It was the first chilly night in Ann Arbor since term had started. I was walking down State Street with a friend — the plans of watching a movie on the horizon to escape the stressful realities of our lives. While we were walking, the brisk October air at our heels, we noticed a man coming toward us. I couldn’t tell you what he looked like, and yet this article wouldn’t be possible without his gaze.
Face buried in a book, he quickly glances up to realize he is on a track to collide with us, but he looks back down at his book almost as if he hadn’t quite rationalized what he saw. He takes a few more steps toward us, only to finally catch up with what he saw, and looks up again, only this time, his mouth is gaping open.
He is quickly behind us — my friend and I begin to laugh. Sure, we are all guilty of staring, but this was almost visceral. We spent the next several minutes arguing that the gaper was in fact gaping at the other one. Giggling like high school girls, the uncomfortable moment was soon behind us.
I think the first time that I became acutely aware of my gender was earlier this year. I had flown across the Atlantic and spent six weeks of the summer in France. It was on the dimly-lit cobblestone streets of Europe that I began to be conscious that I am a woman.
I have always identified as female. However, the actual weight and composition of what it means to be a woman, at least for me, wasn’t a daily thought. It was a fact as arbitrary as the clothes I wear — an afterthought.
This began to change in France. There, my gender became an identifier that I could never seem to leave the house without. It was in France that I began to notice the cars slow down as the men inside checked me out. My resting face was interpreted as an invitation to conversation. My polite, “excuse-moi” was now an opening. It was as though I was plagued by my own gender, unable to shake it off. There is a strong notion that European countries have won critical social battles, leaving the United States behind. While several important social victories have taken place within French borders, there is still significant work to be done in regard to gender equality. There is a sexism ingrained in the very fibers of the culture — it is in these nuances that sexism proliferates.
Before leaving for study abroad, women are often advised to be alert to these cultural differences. These small things like catcalling — that at times may be deemed negligible — are so commonplace that it is difficult to eradicate them making the problem of gender equality harder to answer.
Yet, despite being aware of these potential moments, I was not necessarily prepared to accept them. I still shuddered when the older French man leaned into me and whispered in my ear, “Vous-etes merveilleuse,” or “You are magnificent,” as if I were a specimen to be admired. I could hear his voice carry throughout my body. A whisper in an ear is not the worst thing that most women experience, but establishing a hierarchy of grievances only stands to divide us.
Prior to studying abroad, when I would walk in the U.S. — where there is still notable gender inequality — I would walk like a person whose gender is an afterthought — only a part of my identity, not the entirety of it. However, in France, I felt as though my gender was the first thing people noticed. It wasn’t always the overt catcalling that reminded me that I was a woman, but rather always feeling under someone’s gaze. At times it was rather unsettling to walk to class just to have someone peer at me from head to toe.
I don’t think this is a problem exclusive to France, nor to the greater European Union. Gender equality is a battle that has been underway for several decades and its successes or failures are manifested in various ways across the world. France has several initiatives in order to combat things like catcalling. There are posters everywhere on the trains ensuring that harassment is prohibited. There are even laws that attempt to penalize those who catcall women. Such incentives are important for moving forward, but they are not an end all be all solution.
So as I walked down State Street, the gaze brought me back to this struggle of being aware of my gender. What I believe lay dormant in the U.S. was in fact still active. A sensation I thought would stay within the confines of study abroad managed to permeate to my daily life. Maybe a gaping man is innocent, but it is not the man itself that is unsettling, it is that the gape reduces you to nothing more than the exploitation of your gender. Your sexuality is taken without your consent and objectified. A woman walking down the becomes an object for admiration, not a person.