Street Harassment
Actress DeWanda Wise from Netflix's 'She's Gotta Have It' stars as Nola Darling. (Video still/Netflix)

In Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It reboot, the ridiculously beautiful Nola Darling suffers from a problem many women face. 

No matter what she’s wearing or where’s she headed, she gets catcalled.

The series’ first episode opens with a mashup of hilariously exaggerated hollerin’ that shows just how ridiculous men (and even some women) can be when they shout at you on the street:

“You so fine, I’d drink a tub of your bathwater out of a champagne glass!”

At first, it’s somewhat funny (and a smart nod to the 1986 original). But the laughs don’t last long after Nola experiences a more traumatic encounter with a catcaller who attacks her after she ignores him.

“I don’t want that stank p*ssy anyways!” he shouts as Nola runs away in tears.

“Motherf*cking, black bitch!”

The pain and beauty of this scene is that for nearly all women it’s so relatable.

It’s a #MeToo moment, a rite of passage into womanhood, like getting your period or your first bra.

But why does it have to be this way?

In the same way that we are redefining sexual harassment in the work place as no longer tolerable- it’s time we classify street harassment as unacceptable.

Street harassment is just part of a sexist and racist system of oppression, which reinforces the idea that women are property- and for black women, the pain is felt on multiple levels.

I’m not talking about casual conversation or a respectful question that leads to connection in an open space.  There are kind, thoughtful and smart men who know how to engage women in welcome ways.

I’m talking about the hollering that treats women like meat and humiliates them as they try to get from point A to point B.

While not all of us have been physically attacked like Nola Darling, many women are verbally assaulted when we respond to catcallers.  We are “beautiful” and “fine” until we turn some men down, then we’re bitches.

And in Nola’s case, a black bitch – which is intended to make the insult worse.

Even when a harasser can take ‘no’ for answer, the damage is often done.

Black women are disproportionately victims of homicide, subject to higher rates of sex-trafficking than other racial groups, and were treated as actual sexual property by slavemasters for centuries.

Street harassment builds on the intersections of racism and sexism to remind us that in society, we are on the bottom of someone’s totem pole.

Comments specifically about our skin color, facial features and body shape are disguised as ‘compliments,’ but later turn to insults if harassers don’t get their way.

For defenders who insist women like being hollered at, get a grip.  Many of us are just children in puberty when we have to learn to cope with being objects.

“We remember being as young as 12 years old, walking down the street and men cat calling…”hey light skin” etc,” wrote two women as part of Netflix’s #MyNameIsnt campaign, which encourages women to share stories of being harassed.

“Wasn’t a good feeling, or a boost of confidence.  Instead it was degrading and disrespectful causing little girls to grow up and turn into women who battle insecurities.”

“Name calling begun for me around 13,” wrote another young woman.  “What it did was make me so body conscious, I’d try to conceal my body by any means.”

In one of the few studies that actually looks at how black women experience street harassment, author Deidre Davis writes:

Harassing words on the street fragment a woman’s body parts from her mind, psyche and self, leaving a woman with a representation of herself as a collection of sexual parts without a core.

Davis defines this experience as part of “sexual terrorism.”  And just another way that Black women have been taught their bodies don’t belong to them throughout history.

We were once called hypersexual “jezebels” to justify our rapes by slaveowners and had our naked body parts inspected publicly before we were sold off.  Walking down the streets in public spaces today, too many of us still aren’t free from degradation by men of any color.

I’ll never forget walking to the gym one morning last summer, passing two men on a stoop. I kept my eyes forward as I’ve learned to do. Then I saw two hands reaching out to grab me and heard,  “Hey girl.”

I dodged and responded, “Please don’t touch me.” Instant mistake.

Oh she’s one of those scary bitches,” laughed the other man with spite.  The words landed hard at 7am when I wasn’t in the mood for disrespect.

I’m not a bitch,” I responded, looking at him directly in the eyes. “Is that how you talk to women? How you talk to your mother?” My heartbeat increased, knowing I was breaking the rules of Woman 101 by not ignoring him.

The original grabber stepped in to put his arms around me, but I snatched my body back and walked away, locking eyes with neighbors who watched but said nothing.

The instigator followed me, waiting until I was further down the block to start cussing me out.

I kept my chin up to be strong, but inside I felt like Nola, tears starting to well up. It wasn’t from weakness– but anger that I couldn’t do anything more without risking my own safety. And that no one stood up for me in that moment.

In She’s Gotta Have It, Nola spends the rest of the series sorting through the trauma of being attacked on the street.  Although she seems fine and even jokes about it afterwards, her pain starts to show — from distrusting her male lovers to macing strangers.

In my own experience, I avoided that block for weeks, taking different routes to the gym, all because I didn’t want to be seen or harassed.  

Even as grown women, many of us put in headphones which play zero music before we walk outside, so we can ignore people who yell at us. Who hasn’t turned around and changed an outfit because they didn’t want attention? Only to learn that no matter how you’re dressed, you can’t protect yourself 100 percent.

This is the definition of oppression: “The absence of choices,” as feminist icon bell.hooks described it. 

Does this really have to be the culture in 2017?

As Deidre Davis argues in her research on black women’s experiences, it’s time to define street harassment as actual harm with consequences on victims– not just playful banter that women have to be tough enough to deal with or ignore.

From social media campaigns like #MyNameIsnt to #DontTellMeToSmile, women are reclaiming their right to exist without being sexually objectified, and telling men they won’t tolerate being called out of our names.

This is critically important. Let’s stand with each other and shut down perpetrators when we’re in a position to do so.

Like Nola Darling says at the start of the series, “Sometimes walking the streets as a woman can be brutal.

But if we change the norm, it doesn’t have to be.


Natasha S. Alford is a digital host and Deputy Editor of theGrio.  Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @NatashaSAlford for the latest in news, entertainment, politics and pop culture.