Once upon a time, if a man felt compelled to address a woman who happened to be walking by, he would tip his hat and bid her a good morning, afternoon or evening, depending on the time of day, of course. There was a certain level of courteous, appreciative respect between men and women passing on the street that had been established on a fundamental social level for generations. Mainly because of the advances and achievements of women’s rights movements, these almost rigid displays of social refinement have since waned, right along with nickel sodas and penny candies.
But just because we have struggled to establish an equal presence within the workplace and earned the right to vote doesn’t mean women need you to remind them to smile. In fact, insisting a woman acknowledge your presence as she walks to the subway is not only a sure-fire way to convince her to ignore you, but it also calls attention to the state of your inter-personal skills. This person, whose figure you’ve insisted on commenting upon, is a human being. She is someone’s daughter, may be someone’s mother, sister or aunt. And while everyone loves a genuine compliment, unsolicited street harassment is a real thing.
Well, gentlemen: If society has grown to the point where you are unfamiliar with where the line between a compliment and harassment lies, artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh has created an excellent opportunity—and some provocative visual aides—to help clear a few things up for you. Saturday night, Fazlalizadeh will host a pop-up show, artist talk and group discussion on Stop Telling Women to Smile, her collection of anti-street harassment posters, and an examination of the subjects they explore. The work of local feminist activist group Pussy Division will also be exhibited. Here’s PW’s chat with Fazlalizadeh about the impetus behind the project:
Tell us about Stop Telling Women to Smile.
Stop Telling Women to Smile is a public art series addressing gender-based street harassment. The series features drawn portraits of women with captions that speak directly to offenders. The work is pasted outside, in the public space, to stand as a presence and an advocate for women who experience street harassment.
What inspired you to approach the topic this way?
I was inspired to do this work by my own personal experiences with street harassment. I’d been considering how to address the issue in my paintings as I’m primarily an oil painter. Last year I was in the middle of doing a large scale mural project in Philadelphia, and it gave me inspiration to create a series about street harassment in the public space instead of as a painting in my studio. The topic is something I’ve always wanted to work on because it’s something that’s been blatant in my everyday life for years now.
I grew up in an artistic household—my mother is an artist—but, I didn’t start practicing art myself until high school. Then I moved to Philadelphia to attend the University of the Arts. That’s where I began oil painting, which is now my primary medium. I studied illustration and have been a freelance illustrator since school. Because I work in a traditional manner, my work also lends itself to galleries. So, I also exhibit my paintings.
When did you first realize the social impact you could have with your art?
In the past, I’ve had people tell me that a painting of mine has emotionally touched them or made an impact in some way on them personally. I’m always amazed when that happens. I’ve received similar responses from people concerning this work, but in much larger numbers. This is the first work I’ve created where I’ve really felt like I’m making some type of a larger social impact. Even if it’s just contributing to the spark of national conversation about this issue.
Have you been able to gauge a response, positive or negative, to the way you’ve tackled harassment as an artistic subject?
The thing about this project is that while the site of the work is outdoors, it quickly moves online. So most of the responses I’ve seen have been on the Internet. I get a lot of emails and messages from women who appreciate the work. They tell me their own personal stories of harassment and explain how the work relates to them. While that happens, there are also those who look at the work negatively. I believe that when women speak up—taking agency over how they are approached or treated—there is backlash.
What do you suggest for men who want to speak to a woman whose previous attempts at communication have failed?
Be socially literate, and speak to women in a generally kind, gender-neutral way. “Nice butt” is not a compliment. “Nice shoes” is. If she’s wearing headphones, reading a book, obviously in a rush, do not interrupt her to ask her on a date. All of these are social cues that should be obvious. But I think the main thing is for men to be aware of and considerate of the treatment that women experience outside. If you acknowledge the pervasiveness of comments, leering and harassment that women receive, it will influence the way you approach women in public spaces.
Sat., Sept. 28. 6-9pm. 3rd Ward, 1227 N. 4th St. philly.3rdward.com