Being catcalled on the street is annoying. It makes you feel exposed and unsafe. But the biggest problem with it is that, like so many forms of sexual harassment, it makes you feel powerless. You can't stop it, you can't confront it without escalating the harassment, and there's no authority to defend you from it. In the past, I've been advised to ignore it, to cross the street, to avoid walking in certain areas without a male escort (including the block outside my apartment), and to laugh at the man in an otherwise empty subway car who decides to show me his penis. All of these strategies have their benefits and their detriments, but mostly what I do is freeze. What I'd really like to do is to transform from a mild-mannered female pedestrian into a superheroine who has the power to make these men shut the fuck up and put their junk away.
This happens to be a common enough desire among women—and if you're tired of hearing about it by now, imagine how tired we are of having it happen—that the Awakenings Foundation Gallery in North Center has curated an entire show devoted to it: "Graphic Relief," a collection of cartoonists' response to catcalling.
"When people read comics," says Liz Moretti, the gallery manager, "they read a story about victims who find a superhero. We wanted to take the experience and showcase it and help women feel validated and give them a sense of agency and the feeling that they're part of a larger community that understands."
Moretti was inspired to create "Graphic Relief" by Trigger Warning: Breakfast, a comic that originally ran on the website the Nib. The anonymous artist recounts how she made breakfast for a man the morning after he raped her. She didn't fight back, and beats herself up about it. Breakfast is a form of justification: "Women do not make their rapists breakfast, and I made breakfast."
This sort of work fits in with the larger mission of Awakenings, which exhibits art about healing, mostly from sexual violence. Moretti sees catcalling as a form of sexual assault, on the same continuum as groping or rape. "When you're catcalled, you're not consenting," she explains. "When there's an assault, no one consents."
Ten artists contributed work to "Graphic Relief." Their pieces range from single-panel comics to excerpts from longer graphic memoirs; one, Céline Loup's You Should Know Where You Come From, is a series of GIFs projected onto the wall so they flash like a porn site.
The artists all have different ways of handling the problem of catcalling. Some are descriptive: Ursa Eyer's three-page strip, Cat Call, Moretti says, "perfectly sums up what it's like to be harassed." Men yell at a woman from all directions—"Hey, baby!" "Hey, sexy!"—but as soon as she lets them know she's not interested, they shout "What a bitch!" An excerpt from Ulli Lust's graphic memoir Today Is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life is a portrait of the artist as a teenage girl traveling alone in Italy. She takes refuge from the constant street harassment in a restaurant but can't help wondering if the waiters would be so kind to her if she'd encountered them outside.
Others, like Chicago artist Isabella Rotman's Not on My Watch, offer prescriptive, step-by-step solutions, both during and after the fact: Rotman calls for rallying what she's named the "Consent Cavalry"—bystanders who can intervene when they see catcalling. Nina Burrowes, a therapist, explains how the brain processes a harassment incident: most responses are fight-or-flight, but, Burrowes notes, "what's good for short-term survival isn't necessarily good for long-term health."
In How to Scare Creepy Dudes Away, Emilie Gleason also offers practical tips for women to make themselves unattractive, since, as we all know, only hot women get catcalled, so it must be a compliment. (Note: this is true only inasmuch as rape is about uncontrollable sexual passion.) These include "Don't be afraid to drool!" and "8-bit yodel music helps." She recommends carrying a mirror and a hammer in the subway to reflect and then whack flashers. "My reaction," Moretti says, "was 'I love this! I'd never be able to do this!' "
The one man in the exhibit, Guy Thomas, submitted several pieces that are also prescriptive. Moretti elected to use just one, How to Be a Good Ally, which reflects Thomas's experience as a man observing women being harassed, as opposed to his pieces advising those women or explaining what harassment is. "I don't want people to feel like they're being told what to feel," Moretti says. "It's part of the curation process."
This is the gallery's first curated group show, and Moretti wanted to include as many experiences as possible. Her one regret is that she received no submission of art that included examples of men being harassed or women doing the harassing. "It can happen to anyone," she says. "It's important to get that sentiment out there." v