Yesterday I was in a bar in a British university city. Craft beers, food not served on plates, wonkily-typeset menus with obsessive levels of detail about the coffee beans they use, you know the sort of place. (That bar is no doubt currently telling a friend “Beard, waistcoat, Mary McCarthy novel in the pocket of a thrift-store tweed jacket, you know the sort of customer…”) It was early evening and quiet, which meant I could hear the conversations going on at the bar, instead of the background hum I’d been hoping for. A young woman came in and was greeted with enthusiasm by the barman.
“Hey! You’re wearing the same jacket you had on this morning!” She looked slightly surprised and he continued “You walked past the window this morning like you always do, and I was going to run after you down the street and say how good that jacket is. You look good in it!” She thanked him and made some comment about the Spring weather, then asked for a coffee to go. As he made it she asked about the beans (clearly the menu hadn’t satisfied her thirst for knowledge) and then paid and left.
“People are funny,” the barman declared to a friend sitting nearby, “That girl has been coming in here for months, and she never really opens up or has a proper conversation. I don’t know why people aren’t friendly.”
A fairly commonplace exchange, but later it made me think about the ways in which that conversation might have sounded different to men and women. To me it just seemed a slightly ineffective attempt by the barman to claim her as a regular at the bar, and a bid to while away his time chatting to customers. He probably thought he was making her feel at home; the “Cheers” touch, where everybody knows your name or at least your coffee order, etc.
But I think it also reveals a certain amount about how men feel entitled to women’s attention, and how they feel it’s appropriate to express that. First of all, I’d risk a small wager that if I had been the regular coffee-orderer, my lack of eagerness to chat wouldn’t have prompted a complaint. Men don’t tend to feel I owe them conversation as part of a general “people are friendly” attitude to life; or if they do, I don’t know about it because they don’t feel entitled to express grievance if I don’t chat to them. I strongly suspect that women, particularly young women, are expected to shoulder the burden of keeping the world “friendly” by talking to men they don’t know.
It’s also telling that the neutral subject he picked on to open a conversation was her physical appearance. Not the weather, or the game tomorrow, but what she was wearing. There’s a remarkable touch of entitlement in assuming that a woman’s clothing and whether you think she looks good is a casual fact to be remarked upon. It’s a reminder that women in our culture are assumed to be on show when going about their daily lives, that they are there to be looked at and remarked upon. To use a bit of critical jargon, his opening gambit asserted the male gaze, setting her up as an object to be scrutinised and evaluated even as he claimed to be addressing her as a speaking subject.
More than that, the way in which he expressed his interest in talking to her might well have rung alarm bells, if only momentarily. “You’re wearing the same jacket you had on this morning!” was no doubt intended to convey “We already know each other, and we’re part of the same neighbourhood, so you should feel comfortable chatting with me!” But it could very easily be heard as “I’ve been watching you.” There doesn’t need to be any unpleasant incident in her past to make a woman tense at those words, but enough women have had distressing experiences with men stalking them to make it a thoughtless opening comment. Especially as he went on to refer to the fact that earlier he saw her whilst she didn’t see him, and added that he knows part of her route to work and her morning routine.
This probably sounds, particularly to some of my male readers, as if I’m putting the most sinister interpretation possible on those words. But it’s worth pausing to think about why it’s even possible to read (or twist) his friendly opening remarks as the statement of a potential stalker. He didn’t mean them that way, but telling a woman that you were watching her earlier, and thought about chasing after her, could easily sound a bit threatening. They can sound both innocuous to the speaker and momentarily sinister to the listener because our culture continually blurs the lines between romance and male abuse.
How many romantic films and books involve a man pursuing a woman after he’s been turned down? How often is obsession and the desire to possess presented as evidence of true love? Heathcliff and Edward Cullen are only the extreme examples of an entire cultural attitude. Men spying on women and refusing to take no for an answer is part of the language of romantic love that our society endorses. The line between “charming” and “stalker” is difficult for women to discern because our culture seems to spend a lot of energy denying it exists. (And insisting that women are unfriendly, or worse, if they don’t put the most generous interpretation on a man’s actions and gestures…until he does something appalling and then they shouldn’t have encouraged him.)
As I say, I no doubt sound as if I’m entirely twisting this guy’s words, and holding up his innocent attempt at friendliness as a terrible crime. But my point is that this wasn’t an overtly unpleasant or threatening exchange, and that it didn’t need to be in order to make the young woman feel uncomfortable. It was just an everyday moment in which a man felt entitled to a woman’s attention, started a conversation by telling her about what she was wearing on her way to work, and then complained to his friend when she didn’t want to chat. His very lack of malign intent is part of the problem: he didn’t need to be a bad guy in order to treat her in a sexist way or to sound vaguely like a stalker. As men, we need to be aware that we’re living in a sexist society, in which women legitimately feel uncomfortable in what seem to us innocuous situations. And we need to recognise it as a problem with us, not with them.