No place for sexism in Occupy

Leela Yellesetty looks at a sexist video causing controversy in the Occupy Wall Street movement--and why women's voices have to be taken seriously.

BY NOW, many people are probably aware of the website and video "Hot Chicks of Occupy Wall Street" and the controversy it has provoked.

The four-minute video, which features a montage of still photos to music, as well as a couple interviews with women speaking passionately about why they are protesting--while the camera distractedly zooms in on lips, tattoos, pierced ears.

Filmmaker Steven Greenstreet explained how the idea came about after seeing so many attractive women in coverage of the protests.

"Our original ideas were admittedly sophomoric: Pics of hot chicks being all protesty, videos of hot chicks beating drums in slow-mo, etc. But when we arrived at Zuccotti Park in New York City, it evolved into something more...It made me want to pack my bags and pitch a tent on Wall Street. And it's in the light that we created this video."

Naturally then, Greenstreet was shocked to find out that some women did not seem to appreciate what his video was doing for the benefit of the movement.

Rebecca Traister summarized some of the problems with the video in a debate on Salon.com:

The larger, simpler argument, outside of consent or permission, is: This video is sexist. It's an example of women participating in public life--political, professional, social--and having their participation reduced to sexual objectification. That's what happened here, nothing more, nothing less.

The notion that dressing in a certain way is an invitation (and presumably that dressing in another way is not) is flawed. There is no way for women to dress (dresses, shorts, jeans, overalls) that is not considered an invitation by someone. When you add in the ways in which women are expected to dress in order to be taken seriously, or liked, or listened to or paid attention to, and then add to that assumptions that the choices that they make equal invitations to be ogled, it leaves women no sartorial freedom.

As if to underscore how little he got these criticisms, Greenstreet responded via Twitter to another female critic: "Hey, I understand you're upset. What do ya say we discuss this over coffee?"

When Feministe writer Jill Filipovic wrote a piece criticizing Greenstreet, he went so far as to dig up pictures of her appearing in a fashion show, commenting, "Oh I see, dressing in a short skirt and showing off your body to leering men is totally cool only when you do it" and "Love how these guys stare as you show off your curves." Filiopvic also discovered a lovely joke about rape on Greenstreet's public Facebook page.

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GREENSTREET MAY be a creep, but plenty of others have suggested that those who criticize the video are a bunch of uptight, humorless feminists, and that this video, by attracting people's attention, will actually draw new people to the movement. In fact, at least one of the women featured in the video wrote in to voice her support for it, as did the mother of another.

There are however, I suspect, many more of us who find it patronizing and demeaning to find that someone interviewing you at a protest is more concerned with what you look like than what you have to say. Or for your voice to be ignored completely because you don't fit someone else's definition of "hot."

Whatever the intentions of the filmmaker or the reactions of individuals, that this video was made in the first place points to the fact that sexism is still very real and pervasive in our society, including within movements for change.

The relentless objectification of women as sex objects has very real consequences in women's lives. Just ask any of the thousands of women who marched in SlutWalks around the globe if there's anything particularly humorous about women's appearance being used as an excuse for sexual assault.

It's also worth pointing out that the Occupy movement has experienced explosive growth on the merits of its actual message--without any help from a "hot chicks" video. Do we seriously want to attract people to come out who are mainly out to ogle attractive women? Or are we better off making the movement a welcoming space for women?

Women, after all, make up a disproportionate majority of the 99 percent--due to being paid on average 75 cents to a man's dollar, and being held responsible for the majority of unpaid labor in the home. On an international scale, the World Bank's most recent World Development Report found that women represent 40 percent of the world's labor force but hold just 1 percent of the wealth. If these issues are not a part of a movement for economic justice, then it's not going to get very far.

So if there is one good thing to come out of this "hot chicks" affair, I hope it will start a real discussion about how to link the struggles against women's oppression and corporate greed. Concretely, this means making the space for women to have a voice and lead in the movement, as well as directly taking on fights against sexism, from victim-blaming to the attack on reproductive rights.

Elisabeth Orr did a lot more to further this process by marching with a Seattle Clinic Defense (SCD) banner at an Occupy Seattle rally recently. As Orr stated:

It made sense to me that Seattle Clinic Defense should take part in Occupy Seattle since SCD was formed out of Walk For Choice, which was a response to the de-funding of Planned Parenthood. So to me it was only natural for SCD to stand with Occupy Seattle.

The reception ranged from a few quizzical looks at our banner to an actual abortion provider thanking us for being there. Once people knew who we were and what we were about they were enthusiastic about out presence and wanted to know how they could be involved.

I saw SCD's involvement with Occupy Seattle as a first step towards branching out into other involvement with fighting inequality and social injustice, which to me, is the root of the feminist and reproductive rights movement itself.