This incredible art project is helping to tackle street harassment
On a side street in Brooklyn, the giant face of a woman looms over her surroundings. Covering the whole height of the building, she stares down, dignified and unflinching. Next to her is a simple message delivered in block capitals: “DO THE WORK TO UNLEARN YOUR SEXISM”. Her's is just one of hundreds of posters around the city and beyond, each featuring a real woman, each with a message reflecting her experience of street harassment: “You can keep your thoughts on my body to yourself”, or “Not your exotic fantasy”, and “I am not outside for your entertainment."
The posters are part of a street art project, Stop Telling Women To Smile, which targets gender-based street harassment by allowing women to talk back to their abusers in a very public way. It was kickstarted in 2012, when Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, a New York-based artist, glued one poster to one wall in Brooklyn: “I started [the project] because I wanted to talk about my experiences with street harassment. It was my way of speaking back to my harassers,” she explained of the self-portrait adorned with the caption that would later become the project’s name.
In order to create her illustrations, Fazlalizadeh sits down and talks with women who have experienced street harassment - and there’s a pretty big pool to choose from, given that up to 85 per cent of American women and 90 per cent of British women say that they have experienced some kind of unwanted sexual attention in public by the time they are aged 17. After asking them what they would say to the people that harass them, she shoots their picture, draws their portrait and attaches the all-important message, which is sometimes a direct quote, sometimes inspired by the conversation.
Usually pasting her creations in an area where the woman in question lives or has been harassed, the posters are unapologetically bold and intentionally public: “I thought it was important to talk about street harassment where it actually happens, in the environment. I put it outside in the street so I’m putting a face to these words. It’s not just ‘hey street harassment is bad’, you actually get to see this person’s face, this woman’s face who goes through this daily, and what she wants to say about it.”
Five years after its inception, the project has extended to other cities across America including Chicago and Boston, as a result of a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign which saw the artist raise over $34,500. It has even reached beyond US borders, with visits to Paris and Mexico City to tell the stories of women in these locations. While still predominantly focused on women, it has grown to cover the experiences of transgender, queer and disabled individuals too, as well as discussing wider expectations of what it means to be "American".
Stop Telling Women To Smile has not been without some controversy, however. Many of the posters have been vandalised; defaced with penises, scrawled with messages such as "#deathtofeminism" or “Men Too”, or torn down completely. This is not unexpected or surprising - let’s be honest, none of these are exactly witty or new - because those who do speak out against sexual harassment are often met with criticism from those who perpetrate or tolerate such actions.
Fortunately, Fazlalizadeh has little time for these attitudes: “Most of the backlash does not come in the form of critical analysis of how this work can be better. It comes in the form of people calling me a man-hater and drawing d*cks on the faces of the posters. When people deface these pieces with gendered insults and phallic imagery, it’s only reinforcing the point of the work - abuse against women - thereby fuelling the cause,” she said on the project’s official Tumblr blog.
Others have also expressed discomfort with the fact that a key feature of the project is that it heavily features black women and, by extension of the placing of the posters, has been seen as critical and criminalising of black men. Writing again on Tumblr, Fazlalizadeh remained defiant, explaining that the reasons behind this are feminist - about giving a voice to black women - rather than racial:
“As a black woman who runs this project, I have a particular view on this. The truth is that I am mostly harassed by black and brown men ... To think that black men are the only ones who participate in this is ridiculous. But they do participate. And here’s what happens when black women say that we receive harassment from black men: we’re accused of betraying the race and contributing to a society that already criminalises black men. Surely black women can talk about how black men are criminalised in many ways in society while also being honest about our own reality?"
With an ever-growing following, Stop Telling Women To Smile now has a small army of volunteers and partner projects to collaborate with. And major media networks are getting in on the act too. In November 2015, Netflix created their own version, where women from around the world upload photos of themselves to the project’s website, each with their own “My Name Isn’t” message reflecting the catcalls they’ve received in the street; the gallery features everything from “My Name Isn’t 'B*tch'” to “My Name Isn’t 'Big Girl'”.
No matter the controversy of the project, its following and support only serves to highlight that there is truth to it: how often do guys get told to “give us a smile” in the street? It might seem like a small, innocuous comment, especially compared to some of the more “choice” catcalls or rape threats, but it’s ultimately about the ownership of actions and of bodies. As Fazlalizadeh puts it in the online caption to the UNLEARN YOUR SEXISM illustration: “Choose to see women as subjects, not as objects”.