Berman: The viral truth about catcalls and compliments

Laura Berman
The Detroit News

The video captures aspiring actress Shoshana Roberts in a T-shirt, jeans and sneakers on a long stroll through Manhattan.

Rob Bliss was looking for a woman willing to walk the streets of New York.

Nothing improper: Bliss, who has staged several events in his Grand Rapids hometown, wanted to show what a reasonably average young woman experiences on an extended walk through the streets in broad daylight.

Two days ago, he, and nonprofit partner Hollaback! — an advocacy group — let their video loose on the Internet. It captures aspiring actress Shoshana Roberts in a T-shirt, jeans and sneakers on a long stroll through Manhattan. The camera — unseen but strapped to a backpack worn by Bliss, five to 10 feet ahead of her — doesn't aim for anything remarkable.

As Roberts walks, her eyes straight ahead, you hear a long string of comments and greetings from strangers, all of them men.

"Hey baby." "Hey beautiful." "A thousand dollars." Over 10 hours, Bliss caught 108 catcalls and unsolicited comments. New York, he points out, is not a particularly friendly place. "When a guy says, 'How's your day going?' he doesn't really care. There's something else going on.' "

Bliss, inspired by his girlfriend's complaints about being harassed on the streets, asked Roberts to try to keep her emotions and presence neutral. Her eyes stay focused ahead. She doesn't react to the comments, even when followed. It's her disinterested stance that makes the one-minute-or-so video especially arresting.


Almost instantly, it triggered a wave of clicking and viewing in the way that real life — or what feels real — now does online. Within 48 hours, it's been seen seven million times, eliciting a profound Mars and Venus gender split. "You won't believe how many times this woman gets harassed in 10 hours," is the way Hollaback pitches the video.

But comments from many male viewers are defensive and even hostile.

"A lot of guys don't understand what the big deal is," Bliss, 26, told me from Chicago, where he now lives. That's because one "hey baby" may not be a big deal. Ten hours of invaded personal space, compressed and delivered by a disparate crew of male strangers smirking, smiling, winking, hooting and even following the actress conveys an inarguable dollop of reality.

"When it's comment after comment, it really grinds on someone in a way that you have to see over time," he said. Bliss, who orchestrated a briefly-famous Grand Rapids video two years ago, sought out Hollaback — an advocacy group trying to end street harassment — to co-sponsor the effort. (The group's website describes harassment as a way to "silence our voices and keep us in our place." )

Bliss, who created spectacle and controversy in Grand Rapids (he owes the city money for a spectacle or two), says he walked about 20 miles with actress Roberts in August, all in one day. The actress and Bliss volunteered their time, documenting the emotional toll of remarks masked as "compliments," or as one of the "you're beautiful" guys in the video instructs: "You should say thank you more."