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Feminspire | July 12, 2014

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"Stop Telling Women to Smile": Tatyana Fazlalizadeh Confronts Street Harassment Through Art

“Stop Telling Women to Smile”: Tatyana Fazlalizadeh Confronts Street Harassment Through Art

| On 29, Aug 2013

“Stop telling women to smile.” It’s a statement that, out of context (and often in context) elicits offended and even angry reactions.  It is also the name of an art project by Brooklyn artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh. Her pieces, which she puts up in places where street harassment has taken place, speak directly to perpetrators.

The project began in 2012, when the first piece went up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where Fazlalizadeh lives. It has since been spread to Harlem, Philadelphia, Chicago, and D.C., and evolved to include art shows followed by discussion in which participants are encouraged to write their own dialogue on whiteboards. Each of the women pictured on the posters is a real person, interviewed and sketched for the project. Up until now, the interviewees have been black and Latina women of color, most of them friends of the artist. One of her interests is the way intersectionality affects street harassment, and she has stated that she would like to expand this to other groups including Indian, white, and queer women.

Reactions have been largely positive. Eighty percent of women in the United States experience street harassment at some point in their lives, and it isn’t always safe or easy to respond. The posters create a discussion that’s harder to ignore, and for a lot of women, that’s a good thing. Not everyone, however, agrees.

The project first caught my attention because of that disagreement. An image circulating on Tumblr, posted by Fazlalizadeh, showed two posters originally put up in Brooklyn that became an active dialogue, with responses written directly on the work.

The first comments were from men, who wanted to share their reasons for telling women what expression to wear, and their hurt feelings: “It just doesn’t feel nice when you say this to us.” Women responded, and from there it went the way you would expect it to go, ending with orders to “STFU be4 I rip it down,” and a penis drawn over the woman’s mouth. Lewis’s Law doesn’t only apply online. Others have equally failed to understand the point being made.

“I’m a man, I’m supposed to [call out at women]. I mean, I think every man, if they see a woman they feel is attractive, should try to do what they can to acquire this woman.”

“A woman likes nothing more than being told she is beautiful. For me, this is ridiculous.

As a comment responding to that rather broad assumption noted, “Those street compliments are not about making women feel beautiful, they are about making her aware of her place: that her role is as an adornment or an object and not as an autonomous person with her own ideas, feelings or thoughts.” This is exactly what Fazlalizadeh is both pointing out and responding to with her art. Yelling or whistling at a woman on the street like she’s a dog who will come when you call, or telling a woman to “Smile. It can’t be that bad. You’d be so much prettier if you smiled,” dehumanizes her. It reduces her purpose to pleasing the male gaze. The posters, answering that reduction with confrontation, are meant to show street harassers that they are not entitled to women’s smiles or any other part of them.

Recently, Fazlalizadeh has expanded the project. Shirts bearing the words “Stop telling women to smile,” and “Sexy & Baby & Cutie & Honey is not my name,” are for sale on her website, along with prints of three of her designs. For anyone interested in participating, she also sends out posters, five to a tube, for the cost of shipping. Her hope is that the women putting up the posters will record their experiences and the responses to the posters so she can continue to expand her work.

Written by Madison Carlson

  • Lexie

    Wow, I can’t believe those 2 statements made by men at the bottom… Damn. :(