Rockwell’s painting “The Flirts” should be titled “The Harassers”

From NPR

Anyone who believes street harassment is a recent occurrence can check out this Norman Rockwell painting “The Flirts” from 1941.

The photo caption, in part, reads:

“Owner Steven Spielberg comments that the men’s glances are ‘totally innocent, completely moral,’ and ‘at the same time, just naughty enough’ that you know they aren’t ‘total squares.'”

Wow. Spielberg and I have different definitions of “innocent” and “moral.” I guess reading hundreds of women’s stories about how much they hate street harassment and studies that show how much it impedes their mobility and comfort in public has left me with zero tolerance for ANY street harassment. Where he sees innocence, I see men purposefully, or at least uncaring-ly, making a woman feel uncomfortable. Where he sees morality, I see male bonding at the expense of a woman.

He also rates them on their performance of masculinity. They’re red-blooded men, a little bit naughty, not squares, so of course they’re going to leer at a woman! Am I right? It’s all in good fun… for the men, that is. Not for women who simply want to go about their day and are barraged by harassing men leering, catcalling, whistling, honking, stalking, and groping them. We are human beings, not objects to ogle and rate!

This painting is part of a new exhibit called, “Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg” launching this month at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.

To celebrate the exhibit launch, NPR talked with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg and their collections. I’m horrified by quotes from the radio show regarding the above painting, which I think clearly depicts gender-based street harassment.

“Another Rockwell painting is also movielike. In the 1941 Saturday Evening Post magazine cover The Flirts, a pretty blond in a convertible waits at a stoplight. Next to her, hanging out of the window of an immense turquoise truck, a beefy driver picks the petals off a daisy as if to say, “she loves me, she loves me not.”

“He looks at her with a nice smile on his face,” says “Telling Stories” curator Virginia Mecklenburg. “He’s not leery. He’s just being a guy.”

But the pretty blond stares snootily straight ahead and won’t give the driver the time of day. It’s funny in a gentle way ā€” a Rockwell way.

The scene is reminiscent of something out of Lucas’ 1973 film American Graffiti ā€” although the painting is part of Spielberg’s Rockwell collection.

“That certainly could be Richard Dreyfuss looking at Suzanne Somers down there ā€” although she didn’t have a convertible,” he says.

Wow. I have several immediate responses to this discussion.

1. Insulting to men: It is insulting to men to say that the harassers are “just being guys.” Respectful men do not lean out of vehicle windows to leer (I disagree with Ms. Mecklenburg and say that is definite leering) at women in the car next to them. There’s nothing wrong with looking for a second or two at someone nearby, but there is something presumptuous and disrespectful about invading a person’s space by having a laugh with your buddy and pulling off daisy petals in a “she loves me, she loves me not” way while staring at her when she clearly doesn’t want to be bothered.

2. The snooty argument: Calling her “snooty” because she doesn’t want to engage with her harasser is old. How many women have been called “bitch,” “ugly,” “stuck up,” “racist,” and so forth just because they refused to engage in dialogue with a harasser or act thankful over his “compliment?” We are not snooty, we just want to be treated respectfully. I guess in a patriarchal society those mean the same thing.

3. Responses to harassers: If she did respond in a “positive” way to the harassers, would they have increased their attention? Would she be considered a woman with “loose morals” for flirting with strangers in public? I guess she’d still be “snooty” if she had demanded they treat her with respect. Women are damned if they do, damned if they don’t when it comes to dealing with street harassers.

4. What she’s really thinking: How many times have we as women been in the same position as the woman in the painting? Sitting or standing there thinking to ourselves, “Please let the light change…act like you don’t hear them… I wonder if they will follow me? Where is the closest police station I can drive/run to if they do?” We don’t know what men who harass intend to do and so being harassed can be scary, no matter how “innocent” it seems. Especially for rape survivors.

5. Class: This painting emphasizes the stereotype that street harassment is only instigated by lower/working class men toward beautiful, well-dressed women. There are men of all races and classes who harass women, so stereotyping is inaccurate and impedes finding a solution to ending street harassment if it’s dismissed as a class issue. There are women of all appearances, backgrounds, and classes that men harass. In fact, women without cars tend to get harassed the most because they must rely on foot, bike, or public transportation to get around and encounter many more men than someone in a car might and they can be seen as more vulnerable than someone in a car.

6. Humor: I see none. It’s not funny to me that “lower class” men are daring to harass a wealthier woman. I see, hear about, and even experience it (i have class privilege) often. No matter the class, women are still “less” than men, so men of any class can feel free to harass women of any class. And they do – men of all classes harass women of all classes. Where’s the humor? Also, the scene in the painting is not funny for the woman and for me as a woman, it’s not funny to look at her discomfort.

7. American Graffiti reference: Suzanne Somers did not appear to dislike the attention of Richard Dreyfuss. This woman does. It’s been a while since I’ve seen American Graffiti but I don’t remember Dreyfuss’s character acting disrespectful (correct me if I’m wrong). The context for their encounter was different. All of the teenagers in town drove around and tried to find their friends and find someone to hook up with. In contrast, in this scene it’s daytime and the men are on the job and she is heading somewhere and does not want to be bothered. Why is it so hard for people to understand the difference between mutual flirting and men straight up disrespectfully harassing women who want to be left alone?!

I shouldn’t be surprised about the dialogue around this painting of gender-based street harassment when it seems like most people dismiss such harassment as harmless, but I’m still sitting here seething!!

What are your thoughts?

(Also, a big thanks to my wonderful partner who heard this story and immediately recognized it as street harassment and called me up to tell me to check it out.)

4 Responses to Rockwell’s painting “The Flirts” should be titled “The Harassers”

  1. b says:

    Holla back at Norman Rockwell!!!

  2. Alan says:

    I would submit your comments to NPR, they read listener letters each week, often on the air. Your thoughtful, articulate comments may well be selected for this and provide national exposure for this important topic!!

  3. Mark says:

    What gets me is the two women (both the NPR speaker and someone she interviewed) seem to think the harassent is cute. You’d think those two would know better. I guess it just shows you how some women who grew up in the 40-60’s era seem to have really received quite the brainwashing on what constitutes harmless fun. Had those guys been black in 1941, would the teasing still have been ok? No. Then why is it when a couple of white guys do it, there isn’t an issue…

  4. Golden Silence says:

    Had those guys been black in 1941, would the teasing still have been ok?

    Good point! Had the men in the photo been Black, you know people would’ve been up in arms. That double standard is sickening.

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