You hear it all the time. Hey baby, smile for me a little bit. Why are you so upset? Come on I know how to make you feel better. Some women decide to respond to the constant teasing, cat-calling and harassment with a cold shoulder. Brooklyn based artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh took her resistance to the streets. Her project “Stop Telling Women to Smile” places portraits of women, defiant and impactful, in the very spaces where strangers have hounded her. The real power of Fazlalizadeh’s work, however, is not in reliving those moments of fear, but in allowing women to fight back.
The Daily Beast: “Stop Telling Women to Smile” developed from your experiences with street harassment, and has grown into a larger commentary on how women are treated and expected to act in the public spaces they occupy. You’ve lived in many settings—you grew up in Oklahoma, lived most of your life in Philly, and just recently moved to Bed-Stuy, where you began this art project. Why did you conceptualize this as a public art piece and how were you informed by the various public spaces you have lived in?
Tatyana Fazlalizadeh: I am primarily an oil painter, but for the past couple of years I worked on a large mural project that allowed me to interact more with the public space. Street harassment is something I have wanted to work on for a while, and I toyed around with sketches and ideas for oil paintings, but it didn’t come out the way I wanted to until I took it outside. But that’s just the site of it; the actual work involved talking to women about their experiences with street harassment and then drawing their portraits. I put them up in Bed-Stuy because that is where I live and spend most of my time. It is an excuse for me to ride my bike around Brooklyn at night to put these up. But I have ventured this project out to Chicago, Harlem, Philadelphia and D.C. I can remember even when driving my car in Oklahoma, being approached and harassed by men. I wasn’t aware it was street harassment; I didn’t even start using the term ‘street harassment’ until a year ago. Before it was just men trying to holler at me.
How did you come to embrace the term?
I discovered a whole street harassment movement happening on line—Hollaback!, StopStreetHarrasment.org. All these different forums for anti-street-harassment movements online informed me about women’s experiences and brought that term into my vocabulary.
(CLICK BELOW TO SEE MORE IMAGES FROM THE PROJECT)
Your work starts from the issue of street harassment, yet the tone of the phrases you choose point to the fact that women don’t need to be sensible to men’s needs. They do not need to appease or seem agreeable to anyone, both on the street and in personal relationships.
That's especially true for the “smile” comment. That piece in particular has received a lot of backlash. A lot of people don’t understand why women would have a scowl or a neutral facial expression. Women are looked at as needing to have this kind of emotional response, to always be happy, always be nice, and caring, and pretty, and lovely. You have to be dainty and poised and have a pleasant demeanor. It is put on us as our responsibility. Many people feel entitled to women’s emotions or expressions, particularly in the public space. Men often tell a woman to smile or initiate a conversation with a woman without her wanting to respond. She doesn’t owe you anything; she can move around the world however she wants to without having to feel like she has some responsibility to give something to someone else, to a stranger. While that definitely happens on the street, these posters and their sayings can shift into a lot of other contexts and situations.
How do you find the women you interview and feature?
Most of the women that I have interviewed so far have been women that I know, my friends and my colleagues. For many of them, I know they have had these experiences, so I want to hear more about what they have gone through. I am also looking at who they are, what they look like. I try to choose a variety of women to portray in these portraits. Not all of them live in my community. The last woman I interviewed was my friend who lives near Sunset Park in Brooklyn. She is half Guatemalan and half Mexican and lives in a Dominican neighborhood. Her situation is very different from where I live and my background, what I look like, what my face looks like, what I experience. I try to pick many experiences and perspectives, but they are all women that I personally know and have asked to participate.
Let’s talk more about how race affects women’s experiences in public spaces.
How race connects with street harassment is something I think about a lot. I started this project using images of women of color for the posters because most of my work portrays people of color. A lot of my work has been around identity and telling the stories and experiences of people that look like me. So, I wanted to insert these images of women of color to allow our experiences and voices to be heard in a feminist conversation. But now that this project has gotten some attention and I'm getting stories and emails from women all across the world, I'm realizing how complex race is when it comes to street harassment.
I think when we talk about street harassment we're talking about a type of power and privilege that's being exerted over women in public spaces. And whenever we talk about any type of oppression or privilege, there's always the other types of oppression or privilege that come in to play. That includes race, sexuality, class, gender, etc. How do queer women experience street harassment, how do trans women experience it? As the project is growing, this is all stuff that I'm trying to be more aware of and articulate in the work.
It plays a huge part in what women experience outside. Another Mexican friend told me that sometimes a group of guys who clearly don’t speak Spanish will come up to her and try to speak some Spanish words to her in order to impress her or whatever. That is a way that her race and ethnicity directs her own experience of street harassment. What you look like and who you are will be reflected in the way that some men approach you. Women are generally made out to be sexual beings and therefore deserving a sexual approach whenever we walk by; we are a sexual thing out there for men’s consumption. While that affects most women across the board, I also known that as a black woman, we are hypersexualized in the media and society in general. For me, as a black woman, I am made to be this kind of really exotic sexual thing—or even creature. That perception affects the ways that I interact in public spaces with men of all colors. That is an important part of the project—trying to find out what other women experience. I want to know how Indian women treated, how white women are treated, how their race is perceived in society and how that affects others’ treatments when they are outside.
This project has, for good reasons, received a lot of attention. What has surprising you most about the responses you have received?
The most surprising thing has been just how extreme the responses are. People either feel they love and support this or they hate it and can’t understand how I could do this. I get a lot of emails from women telling me their stories, saying thank you for this project and telling me what they have experienced. I get a lot of long emails, and I really appreciate women opening up to me. This project elicits such strong emotions from people. As a woman I can relate because I am also passionate about this and understand how upsetting it can be. At the same time I am getting responses from guys telling me that I am being stuck up, that its not that big of a deal, to get over it, to take it as a compliment, and all these other condescending things. When you have women tell their experiences, to say “This is what I go through. I don’t like it. I don’t want to go through this,” few people actually engage in a conversation like we are right now. Instead there is a bunch of defensiveness and accusations. Whenever women speak up for themselves there are always people that try to shut them down. It’s very frustrating for someone to tell you that what you experience is not valid. Especially when people say it’s “just a compliment.” I am an adult and I have been interacting with human beings all of my life. I know what a compliment is and I know what a compliment isn’t.
So, what’s next?
I am actually starting to take this project to the next level. A lot of women have asked to purchase a piece and put them up in their own city. A couple weeks ago I opened it up for women to do this. They pay me for the shipping and handling and I send them a piece and some information on wheat pasting. So I am now looking at the project as more participatory. It’s not just mine any more, not just me in Bed-Stuy. It’s women around the world who are all doing this in their neighborhoods. I just shipped out the first posters a few days ago so we will see how it goes. I’d like women to document these and share pictures and reactions. I also want to create these portraits in different cities and interview women there and create new works specific to their cities.
It would be great to do it in different languages as well.
Absolutely—different languages, different communities. I would like to travel internationally with this. I think it would be more impactful and powerful if I have women enacting this in their own communities. I am looking for funding now, maybe staring a Kickstarter or partnering with Hollaback!. I think it has a lot potential and I think that traveling with it is the next step.