I have a story.
A woman walks down the street. She is on her way into her office that is located about a 30 minutes walking distance from her apartment. It’s a warm July day so she wears a loose fitting dress, flats, and carries a bag holding her laptop and other belongings. The dress is not low cut and falls just above her knees. She hurries down the sidewalk, checking her phone for the time and waits for the walk signal at a cross walk. When the light changes, she steps onto the street into view of the stopped cars. One car, a white van, has its windows open. The two men inside see the girl, and immediately begin to comment on her appearance. First beginning with a quiet “Mmm, beautiful”, their voices build into a frightening shout of “Hey girl, you look beautiful! That’s beautiful baby. I like that!” with intermittent moaning noises and “damns”. The girl, overcome with adrenaline, keeps her head down, speeds forward and waits for it to be over. The verbal assault leaves her frazzled and angry. She thinks of all the things she wishes she could say back. But she doesn’t. She can’t. Because men are stronger. She imagines turning around, looking at them, yelling some choice words while raising a choice finger. Then she envisions how that could have possibly “provoked” them into anger, which could have resulted in violent actions towards her. Then inevitably, her short dress and instigating words would have been the cause for anything that happened to her.
The words said to the girl, many would say, are of course harmless, “They were just trying to pay her a compliment…” Or, “It’s not like she was ever in danger”. And maybe the odds of an attack occurring in broad daylight are slim and she was never actually in any real danger, but can the same be said for these women in Memphis or Denver? So weighing the options, she keeps quiet, pushes aside the violent exchange and continues on her walk to work.
How many times has this happened to you? How many times has this happened to you today? Women living in urban areas anywhere around the world regardless of culture and language experience scenarios like this all the time. Even despite the quiet self defense tactic, many become victims and survivors of physical and sexual assault.
Our culture of cat-calling allows violent and graphic verbal abuse to go unnoticed and unpunished. Women are victims of this violence every day regardless of their age, outfit, size, or color. And it is violent, you can be sure of that. I’ve had obscenities yelled at me that I cannot even begin to describe here. The men committing these acts expect women to feel flattered and honored to have been noticed by them, and when they don’t get that satisfaction they become angry.
This speaks to an entirely larger institution of our society regarding the roles of men and women as well as violence committed against women. Tired of this constant struggle, French filmmaker Eléonore Pourriat made a film titled, Majorité Opprimée (Oppressed Majority) in which she boldly reverses the roles of men and women.
Posted in 2010, the short film did not gather much attention until Pourriat added English subtitles in February of 2014. Since then, views have soared to 12 million. The controversial film takes place in an unnamed town in France with an ordinary man named Pierre. Going about his usual routine in the matriarchal society that Pourriat has created, he pushes his son in a stroller past topless female joggers, has a conversation with his male babysitter wearing a hijab, and faces several encounters with female cat callers, all of which are condescending and abusive.
As the film progresses, he passes by a woman peeing in an alley and is sexually assaulted by a group of women, one of whom is wielding a knife. Later on in the police station, beaten up, battered, and humiliated he retells his story to a female officer who interrupts him to comment on how good her male assistant looks in his jeans. She then invalidates his story by saying, “Broad daylight and no witnesses? That’s strange.” When his wife finally arrives to take him home, she says she couldn’t get out of her meeting, but mentions, “I think I really knocked’em dead” asserting her professional achievements as more important than his attack. Finally, he snaps and states he can’t take their ‘feminist’ society anymore, claiming that his brothers fought for nothing. She disregards his ‘masculinist’ ideas and goes off to get the car. Then, as she walks down the dark street alone, we see a subtle transition. The camera focuses on her dress, clacking heels and scared expression. From the darkness we hear yells from unseen men, “You make me horny, baby!” “You’re so hot!” “Tight ass!” “Stupid cunt” and finally, “Keep smiling, honey!” as she hurries along, clutching her bag.
Sound similar to the story I told earlier? It’s because this film, and that story are not fiction. They are real and they are happening right now.
The film definitely made a stir and had some negative feedback, not surprisingly, from men who claimed that she painted them an unfair light. For the most part however, her work was applauded and declared important for the modern feminist movement. Ms. Pourriat, 42, stated, “I was raised with the idea that men and women were equal, and when I grew up, I saw that they weren’t, even if there are laws saying they are”.
When questioned on her opinion on why the film hasn’t gained much attention until now, Pourriat stated, “When I issued the film in 2010 and said I was a feminist, people would look at me as if there was no point to this, as if it was not the most important thing to fight about and to talk about. In France, nothing was in danger.”
“The feminist fight is more important now. Five years ago I felt like an alien. Now my film is making a buzz because rights are in danger. You see that in Spain with abortion rights. The whole thing about marriage for all, the homophobia and sexism. It is like a black tide today in France.”
One particular criticism was in response to the male babysitter, Nissar, shown wearing a hijab. Eric Fasson, a sociologist in Paris objected to this portrayal of Muslim women as victims. “It’s a cliché about veiled women,” he said. “They aren’t necessarily submissive and stupid.”
However, Pourrait responded by saying that gender is powerful enough to trump both religion faith and ethnicity.
The film is definitely jarring and exposes cat calling for its true disgusting self. Seeing the roles reversed makes watching it all the more horrifying. The wife perhaps is the most appalling of all with her utter lack of sympathy. Pourriat claims the motivation for her character comes from personal experience. After countless verbal attacks from men on the streets, her husband still held a cold distance and denial to her claims with an inability to truly empathize.
“I wanted her not to imagine, not to sympathize, not to be able to feel what he feels,” Pourriat says. “So often when women get assaulted, people say it’s their fault. Even close people. That’s what I wanted to say with this character.”
“Sometimes men – it’s not their fault – they don’t imagine that women are assaulted even with words every day, with small, slight words. They can’t imagine that because they are not confronted with that themselves.”
We applaud Pourriat for her truth telling work and the conversation she has stirred around the world in relation to the struggles women must face each and every day.