in my opinion.

    July 6, 2012/Reply
  15. Parker says:

    Cat-Calling, fawning and drooling are tasteless, no matter which gender parttakes in it. On the other hand, I think sometimes our vanity and false political correctness prevents us from being honest. It is ludacris to assume that just because you've decided to partner up with someone, you've suddenly turned blind or mute. Instead of scolding each other or placing false expectations, it'd be a good exercise for both men and women alike to appreciate beauty and diversity in both the same as well as opposite sex without any connotation or implication of harassment.

    July 6, 2012/Reply
  16. KT says:

    So, first and foremost, I don't like anyone being treated like meat. Not okay. My brother is a fireman, and that story that Lawlala shared is just wrong. That being said…

    In general: I agree with CatG – our culture traditionally supports the sexuality of men while in many ways repressing the sexuality of women. I think that's why books like 50 Shades of Grey and movies like Magic Mike cause such a stir (and such interesting, albeit sometimes infuriating, debate).

    In this specific case: Is cat-calling at a fashion show appropriate? Probably not. Would I comment about a models abs to my friend sitting next to me? Probably. Would I be upset with my boyfriend about doing something similar? Depends entirely on the situation, but I do expect him to notice people and do not think its fair to hold him to a higher standard than I hold myself.

    Side note – I did see Magic Mike, and without getting into detail, it definitely isn't all sunshine and ponies.

    July 6, 2012/Reply
  17. Belle says:

    Kate and CatG: i agree that catcalling on the street is a separate issue. But what if the model at the runway show was a good looking woman, and the men were whooping and hollering at her? I think many of the women whonwould be calling them pigs, would be whistling at the good looking male model. That's the point i was making, not the deeper threat issue, but i agree that it exists.

    July 6, 2012/Reply
  18. Kate says:

    Belle: But isn't that basically what the Victoria Secret fashion show exists for? I mean, most men I know tune in to only watch the models. And that is expected of men. (I honestly have no idea if the catcalling actually happens at the location of the show, though. But it does elsewhere). But we all agree with you that the women shouldn't have been catcalling the men on the runway. However, your question of is there a double standard is what we were trying to address. And maybe you were talking about individual women having double standards – because yes, that can be true for either gender. Individuals might have double standards. But in society, men definitely are catered to and are expected to objectify women's bodies.

    July 6, 2012/Reply
  19. Kaylee says:

    I agree with CatG et al. Of course catcalling on the runway is wrong. However, to the larger question, there is a double standard, but it doesn't favor women. As some have pointed out, women are objectified so often that it's become unnoticeable to many. Even Magic Mike features more than one partially nude woman.

    July 6, 2012/Reply
  20. mk says:

    I agree with you, Belle and SEB. Objectification is objectification. The longer we perpetuate a double-standard (it's okay to do this to men, but not women), the less we engage with our peers on an equal, human level. In other words, what is it about objectifying women that makes it acceptable for us to turn the behavior around on men?

    Also, there's quite a body of work out there (no pun intended) on the porn industry, and I think that's a separate discussion; we are talking about people at a fashion show, in a public venue, acting like fools, for lack of a better word. If you want to talk fashion show-specific, although men may watch the VS show on TV each year (none that I know do, including my husband, who finds it “stupid” and would rather watch the Science Channel), I see many women in that audience, and many women buying the products in VS stores; I also don't see catcalling going on during that show.

    We can argue that Madison Avenue and peer pressure tell us to buy from VS, or even read blogs like Belle's, but as with all other decisions in life, we need to take responsibility for them, and also realize that the ultimate measure of equality is making room for differences. So you may see VS as objectifying, while other women love the look, the products, and the pomp of their televised show. To each his–or her–own! But let's not continue the us vs. them mentality when IMHO, the goal of gender equality is to be recognized as equals, for our own individual pursuits and qualities, not to pretend to operate as some false monolith who is beyond reproach.

    July 6, 2012/Reply
  21. J says:

    I think Magic Mike isn't really a good example to use in this case. I would have absolutely no problem with a boyfriend's enthusiasm about a movie staring scantily clad females. A movie is specifically made for fantasy and entertainment. I don't think a few cheers or hollers at a movie screen makes Channing Tatum feel sexually assaulted or threatened. Similarly, real life strippers encourage this behavior to a certain extent and have bouncers to protect them from aggressive viewers.

    As for models, they are paid to show off their body. I agree that the Victoria's secret fashion show is a similar event where men watch specifically to see half naked women. For fashion shows, I think clapping and cheering are acceptable to show your support and enthusiasm for the job the model is doing. But yelling out comments like “yum, yum” are not appropriate.

    The issue with catcalling is when random men on the street shout unsolicited vulgar or aggressive remarks at women while they are simply walking down the street fully clothed minding their own business. If a woman catcalled while a man walked down the street (which I've never witnessed in my life) it would be equally unacceptable.

    July 6, 2012/Reply
  22. KP says:

    I agree that the behavior shown at the runway show was inappropriate. That is not the type of behavior that should be displayed in that forum. The same goes for fire-men police etc. when they are trying to do their job. A male revue is a different story. I would imagine that the male performers would be disappointed if the audience acted like they were at a ballet performance.

    I think the difference lies in society's treatment of men and women. Women from birth are valued because of their looks (remember the post you did on complimenting little girls on something other than their looks), men are not.

    Men should be treated with the same respect that women would like to be treated with. But on the whole there is not a double standard between the objectification of women and men in American society.

    July 6, 2012/Reply
  23. Beth says:

    Sorry, I have to LOL @ the Playboy/50 Shades comment. 50 Shades is a terribly written book that I wouldn't pick up – but I happily read all kinds of other romance novels. And shockingly, I'm okay with my husband picking up Playboy if he so desires. I don't see anything wrong with reading romance novels, looking at Playboy or watching porn, if you're into it.

    I am also okay with him watching Showgirls or ::gasp:: going to a strip club, so I expect the same in return.

    Anyway, I think all of the above things are much different than catcalling at a fashion show. It is about knowing what is appropriate for the venue, and I don't think catcalling at a fashion show is in good taste, ever.

    July 6, 2012/Reply
  24. Sam says:

    Thanks, Belle, for bringing this up. It's a complex issue and definitely warrants discussion.

    I'm with Kaylee, Kate and CatG. The double standard is very much in place and has not favoured women. I'm going to go a little further, though…

    To be quite frank, as someone who's been subject to street harrassment since age 11, I frankly welcome (a little meanly) the opportunity to get a little of my own back. I would never cat-call — and I'm a little skeeved out by your story about the runway models — but I'm a lot less shy about giving the ol' once-over to attractive men these days.

    I'm 100% on-board with movies, fashion and other pop-culture trends that overtly sexualize men… Magic Mike, Daniel Craig in those little blue shorts in Casino Royale, skinny jeans, etc. I'm happy it's getting more and more common. Guys have been able to ogle scantily-clad women with little-to-no jugment for freaking ever; it's our turn now.

    Eventually, once there's equal opportunity objectification across the board, then I'll probably jump on the objectification-is-wrong bandwagon. But I think that day is far in the future.

    July 6, 2012/Reply
  25. CatG says:

    @ Belle – I don't think there is anyone in this thread who disagrees with you that the behavior you were describing at the fashion show is inappropriate, including myself. The part I took objection to (honestly my eyebrows are still on the ceiling!) was your comment about double standards – but that's been very well covered by now, and by posters with greater writing skill than I 🙂
    That said, although I did (and do) strongly disagree with that part of the message of your post, I always enjoy it when you throw these things up on your blog 🙂

    July 6, 2012/Reply
  26. c says:

    I think it's tasteless no matter who does it. I'm a lesbian and see it happening within our community as well. Just because it's a girl objectifying another girl who is attracted to girls doesn't make it cool.

    July 6, 2012/Reply
  27. Jaye says:

    I appreciate the constructive tone of everyone's comments and debate!

    I also certainly don't live in a culture where women's sexuality is shamed any more. To the contrary, women are almost aggressively told that their liberation is related to – maybe even concurrent with – how much sex we are having and how sexual we make ourselves. That's doesn't really attain the standard of 'choice', and it's not very tolerant. It seems as though our culture, in major cities at least (where I live), is so aggressively FOR enabling women to have sex whenever we want with whoever we want, that we have closed off social space for enabling women not to choose to have sex. Not having sex is considered deviant or freakish, and subject to the same kind of social shaming we used to talk about when we talked about 'slut-shaming'.

    If our only option to exercise our liberation is to wear skimpy clothes, be aggressively okay with porn, and sleep around, I don't think we've come very far. Real choices about sexual behavior would be real liberation, and constructing norms either way (for or against sex or sexual behavior) undermines it.

    This is not directed at your post, Belle, but at other commenters bringing up porn/sexuality/double standards. I just wanted to weigh in!

    July 6, 2012/Reply
  28. mk says:

    I second Jaye!

    July 6, 2012/Reply
  29. Kate says:

    Jaye: Although I think your comment is a little off topic for what the subject was here, I'd like to address it. You're right in that women are shamed for not having sex. Women are also shamed for having sex. Women who don't have sex are prudes. Women who do have sex (or as you so put it, “wear skimpy clothes, be aggressively okay with porn, and sleep around”) are sluts. Of course women should be able to make their own choices with what to do with their bodies, whether that be sleep with many people, one person, or no one. But the thing is, women are so often held up by society and judged, no matter what they do. You are doing it to, by suggesting that wearing skimpy clothes and sleeping around are wrong. This doesn't really have to do with catcalling, or the double standard (except that men are not judged for sleeping around, although they are sometimes judged for not having sex). But allowing women to make their own choices should be the answer, not holding them up for societal judgment.

    (And I'm sorry – if you think women are no longer shamed for having sex, you certainly haven't been in the rural south, where I've had friends be forced to stand up in church and apologize to the congregation for having premarital sex.)

    July 6, 2012/Reply
  30. C. Michael says:

    Magic Mike seems like a form a gender inequality in the workplace to me. I know it's kind of a stretch seeing as how the workplace is Hollywood, but stick with me here. Channing Tatum was praised in the WSJ (yes WSJ!!) for his tremendous acting ability. The New Yorker has also already praised Steven Soderbergh for creating a “modernistic musical.”

    Most females who play strippers end up either dead on Law & Order, or are seen as a subpar actress who just “uses her body” to get a role rather than using acting skills to get the role. It's not fair at all, and I'm so sick of it. What does that teach our female actors, our younger women, or anyone who ever watches a movie? I don't see how it's helpful to society as a whole.

    While it goes against my own personal constitution to see the movie, I certainly won't judge those who do, because that's not going to help either. Thanks to Belle and all who've shared their honest opinions, I appreciate the dialogue here.

    July 6, 2012/Reply
  31. Rachel says:

    Belle, I agree. Double standard or no, cat-calling is classless and women shouldn't do it in public simply because men do. I have also felt uncomfortable with the Magic Mike madness; it feels just as awkward to me when I hear girlfriends freak out about men's bodies as it does when I hear dudes drooling over Victoria's Secret models. Yes, our culture panders to straight male sexuality, but emulating what society has allowed to become acceptable in terms of public displays of objectification is not an appropriate feminist answer.

    July 7, 2012/Reply
  32. Darren says:

    So basically women think objectifying young men is fine because its 'payback'. Charming. Do you actually want men to start spending hours and hours a week at the gym, on special high-protein diets, taking steroids, becoming utterly self-appearance-absorbed? Is this the world you want to create? I doubt you will actually like it.

    July 9, 2012/Reply
  33. Candace C says:

    I agree with Darren's point that payback is entirely unacceptable as a justification to behave inappropriately. That said, I do believe there is a time and place for everything, and that includes objectification of either sex. One may consider it evil, but we humans are visual creatures who respond to what pleases us visually. I think the more interesting question posed here is what is an appropriate form for that expression? I submit that yelling and screaming is not the appropriate way to acknowledge beauty. Ideally, we could all be respectful and appreciative. Sadly, we just aren't there yet.

    July 9, 2012/Reply
  34. ALI says:

    Amen, Belle. So not ok or classy.

    July 9, 2012/Reply
  35. ms says:

    Not sure how you concluded that it's okay for women but not for men. It's not okay for either gender. As you noted, it was obnoxious when women do it, too. And at least women do it extremely rarely and when they do, I never notice that the men who are the objects of the cat calls feel unsafe or otherwise demeaned. Men do this ALL THE TIME, and in many cultural contexts, it's not seen as a problem. And I'm not even talking about other countries that are more repressive to women. All over the US, men cat call at women at venues that are designed to have a sexual vibe (bikini themed events, low-end beauty contests, strip clubs, etc, etc). In lots of the US, this same cat calling is still done regularly in the streets and in other public places. And people treat it just as “okay” as they did at the fashion show you went to.

    July 10, 2012/Reply
  36. Sari says:

    When men suffer from thousands of years of oppression and objectification, then it will be offensive to catcall them.

    July 12, 2012/Reply