Through this blog and the help of our wonderful readers and contributors, we have proven that words are a great way to holla back! However art is also a powerful tool that can be used to Holla Back in many ways by many different people. This week we want to highlight individuals who have realized the power in art and harnessed it to Holla Back against public sexual harassment. Today, we highlight Maggie Hadleigh-West , filmmaker, producer, public speaker, activist and the genius behind the great film War Zone, that takes the issue of street harassment head on.
Find out what she has to say about pubic sexual harassment, why she believes film and art are great ways to fight harassment, and ways to confront public sexual harassment. If you are left wanting more after this post, check out more of her work and ideas at her blog, she got tons of great ideas!
How did you get started creating films? Why did you choose film as your medium to fight social injustices instead of other forms of activism.?
I chose film quite naturally. It grew directly out of being harassed by men in public. I was so annoyed and disturbed by it, and had been thinking about it for years, and then one day I was at a yard sale and picked up a super 8 camera and I realized I had a weapon. A weapon, which would equalize me in respect to my harassers. And then of course, I understood what a great medium it was for me, because I have a lot to say on very complex issues and this reaches a lot of people of varying ethnicities, sexual orientations, ages, and in different economic circumstances.
You shot War Zone on the subject of street harassment, and now your latest work. Player Hating A Love Story, follows a hip-hop artist working to escape Brooklyn projects. You seem to have an interest in so many different social problems, how do you choose which injustices to highlight in your films?
To me they’re not so different, and I follow my heart. For me it’s all pretty organic. While I was making War Zone, I was aware that many of then men in the film that were on the streets all day, were guys who were socially disenfranchised, and I thought, what a human way to regain your powerlessness by victimizing others in public. (Let’s be clear that men “in power” are also harassing women, they just have to wait for their lunch break or when they got off work to engage in that activity—or just do it in the office.) At that time, I was also listening to hip hop music and was acutely aware of the stories being told in the lyrics of the music.
What was significantly different about Player Hating was that I had to put my feminist issues to the side, while making this film, if I wanted to hear and see what was directly in front of me, which was about surviving or not surviving. So the way I understand this as a feminist is, first let’s make sure people can live their lives free of institutionalized racism and violence and then let’s get to the other “isms” which are totally pervasive.
Could you describe how you came up with the idea to shoot War Zone? Had you been a victim of street harassment often?
The earliest impetus for the film came when I was in my mid-twenties and living with a man, who I thought was the love of my life. This guy, who supposedly loved me as well, was totally bored with the “stories” of me being harassed. He was incapable of understanding that my fear was very real, and that often these guys followed me, said threatening things to me, degraded me, invaded my personal time and space, touched me in illegal fashions, were the guys next door on the stoop, etc. And I came to understand that he could not possibly love me if my safety was so meaningless to him, and even more importantly, HE WAS MORE THE NORM THAN NOT. Now that was scary. I didn’t know what I was going to do about this issue or when, but I knew eventually something was going to have to be done or I wouldn’t be able to live with myself or all the men in my life.
In your film one of your main tactics is confronting the harassers, video camera in hand, asking for them to repeat themselves or for an explanation of their actions. In retrospect do you think that was an effective way of dealing with them, if so why?
Well, it was sort of my only option. It’s hard to figure out which guy is going to be the harassing guy, and I couldn’t afford to just roll and roll—it would be too costly as well technically a nightmare, so it was the best I could do then or now, unless I chose to use surveillance camera’s– but that’s a whole other deal. Plus it was important to me that I be a specific woman, not just another silent chick that walked by after they did their thing.
The beauty of what I did was invariably these guys thought what they were doing was cool, so there was no real denial of what had happened or they’d do it again on camera with me, because who was I? I was no threat to them. I was just some meaningless little chick with a camera. Sadly, for them they underestimated my abilities.
In our trainings we teach individuals how to confront their harassers using non-violent verbal methods and the topic of whether or not to confront a harasser has been a hot topic on our blog. Many readers say they are fearful of the harasser’s reaction. While filming did you ever receive any negative or dangerous reactions from the harassers when you confronted them? What advice would you give our readers when it comes to deciding weather or not to comfort a harasser?
In the making of War Zone their were probably twenty guys who tried to knock the camera or mic out of my hands, and two of them smashed it into my head. There was a man in San Francisco that I’m certain would have stabbed or shot me, if it hadn’t been daylight and we were in a crowded part of the city, and there was another guy who punched me in the side of my head.
The upside of that is, I believe that my thesis was confirmed: That this seemingly benign behavior is about a continuum of violence by men against women that begins with non-verbal aggression and can escalate into sexual assault, rape and even murder. (This does also happens with men on men, women on men and women on women, but statistically, men on women predominate.)
I believe the decision to confront an aggressor is determined first and foremost by an assessment of the individuals safety. Then need. Women have an enormous amount of pent up rage over this continuous onslaught of aggression. Sometimes that means women just have to say something in the moment. What is important to remember is that the person who is being harassed doesn’t want to escalate the situation, so she should use classic sexual assault protection language, which in general means being clear that you’d like the behavior to stop, but DON’T insult the aggressor in anyway (easier said than done). Also, more often then you’d think, there are opportunities later to speak out, like on HollaBack, or by making a complaint to the company, organization, store, or whatever that the guy may be affiliated with. So given an opportunity, I advocate REPORT, REPORT, REPORT. With the above listed, police, or whoever, however.
What are some of the main lessons you learned about street harassment from shooting your film that you would like to share with out readers?
That things are changing. Slowly but surely. When I began this work I was out there pretty much alone, and was considered a man-hating, crazy-thinking woman, and today many government, teaching and organizational bodies use my film to train men and women around issues of sexism, sexual assault and rape. HollaBackNYC was originally inspired in part by my film, and to me it is one of the best and most immediately effective tools to address the issue of street abuse, and I believe the work that you all are doing is by far the most progressive.
And even more importantly, catcalling, “complimenting”, degrading women in public etc., are literally the training ground for sexual predators. This is where they learn how far they can go, and what is culturally acceptable. That of course doesn’t mean that every man that engages in these behaviors is going to be a rapist, but some are. That is a fact. And the sooner we diminish the acceptability of this behavior, the better our chances are of reducing the risk of sexual assault and rape.
On a personal note, I’d like to say that when you are able to exorcize this cultural demon from your body, I have found that it makes the world a much easier and happier place to be.
Do you have any tips on how anyone can use art to Holla Back against street harassment or any other injustices?
Yup, I always say pick up whatever medium you are most comfortable with, or have a desire to learn, and holla back with passion.
Use your voice, graphic design, sculpture (that was my first), song (Maggie Estep, Hey Baby), write an article, book or blog, tell your friends, make a movie about how it manifests in a specific culture, create a performance for theater or for the moment… Do whatever excites you because if it doesn’t it’s harder to finish the work. And we need many more voices of dissension out there to eradicate this menacing, threatening and potentially deadly behavior.
I’ll conclude with one of my favorite in the moment performances by a friend of mine:
Lisa is walking down the street in Manhattan and a guy starts following her talking about what he wants to do with her big breasts. When she realizes that he’s not going to either stop his degrading chatter, or stop following her, she very abruptly turns around, invades his personal space and screams loudly into his face, Do you have the time?
Scared the shit out of the poor guy.
Thanks Maggie! We love the work you’re doing!