At the overripe age of 26, I thought I’d reconciled the matter of heckling. As a teenager, I was coyly curious. As an undergraduate I was livid. Now, as a sputtering, City-liveried journalist, I say hit me up, ‘gentlemen’. (Particularly if I’m chuggling back to my desk after lunch, light as a strong, long, large cafe latte.)
No, yes, no, I know, it’s not very feminist of me. But there is a certain gender equalitism to it, albeit in an eye for a testicle kind of a way. Sup your tepid beverages, Offendeds, and I’ll explain. If a man on this septic Isle we call 21st century Britain deigns to pop you a compliment, he’s probably got more sack about him then his nondescript denims might suggest. Mainly because it has not been socially acceptable in broadsheet-reading society to heckle a woman on a UK street since around 1985 (although perhaps after the recent call to grant anonymity to those accused of rape, a certain quota of the male populace might be partial to a few more attempts. I might start counting, just to see if I notice a correlation.)
So if a man does have a go, he’s taking a lot (or at least all of a little, which may be all he has) of his livelihood in his mouth. Considering the daggered response of most women these days to heckling, I would also suggest it’s a bizarre new form of subtle masochism on the male part, a kind of CFNM for the dignity.
I used to think it was all a matter of thinking it but not saying it – think what you like, fool, but do let me walk down this stretch of nasty concrete unsullied by your foul and pathetic gutter sniping. (NB for a strident supporter of freedom of speech, that was me at my most gender fascist. In case you hadn’t figured it.) On we struggle through this evolutionary stage of quieting abrupt displays of brute desire. And yet, as we do, too many men wear their thoughts across their faces like dirty knickers siphoned from the gym bag of a woman that isn’t their girlfriend/wife/significant female other. There are certainly more pleasant sights in Paradise and Noel Street on a Thursday lunchtime alike.
I watched the bald bravery of it all on the way home the other week. A jejune South-East Asian lady was waiting at the bus stop; perfect My Little Ponytail, shirt and skirt mannequin crisp, and a complexion so sheeny I couldn’t tell where the Hermes ended and her skin began. I’ve actually only ever seen such a well-turned out woman silking into a Merc 722 off the King’s Road (that’s my definition of High End – I’m from Wakefield, remember), and I did wonder what she was doing on the wrong side of Clapham, but then she was trying to catch aforementioned bus, and therefore leaving the jurisdiction, I rationalised.
Anyway – cue entry of The Neo-Chauvinist. He approaches her with a scorpion-catcher’s caution. She’s too busy peering out of her visor-like sunglasses to be in the slightest bit aware of his attempted ascent. Later, rather than sooner, when he’s sure she is a) not armed; b) indeed a woman, his chest inflates for bravado’s sake (or to compensate for the mild to moderate palpitations he is now experiencing at the prospect of who knows what in the post-feminist age), he offers his apologia. “I’m really sorry to disturb you, but do you think it would be possibly ok if I told you I thought you were, er, well, very beautiful?” It’s a prime inverted example of the academic categorisation of so-called ‘male’ vs ‘female’ language The hedging, the concern for saving your face and that of the other person. From a linguist’s perspective, it’s sheer emasculation. Or polite communicative strategy, depending on your gender reading.
The next night, I discuss the art of politically-correct seduction with a convivial Italian-American lecturer/journalist who is of the James Stewart school of masculine prowess. “Is it ever really ok?, he hazards.
“Sure!” I say, “I mean, are we really so concerned about affrighting feminist sensibilities that we dare not even throw someone a respectful aesthetic compliment? There are rules though.” I then regale the above episode.
Of course, the reason it doesn’t seem feministically acceptable isn’t on account of the action, but the asymmetry. If there were equal incidences of women heckling men, then one imagines it might become an entirely sociably acceptable means of flirtation (I mean, if speed-dating can pass as socially acceptable..). Women aren’t generally so ‘open’ about their desire, whether that’s because they are so conditioned to be objectified rather than to objectify, it just never occurs to them, or whether the majority just see it as the lowest form of human sexual expression. I know that ‘girl power’ tried to rectify that back in the nineties, but after Geri Halliwell decided ‘you’re only as old as the woman that you feel’ was an appropriate and tasteful way of greeting Mr Mandela on one of his Octogesomething birthdays, what feminist would want to appropriate the gawp and talk strategy as a means of seduction?
The other issue is that the majority of instances of heckling aren’t exactly appreciative in the way we’d like them to be. Or offered by men we appreciate.
I know many will shake their heads at me for my flippancy, accuse me of Stockholm Syndrome, but sometimes, when I am privy to their attempts (like today’s episode for instance: Covent Garden, circa 2pm, builder throws out ‘Fit as FUCK’, and expects..well, who knows, but that’s another blog post….), yes, sometimes, I think, bless him. At least he had a pop.
And on a day when you’re feeling less strumpet, more six-pack of crumpets wrung and hung out to fry in full-fat butter, a well-timed, chauvinistic pip from a being resembling average man can definitely cheer your spirits. Especially when it’s so, so paltry.