Lucy Mangan

“Women everywhere can relate to the horror of the catcall”

Posted by
Lucy Mangan
Published

The viral video of a French student being punched in the face by a street harasser is shocking, but – for many women – not surprising, says Lucy Mangan. 

It loses nothing in translation, that’s the most striking thing about the video footage of 22-year-old student Marie Laguerre being attacked outside a cafe in Paris by a street harasser she had told to shut up.

For those of you who have not seen the CCTV clip Laguerre released showing what happened (a clip which duly went viral), it runs for just over a minute and encapsulates so much of female experience despite its brevity (it’s soundless, too) that it should be awarded some kind of equalities prize.

As customers sit peacefully chatting in the courtyard outside the cafe, a woman in a red dress – Laguerre – crosses paths with a man in a black T-shirt. According to Laguerre’s description of events below the posted clip and subsequently, he was making sexual comments and “animal noises”. She says, “Shut up”, low enough not even to be sure he’s heard, but he has. He picks up an ashtray from a cafe table and throws it at her head, missing by centimetres.

She stops and shouts back at him (“I felt hatred. I refused to be demeaned, it was humiliating”), he comes towards her fast and hits her in the face hard enough to knock her into the courtyard’s fencing.

The first part is the perfect illustration of what we might call, with growing weariness, standard sexual harassment: man feels at perfect liberty to comment on a passing woman’s body and make clear to her what he would like to do to it.

What happens next is the perfect illustration of why women object so deeply to the practice and yet do not follow the multitude of advice given by those who have never experienced the problem: namely, dismiss it entirely, stand up to it, or see it as an appreciative compliment.

Laguerre’s 87-second video makes clear that none of these things is the answer, because harassment like this is not an expression of appreciation. It is an expression of anger. It can’t be dismissed, because it is intimidation. It is intended to make us respond submissively and shore up the aggressor’s world view of women as lesser beings: good for one thing and at his disposal.

And we rarely stand up to it because – well, look what happens when we do. We know that this switch from ‘mere’ harassment to outright violence is always a possibility and not a remote one.

“Here is proof at last that women haven’t been making it up all the time”

The reaction to the footage also reflects and illuminates women’s wider experience. Many people – the large majority male – seem to have had their eyes opened to the scale, and more often than not the existence at all, of the problem; a picture apparently being worth a thousand female testimonies beforehand.

Here is proof at last, runs one attitude, that women haven’t been making it up all the time. One day, perhaps, when enough encounters have been randomly caught on tape, the assumption that we are all shrieking, deluded hysterics making up accusations will no longer be the default.

Two last notes. One, the first people to pursue the man as he leaves are other men, lightning fast. They call him back, they challenge and remonstrate with him. Because no, absolutely it’s #notallmen. But could all men please remember that we never said or thought it was?

And two, Laguerre’s name literally means ‘war’. Nothing lost in translation there, either. Courage, mes amies.

Images: Andy Grizzell / Bruno Martins / Unsplash