I recognise that my previous post may have seemed a little flippant. But just in case anyone had failed to notice my tongue-bulging cheek, it’s probably worth expanding on what I really think about heckling.
The conventional feminist objection to being heckled is pretty straightforward, and readily understood: being verbally harassed is intimidating and gives women the feeling that they are being reduced to their somatic selves. It robs them of agency, and being robbed of agency is how we define disempowerment. That’s the conventional feminist take, anyway. Within that are all sorts of unarticulated fears to do with the dynamics of invitation, seductive slickness, and class. Particularly class.
Where would we be without the villified White Van Man (WVM), for example? Forget Danny Dyer: WVM is an ogre of 21st Century masculinity, and embodies too many middle class feminist fears relating to improprietous, indiscriminate attentions. While those at the top of the social tree might fantasise about a bit of rough trade crumpling them up against the sliding door of a Ford Transit, the ‘I am not a plastic bag’ brigade just cannot entertain this as an erotic possibility. Perhaps because they are surrounded by men only just ‘above’ the WVM archetype (ie they drive Ford Mondeos and swallow, rather than utter, the same remarks. Sensitivity or spinelessness? It’s a fine line). The snobbish notion amongst middle class women is that WVM is tasteless and cheap, and will, by virtue of his crass, syntactically challenged commentary, cheapen you too (and not in a good way). He will remind you of all your worst parochial nightmares; of spending Saturday night in with Ant and Dec and a bottle of Blossom Hill. Of being forced (rather than choosing) to wear top to toe Primark.
I recently started to have my mid-coloured hair highlighted. Following an unmediated amateur sun-bleaching session (ie hungoverly snoozing in a park, bereft of hat), I am now basking on the bankside of blonde trash. Combine this with the fact that I have more than a handful of grabbage, and an end of terrace face, and you can see that I am prime WVM totty (I fail to count the number of times I’ve been compared to Charlotte Church.) When I first realised that the depreciating tenor of my ‘attendees’ was directly correlated with the cheapening of my look, I was minorly horrified; horrified that I was forced to confront the fact I was middle class enough to find it unsavoury, and yet not quite middle class enough to feel unsullied by it. Heckling is considered ‘common’ by the decent people, while thinking but not articulating it (with your mouth at least) isn’t (that’s you in the Mondeo I’m talking about, Sir.) And it’s comparable to the two-tier system of overt and covert prostitution; you know, where those touting their wares as whores are condemned and pitied, while those who cajole men for Dior handbags, as reparation for unspecified general male misdemeanours, are heralded as post-feminist wunderkind.
And there’s another double standard at work when it comes to heckling. Not long after I’d arrived in London, I remember being slow, sweet whistled at by a winklepicker wearing media man in Noho. That lunchtime, I really felt I’d gone up in the world. Essentially, of course, it was still sexism, but it felt like a shoddy-hot compliment, mainly because this man dressed like someone who might, once, have read La Belle Dame Sans Merci.
This brings me back to a point I made in my previous blog: that who heckles, and how, can immediately transform how palatable the ‘objectified’ finds it. Try to consider the following honestly: would being cat-called by a man who couched it in the language of romantic seduction, not feel, on some level, acceptable? Imagine some besuitor flings a line from Marvell at you from over the road: ‘Mistress not quite mine! The grave’s a fine and private place/but none I think do there embrace!’ I suppose it would depend on how much of the poem he quoted as to how readily you’d lower your heckle guard. A couplet wouldn’t be anything special, but what if he garlanded you with a whole stanza? The entire sonnet? I dare you to resist. And I mean to truly, internally resist it. To not feel a shiver of pleasure as someone, from out of the window of his Renault Megane, arrows memory and heart committed lines at your merciless peep-toed feet. On a stylistic level, the doggerel of WVM just cannot compete.
But beware those Metaphysicals. They were quickly followed by the Cavalier poets, who adopted the florid Elizabethan phrasing of their predecessors to disguise the fact they were exploiting their privilege, and a lady’s weakness for a fine turn of phrasing. As for the WVM who tarried with me the other week, at least ‘fit as FUCK!’ is alliterative.