Fighting Bodies, Fighting Apps: Carceral Feminism and Digital Capture

Beth Capper and Michael Litwack


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Since 2005, the feminist organization Hollaback! has called upon women to use mobile technologies such as smartphones as a defense against catcalling and other ubiquitous forms of gender-based harassment and violence. By capturing images of the men who harass them, they argue, women are able to talk back to their aggressors. This mixed metaphor—the implied equivalence between snapping shots and speaking, between the digital photograph and the verbal “holla”—signals the strange attachments and ambitions that attend networked devices and their expressive capacities. Indeed, the suggestion that such media can “holla” is itself an apt reminder that digital technologies are all about chatter. Moreover, the circuit of address—of call and response—exhorted by this linguistic metaphor implies that these technologies simply speak for themselves rather than function as ineluctably social platforms through which knowledge is produced, transmitted, and interpreted. Although feminist movements against street harassment are nothing new, their augmentation via digital media platforms significantly renews and recalibrates long-standing feminist contestations over the gendered politics of violence, safety, and counter/surveillance. In the case of Hollaback!, the revival of a particular vision of anti-violence feminism through camera phones, photoblogs, and, more recently, locative media and data visualization applications seeks to accomplish what Wendy Hui Kyong Chun has suggested all new media have aimed to do: “make old theories, dreams, and structures new again.”[1]

One of the dreams that Hollaback! makes new again rests in the map it drafts of feminism and the subject of sexual violence. In this article, we build on a range of public intellectuals and community organizers’ critical interventions into Hollaback!’s troubling alignment with racial state surveillance and punitive regimes in order to address how the movement articulates these practices to its imagination of new media technologies. Specifically, we examine how Hollaback!’s carceral imperative emerges, in part, through the very ways in which the movement invites users to interface with mobile media. This article thus considers the formal affordances and medial-specific ideologies that suture Hollaback!’s aspiration to digitally map urban geographies to a racially-adjudicated mapping of female corporeal space. In other words, we foreground how Hollaback!’s rhetorics of counter-surveillance and exposure rehearse a conception of gendered bodily space inextricable from the co-articulation of whiteness and privacy. First, we probe the topographical proximities between dominant discourses of technological surveillance and discourses of sexual violence, attending to the racialized formations of gendered “interiority” that provide their historical and contemporary meeting place. Second, we trace the outline of Hollaback!’s mediatic rhetorics from the camera phone to its GPS mapping app, focusing on the movement’s multilayered—sometimes incommensurate— constructions of privacy and publicity, property and personhood, safety and injury. Whereas the mobile phone camera seeks to mobilize a putatively immobilized subject through technological prophylaxis, the network aesthetics of the aggregate map alternatively recast urban space as a totalized, unnavigable, and ultimately unreadable terrain of gendered harassment. While these two narratives and the mobile device features that support them may seem opposed, we assert that the competing affective sensations they activate work in tandem to confer upon emergent technologies an ameliorative power against the threat of gendered street harassment. By bringing feminist theories of violence and publicity to bear on questions of surveillance that have most recently re-emerged within the field of new media studies, we chart how Hollaback! braids together racially gendered conceptions of physical, digital, and corporeal spatialities. In so doing, we argue that such imaginations thrive on the simultaneous recuperation and revision of long-standing narrations of privacy, media technology, and gendered racialization.

Feminist Counter-Surveillance Practices and the Carceral State

Street harassment is a technique of surveillance that regulates a gendered visual and spatial economy of looking relations through force. This argument is elaborated in a promotional public service announcement on the Hollaback! website, where Executive Director Emily May discusses the specific role of camera phones in responding to street harassment. “We wanted to take the focus off the woman and onto the harasser,” she proclaims. “We wanted to turn that lens because when you are being harassed the lens is on you. We wanted to turn it back around and put it onto them.”[2] Here, May rightly underlines that street harassment is itself a surveillant practice. It participates in a calculus of visibility founded on the repression of scopic agency and of bi-directionality—in short, of “you” hollering back. Against this structure of surveillant vision, May leverages the camera phone as both protective shield and weapon. She urges a recognition that the camera phone’s circuits of visibility and mobility provide an opportunity to combat the exposure to threat with the threat of exposure. In the final instance, mobile technologies are recast as feminist counter-surveillance technologies.

However, the distinction between surveillance and counter-surveillance—and their respective targets—proved not as clear as May’s apostrophe “you” would imply. Upon the inception of Hollaback!’s photoblog, a crowd-sourced platform on which images of individual harassers are uploaded, archived, and shared, some feminist cultural workers expressed concern over the political vocabularies of the web-based platform and the institutional itineraries of the information it gathers. While the photoblog would seem to inhabit a well-worn repertoire of feminist and queer movement tactics for responding to violence, such as public shaming and street patrols, these critics observed a nefarious incorporation of these tactics into a “culture of surveillance.”[3] Yet, it was the inauguration of the organization’s iPhone- and Android-supported app that amplified these critiques. Using Google Maps software and GPS tracking systems, this app works by generating a digital image of the city’s harassment “hot-zones” through the use of crowd-sourced data. Users are able both to add to this databank and to use it for real-time navigation through the city. For users in New York City (where Hollaback! was founded), the app provides the option to report instances of harassment “on the go” to the New York City Council, the city’s legislative body.

Figure 1. Screen shot of the Hollaback! app interface.

Financed by the Knight Prototype Fund, the app was launched in March 2013 at a press conference called by May and Christine Quinn, then Speaker of the Council and Democratic mayoral candidate. In her press release, Quinn declared, “Public spaces belong to all New Yorkers, and street harassment is not a price women and LGBT New Yorkers have to pay for walking around New York City’s neighborhoods.”[4] However, many wondered who precisely fell within the perimeter of Quinn’s “all New Yorkers.” On Twitter, Mariame Kaba, an anti-violence organizer who runs the prominent abolitionist blog Prison Culture, underscored the perverse irony of Hollaback!’s partnership with Quinn in light of the candidate’s public endorsement of the New York Police Department’s Stop-question-and-frisk program. Kaba thus named the primary disarticulation of the criminalization of Black and brown mobility that made this portrait of “women and LGBT New Yorkers” possible. By partnering with Quinn, Hollaback! indeed made explicit that stop-and-frisk procedures and routine police sexual violence fell outside its definition of “street harassment.”[5]

Figure 2. Prison Culture’s tweet, which connects stop-and-frisk practices and harassment.

Hollaback! sought to preempt such concerns surrounding their “Holla On The Go” app by underlining that users can opt out of reporting instances of harassment to the Council. However, as Kaba indicated, “[M]any who use the app are extremely likely to opt-in to this feature because there is little analysis of what this might mean for marginalized populations.”[6] Most centrally, this includes the surveillance and Broken Windows policing of communities of color and especially Black communities.[7] The point that Hollaback! might very well augur increased criminalization and prosecution was registered, in a vastly different tenor, by the NYPD’s own citation of Hollaback!’s tactics as an inspiring model for a new pilot program.[8]

Feminist thinkers have used the term “carceral feminism” to apprehend such collaborations, sometimes unintended, between certain feminist movements and systems of criminalization, policing, and incarceration. Building on the foundational scholarship of Beth Ritchie, Angela Y. Davis, and others, Dean Spade and Craig Willse emphasize that “regimes of criminalization could never reduce or eliminate gender violence because they are invented to be racialized gender violence.”[9] As we soon elaborate, these critiques of the proximity between racial state surveillance and feminist counter-surveillance practices demand of us a vastly more complex analysis of the gendering of space and the spatialization of gender.

Mediating Interiority

Street harassment genders space. As the incarnation of spatial surveillance and discipline, it consolidates a gendered architecture founded upon the public/private and polis/oikos distinctions. Hollaback!’s noble aspiration “to develop innovative strategies to ensure equal access to public spaces” thus fortifies legal theorist Cynthia Grant Bowman’s conclusion that street harassment violates women’s most fundamental right to “the power of locomotion.”[10] That injunction derives from Sir William Blackstone’s enduring statement on the proximity between movement and political freedom within modern liberalism. According to Bowman’s account, street harassment constitutes nothing less than “a ghettoization to the private sphere of hearth and home.”[11] However, as Kaba’s remarks already suggest, the material institution of this doctrine has always been entangled with the regulation and immobilization of those bodies whose “unruly” movements fall outside of liberal protocols of mobility. Indeed, in the United States, the birth of the white male right to locomotion has proven inseparable from the authorization of the modern apparatus of policing and its avatars.[12] Moreover, the valorization of the right to mobility as the condition of full personhood has legitimized policing in the name of rendering the public available to (white) women. It does so even as its attendant discourses of threat and safety has worked to re-consign white women both to the domestic sphere and to an entire tropology of the private.

While Hollaback! emphasizes that sexual harassment take place in all spaces, the movement overwhelmingly fixes its attention on public space as a site in which the putative protections of home, school, and workplace are most lacking. “On the street, it’s like the Wild Wild West,” May explains. This admonition again recalls Bowman, who asserts that street harassment performs a gendered declension from the civilizing capacities of law and order: a fall into a “Hobbesian wilderness men do not share.”[13] The assumptive substratum of both Hollaback! and Bowman’s claims is, first, that street harassment demands legal redress and, more fundamentally, that feminist concerns over formations of quotidian violence have fallen on the deaf ears of the state. Tellingly, Hollaback! arose as a response of the failures of law to adequately police street harassment and in support of the transformative potentials of mobile technologies for feminist policing. As its website states in unambiguous terms, Hollaback!’s aim is to “inspire legislators, the police, and other authorities to take this issue seriously.” What must be underscored here is not simply the obvious point that Hollaback! appeals to the state, but that this enunciation is subtended by a structure of disavowal that historically contains the power of certain women and feminists to impact the machinations of governance and law. In particular, Hollaback!’s ahistorical solicitation of “street harassment” as a transparent conceptual rubric and register of criminality obscures the performative power of white women’s speech to call forth state-sanctioned violence and murder.[14]

Legal theorist Janet Halley has identified this compulsion to repeat a narrative of female powerlessness as the signature of what she dubs “governance feminism.”[15] It is our contention that this narrative finds its legitimating force in a racialized rhetoric of vulnerable white womanhood. Furthermore, this narrative framework—harnessed by Hollaback!—obfuscates the many contestations over the status of law as a tactic to redress violence internal to the discursive arena of feminism in general, and the specific contortions of the public/private distinction that make women of color differently vulnerable to street harassment and sexual violence. In her critique of Hollaback!, Brittney C. Cooper of the Crunk Feminist Collective has stressed that any analysis of sexual violence must center the multiple ways that Black women and other women of color experience assault in public space and have mounted their own various responses to it.[16] While May is surely correct that street harassment genders space, this gendering occurs at the fulcrum between the geographic and the corporeal in ways that are irreducible to any simple coincidence between the signs “private” and “woman.” Indeed, Hollaback!’s documentary impulse in the form of the snapshot renders street harassment a discontinuous series of spectacular instances that must be publicized. In so doing, it mounts a critique of women’s exclusion from the public sphere that nevertheless sustains the inaugural cut between public and private.[17] That is, this exceptionalism of stranger violence and of the street elides any mutual feedback between intimate partner violence, community violence, and various forms of state violence. The assertion that street harassment constitutes one of the “final new frontiers for women’s rights around the world” (to cite May) suggests that hard-won protections in private spaces must be extended to public spaces. But this assertion dissimulates how juridical and social service “protections” against domestic violence, for example, have themselves bolstered the surveillance and control functions of the state.[18]

The sentimental production of white femininity as the master trope of human vulnerability is written into the very structure of the inside-outside relations and its corporeal metonyms. In “Fighting Bodies, Fighting Words,” the essay that inspires the title of our article, feminist theorist Sharon Marcus charts the figurative and rhetorical language through which sexual violence is commonly deciphered. This language, she contends, “scripts” the female body as always-already a site of violation. Furthermore, this script is also a profoundly spatializing one. Feminist thinkers, as we noted, have questioned the pernicious fiction of “separate spheres.” Strikingly, however, Marcus avers that such spatial demarcations often re-emerge in efforts to map the topography of women’s bodies at the scene of violence “by using invasion as a metaphor for rape.”[19] This metaphor of exterior threat, also found in cultural discourses that consign women to domesticity, re-engenders publicity masculine insofar as its renders female sexuality an interior space always vulnerable to intrusion. Marcus thus calls upon feminists to challenge this discourse of feminine interiority, which itself functions to script the inevitability of sexual violence. As she contends, “The most deep-rooted upheaval of rape culture would revise the idea of female sexuality as object, as property, and as inner space.”[20]

Although Marcus compellingly locates the troping of “female sexuality” as a zone of interior (self-)possession, her intervention into the gendered language of rape as the “invasion of female sexual property” remains haunted by the racial inscription of property in the American idiom and its constitutive function within the gendered formation of “interiority.”[21] Hortense Spillers’s canonical re-reading of the American grammar of racial captivity provides the most thoroughgoing investigation into the production of gender as an interiorizing apparatus. Among the numerous interventions of her article, Spillers argues that the “unprotected female flesh” of the black captive under racial slavery and its longue durée is “not only the target of rape—in one sense, an interiorized violation of body and mind—but also the topic of specifically externalized acts of torture and prostration that we imagine as the peculiar province of male brutality and torture.”[22] For our present purposes, we especially draw on Spillers’ observation that the shadow of black captivity enables the civic configuration of the public/private distinction. Thus, the prophylactic protections of gender qua interiority are foreclosed for the female captive. In advancing this argument, Spillers discloses that “the gendered grammar of violence” to which Marcus alerts us is itself already predicated on and spoken by another grammar. That grammar is the one that mounts the suture between white femininity and the idiom of interiority.[23] Indebted to Spillers’s ground-clearing work, both Eva Cherniavsky and Eden Osucha have alerted us to the ways in which modern media technologies have critically figured in the reproduction of white womanhood as a metonym for privacy and the inside. In her analysis of “The Right to Privacy” (1890), one of the foundational documents that legislates how images taken in public could be reused and circulated, Osucha reveals that white femininity re-congealed as a national synecdoche for the potential threat of media exposure at precisely the moment that the gratuitous circulation of Black bodies, images, and voices via technological media was codified in the juridical record.[24] What we wish to underscore here, following Spillers and her readers, is the inheritance of these racially gendered logics of modern liberalism in contemporary treatments of (new) media surveillance. These coordinates orient the field in which the rhetorics of surveillance circulate and delineate the modalities by which some bodies are understood as vulnerable to intrusion whereas others are refused the “consolations of interiority” upon which the metaphorics of intrusion depend.[25]

The ascendance of networked media and digital photography have in important ways both revived and revised this particular tangle between discourses of media intrusion and discourses of sexual intrusion. If the circulation of white women within photochemical media was said to threaten them by rendering them public, we find, with the smartphone, a liberal feminist reassertion to the right to privacy—this time, however, in public. Hollaback!’s campaign represents the smartphone as a protective shield that blocks and, in some cases, preempts exposure. This is signaled by Hollaback!’s celebration of new media as tools that promise to move attention away from women’s bodies, taking them out of circulation precisely by putting images of male harassers into circulation. It does this by announcing the smartphone as a technological prosthesis-cum-weapon and, in a different register, by stressing that gadgets possess the power “to fight street harassment” (a power that women ostensibly do not have without these technologies). The mobile phone is therefore mobilizing. The mobile camera “speaks,” and the immobilized object of street harassment—captured and held captive by the lens-like gaze of men—emerges as a sovereign subject. This is a technological utopianism in which the modalities of capture and circulation the camera affords promise to close the gap between response and response-ability by exposing individual perpetrators to a feminist networked public.

Thus, Hollaback! harnesses networked technologies as tools of juridical accountability even while these same technologies have inaugurated a crisis within cultural protocols of recognition and responsibility. In particular, the practice of “upskirting” highlights the capacities of networked media to disrupt claims to bodily privacy in public. For example, in a recent Massachusetts ruling, the Supreme Judicial Court claimed that women in public spaces can have “no reasonable expectation of privacy” and that upskirting could not therefore be considered an illegal act.[26] Yet, by articulating digital photo software as absolutely controlled by its users and by positing mobile phones as a defense strategy for women, Hollaback! rehearses a normative conception of the machine as a mere extension of the sovereign user. Through this logic, the organization fails to trouble how this very conception is overdetermined by the racial fiction of the public/private binarism.

Street Harassment and the Unmappable

Hollaback!’s rhetorics of publicity advance a foundationally racialized claim to interiority that is modulated through the camera phone’s capacity to link privacy with mobility.[27] In its embrace of the camera phone, the Hollaback! movement evidences a desire to occupy control over women’s privacy in public space by taking hold of the very instruments that threaten to transgress this privacy. This reorientation of bodily spatial arrangements is redoubled through the movement’s efforts to orient physical spatial arrangements via locative media platforms. As a result, it raises the question of the racial exigencies that may scaffold assertions to the right to locomotion—mobilized here through the mobile phone—and how these assertions structurally depend on the immobilization of others. Indeed, May’s activation of the colonial tropes of “the Wild Wild West” and the “frontier” to describe urban streets points to how an entitlement to traverse all spaces, working in tandem with the moral compass of “safety,” has been central to spatial restructuring in the post-industrial revanchist city. In Safe Spaces, Christina Hanhardt has chronicled how queer and feminist anti-violence street patrols have historically been implicated in neighborhood gentrification measures, increased police presence, and the emergence of Broken Windows policing programs.[28] The anticipatory temporality of Broken Windows is mimicked by Hollaback!’s contention that street harassment exists within a broader positive feedback loop as “a gateway crime that creates a cultural environment that makes gender-based violence OK.” Street harassment becomes another broken window that precipitates crime and criminality.

Crucially, despite the announcement of the mobile phone as a technology of empowerment, the launch of Hollaback!’s data visualization and mapping app confirms May’s indictment of urban space as an ungoverned and ungovernable frontier. The application aims to specify the city’s zones of danger and threat to allow women to navigate them or avoid them altogether. However, we find that the map actually hinders comprehension. In one sense, the sheer quantity of data that the map illustrates overwhelmingly suggests that street harassment is not confined to high-density areas, but rather is a generalized condition of being out in public. This map’s aesthetic form also corroborates the epistemological problematic that defines data visualization and network mapping in general. As Alexander Galloway has noted, network data visualizations fail to communicate by virtue of their formal similarities.[29] Although they aim to represent that which has remained unrepresented—in Hollaback!’s case, patterns of street harassment signified by an array of pink pins—, the sheer volume of data points obfuscates rather than clarifies. The totalizing vision of these real-time maps ultimately tells us nothing or, at best, merely confirms assumptions about space and risk. In short, the map works precisely by not working.

Figure 3. Screen shot of a user-generated Hollaback! map.

Importantly, this is not to say that Hollaback! is ineffective in policing communities through mapping and reporting. Rather, Hollaback! confirms purportedly common-sense knowledge about the imminent dangers of traversing particular racialized and classed geographies. On its website, the movement has posted an anti-discrimination policy that enjoins users to “refrain from referencing the attributes of your harasser because this movement is about changing societal values, not pointing fingers.”[30] However, the finger being pointed here is not simply directed at an individual perpetrator. Rather, the map generates, tracks, and visualizes the circulation and distribution of public risk and harm throughout the social milieu. In other words, the map instantiates a shift from the overtly visual tactic of the individual exposé to an informatics of capture that involves the entirety of the territory and the population. At stake then is not only the “shaming” of individual men, but also the criminalization of entire geographic regions and populations by marking them as sites of sexual violence that demand policing. It participates in a technosocial bleed between body and environment. The intrusions upon female space that concern Hollaback! must then be recalibrated in terms of the broader spatial politics of intrusion that increasingly characterize public policy and planning in U.S. cities; that is, the right of white subjects to intrude upon all geographic spaces without a consideration of how this mobility is inseparable from practices of displacement, dispossession, gentrification, and police presence. The map leaves this violence unspoken in its figuration of “violence against women” as a transparent, unproblematic category of knowledge.

The imbrication between Hollaback!’s map and the rationalization of preemptive policing can be read within a longer genealogy in which media technologies have been harnessed to legitimate and strengthen an ideology of “demand-led policing.” During the latter half of the 20th century, the U.S. state increasingly articulated its data management and counterintelligence infrastructures to the imagined capacities of personal devices like the telephone to enable a direct line of address between police power and white civil society. On the heels of Senator Barry Goldwater’s thinly veiled declaration of race war against “the license of the mob and of the jungle,” 1967 saw the birth of the National Crime Information Center.[31] This networked crime database promised, as FBI director J. Edgar Hoover wrote in Popular Science, “instant information” for the police and “increased security of his person and property” for “the law-abiding citizen.”[32] Soon after, in January 1968, AT&T nationally introduced the 911 emergency number. The widespread development of computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems, federally funded by the now-defunct Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA), followed in the early 1970s. Bolstered by the twin ideologies of immediacy and interactivity that subtend electronic media, these technologies helped secure a logic of personalized “demand-led” and “response-to-calls-based policing.”[33] This common-sense legitimation of racial state violence was secured through appeals to the power of white popular sovereignty. Unsurprisingly, what we can see from this truncated history is that the belief that the police merely respond to “immediate, simple and clear-cut crime situations” brings together racial fantasies of white injury with communicative fantasies of personalized media.[34]

Figure 4. Images of the first 911 call taking place in 1968.

We situate Hollaback!’s GPS software within this media history of state surveillance and policing to trace a shift in the itineraries of “hollering” within dominant anti-violence agendas—a shift ostensibly perceptible within Hollaback! itself. As we have said, the movement putatively emerged out of the recognition that feminist communities had to take on the task of surveilling and policing harassment themselves, given the inadequacies of the legal response to these practices. However, the ascendance of the locative media application as the movement’s premiere digital platform implies that street harassment’s wane is intimately tethered to holding the ear of the state. It is instructive to consider Hollaback!’s circuit of address in relation to the communications media apparati of other feminist anti-violence activisms as well as the articulations and temporalities of community they subtend. Historically, one critical feminist technology within anti-violence street patrols and anti-rape movements was the whistle, which was disseminated to galvanize community safety and accountability.[35] The 1983 feminist “science-fiction” film Born in Flames (dir. Lizzie Borden) explicitly dramatizes the whistle’s position within a wider social movement infrastructure. In Borden’s work, a coalition known as the “women’s army” network combats sexual violence by patrolling the streets on bicycles and blowing whistles to communicate with one another.

Figure 5. The “women’s army” in Borden’s Born in Flames.

The whistle’s twin functions of amplification and transmission—its status as a deterrent and facilitator of collective response—can be productively compared with the Hollaback!’s indication that the mobile phone hollas too. Yet, whereas the whistle makes a direct claim on public space and collective accountability, the digital mobile device—so often identified with immediacy and liveness—strangely involves a temporal lag between call and response. Whereas the women’s army offers a vision to transform New York’s landscape through an insurrection led by feminists of color, the mobile device and its features alternatively recode a feminist demand for safety as the governance of crime and as a (telephonic) call for paternalist protection. Ultimately, women’s individualized responses to harassment at the scene are hollered at the police through their screens.

The “common view that prisons sit on the edge,” writes geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “is a trick of perspective,” given that “edges are also interfaces.”[36] However, the interface of Hollaback!’s GPS mapping app conceals a bigger picture. Namely, its network visualizations screen out the conjunctural politics of mobility and immobilization in which it is deeply embedded. By way of conclusion, then, we turn to Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s “Stop Telling Women to Smile” (2012–present), a project that presents a strikingly distinct vision of feminist counter-surveillance. Fazlalizadeh uses wheat-paste images of harassed women to mark urban spaces. These stunning portraits all feature a caption that expresses a kernel of the frustrations that the women she interviews express. These include the project’s namesake “Stop Telling Women to Smile” and other phrases such as “You Are Not Entitled to My Space.” Fazlalizadeh inscribes women’s presences into the physical landscape of New York and other cities. The neighborhoods the artist covers are often the spaces that Fazlalizadeh’s interviewees traverse most often. By inserting these images into the circuits of everyday spaces, her work registers the temporality of street harassment—ordinary, repeating, unrelenting, quotidian—in ways that reject the spectacularization of the instant. At the same time, it insists upon the singularity of the portrait. This refusal to spectacularize or exceptionalize is reduplicated in the very structure of address that these portraits invite. Indeed, the “you” whom Fazlalizadeh interpellates proves radically heterogeneous to the “you” inscribed within Hollaback!. It is neither the individual tech-savvy woman newly empowered by her machine, nor the lone, deviant perpetrator. Rather, this apostrophe, both singular and plural, implicates everyone in its hail. The injunction to response and collective action these portraits put forth circumvents the liberal thrall to “victims” and “perpetrators” by conjuring an imagination of gender justice irreducible to the absolute power of locomotion. Fazlalizadeh’s project significantly carves out pockets—counter-surveillance zones—that embed the politics of street harassment in the interface between stranger and intimate, home and community. The affirmation of the deictic my space here is crucial, because it refuses to call for a monolithic, flattened “safe zone”—one that speaks the contemporary idiom of racialized displacement and that finds its locus of authorization in the sexual and technological grammars of interiority.

Figure 6. Images from Fazlalizadeh’s “Stop Telling Women to Smile”



[1] Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, “Introduction: Did Somebody Say New Media?” in New Media, Old Media: A History and Theory Reader, eds. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun and Thomas Keenan (New York and London: Routledge, 2006), 1-10, 3.

[2] “About,” Hollaback! You Have the Power to End Street Harassment, All of the following quotations from Hollaback! and from May are drawn from the movement’s website.

[3] Jessie Daniels, “Rethinking Cyberfeminism(s): Race, Gender, and Embodiment,” WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly 37, no. 1/2 (2009): 101-124, 117.

[4]“Quinn Announces Plan to Combat Street Harassment,” Christine Quinn for Mayor,

[5] In response to such critiques, @iHollaback tweeted on Aug. 20, 2013, “It [the app] also allows for racialized forms of harassment—including harassment by police—to be reported.” Unaddressed was the fact that “the criminal justice system” is, of course, comprised of a coalition between lawmakers, city bureaucrats, and the NYPD, among many other interests and institutions. Also unremarked upon was the existence of “Stop and Frisk Watch,” an app that the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Bushwick, Brooklyn-based non-profit Make the Road by Walking created in 2012.

[6] Mariame Kaba, “Blinders & the Tyranny of Good Intentions: Street Harassment, Stop & Frisk, and Criminalization…,” Prison Culture, Aug. 20, 2013,

[7] For more on Broken Windows policing, see James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, “Broken Windows,” Atlantic Monthly 249, no. 3 (1982): 29-38,

[8] “Campaign & Lobby,” Stop Street Harassment,

[9] Dean Spade and Craig Willse, “Sex, Gender, and War in an Age of Multicultural Imperialism,” QED: A Journal of GLBTQ Worldmaking 1, no. 1 (2014): 5-29; Ritchie, Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation (New York and London: New York University Press, 2012); Angela Y. Davis, “How Gender Structures the Prison System,” in Are Prisons Obsolete? (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003), 60-83.

[10] William Blackstone quoted in Cynthia Grant Bowman, “Street Harassment and the Informal Ghettoization of Women,” Harvard Law Review 106, no. 3 (1993): 517-580, 521.

[11] Bowman, 520-1.

[12] On the historical and ongoing surveillance, criminalization, and violent containment of Black movement foundational to the U.S. social formation, see Simone Browne, “Everybody’s Got a Little Light Under the Skin: Black Luminosity and the Visual Culture of Surveillance,” Cultural Studies 26, no. 4 (2012): 542-564; Sarah Jane Cervenak, Wandering: Philosophical Performances of Racial and Sexual Freedom (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2014); and Bryan Wagner, Disturbing the Peace: Black Culture and the Police Power after Slavery (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).

[13] Bowman, 521.

[14] Angela Y. Davis and Traci C. West have both written about the murder of Emmett Till as one example of white women’s power to demand state-sanctioned retaliation and extra-state violence in the name of “harassment,” which is to say the appearance of the black male body in public. Angela Y. Davis, Women, Race and Class (New York: Vintage Books, 1983), 178-9; and Traci C. West, Wounds of the Spirit: Black Women, Violence, and Resistance Ethics (New York: New York University Press, 1999), 93-5.

[15] Janet Halley, Split Decisions: How and Why to Take a Break from Feminism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006). In our focus on the ways such discourses work to impute a figuration of powerlessness that obscures theoretical and political antagonisms across feminisms, we part ways with Halley’s order to “take a break from feminism.” That discourse tends to produces its object “feminism” as a kind of homogenous back-formation that we do not recognize in this name.

[16] Brittney C. Cooper, Crunk Feminist Collective, Nov. 4, 2014,

[17] Annanya Bhattacharjee critically argues that the feminist exposure of liberalism’s foundational gendering of “separate spheres” may very well leave intact the belief “that the public and private spaces are different and separate.” Tina Chanter has further disclosed that such elisions are constitutive to white feminist articulations of the public/private relation more generally: “the predominance of the public/private divide in feminist theory itself occludes the racial and class dynamics that have been both constitutive of, and rendered invisible by, the claims of white feminist theory to legitimate itself by appealing to the public/private distinction.” See Annaya Bhattacharjee, “The Public/Private Mirage: Mapping Homes and Undomesticating Violence Work in the South Asian Immigrant Community” in Feminist Genealogies, Colonial Legacies, Democratic Futures, eds. M. Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Talpade Mohanty (New York and London: Routledge, 1996), 308-329, 312; Tina Chanter, “Irigaray’s Challenge to the Fetishistic Hegemony of the Platonic One and Many,” in Rewriting Difference: Luce Irigaray and “The Greeks,” eds. Elena Tzelepis and Athena Athanasiou (Albany: SUNY Press, 2008), 217-230, 222.

[18] Marie Gottshalk, The Prison and the Gallows: The Politics of Mass Incarceration in America (Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006) and Priya Kandaswamy, “‘You trade in a man for the man’: Domestic Violence and the US Welfare State,” American Quarterly 62, no. 2 (2010): 253-277.

[19] Sharon Marcus, “Fighting Bodies, Fighting Words: A Theory and Politics of Rape Prevention” in Feminists Theorize the Political, eds. Judith Butler and Joan Scott (New York and London: Routledge, 1992), 385-403, 389.

[20] Ibid, 399.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17, no. 2 (1987): 64-81, 68. Emphasis in original.

[23] Marcus, 392.

[24] Eden Osucha, “The Whiteness of Privacy: Race, Media, Law,” Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies 24, no.1 (2009): 67-101.

[25] Eva Cherniavsky, Incorporations: Race, Nation, and the Body Politics of Capital (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), xvii.

[26] See Mark Memmott, “UPDATE: Massachusetts Bans “Upskirt” Photos,” NPR, Mar. 7, 2014, As the update to this article points out, in response to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts’ decision, state legislators approved and the governor signed a law that criminalized upskirting photos days after the court ruling.

[27] Leopoldina Fortunati has written extensively on the vexed gendered politics of these privatized digital mobilities. See Leopoldina Fortunati, “Gender and the Mobile Phone” in Mobile Technologies: From Telecommunications to Media, eds. Gerard Goggin, and Larissa Hjorth (New York and London: Routledge, 2009), 23-36. See also, of course, Raymond Williams’s deeply influential discussion of “mobile privatization” in the context of his treatment of that other highly gendered medium, television. Television: Technology and Cultural Form (New York: Schocken, 1975).

[28] Christina Hanhardt, Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press), 108.

[29] Alexander Galloway, The Interface Effect (Cambridge, UK and Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2012), 84-6.

[30] “Anti-discrimination and Comments Policy,” Hollaback!,

[31] Barry Goldwater quoted in Dylan Rodríguez, Forced Passages: Imprisoned Radical Intellectuals and the U.S. Prison Regime (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 20.

[32] J. Edgar Hoover, “Now: Instant Crime Control in Your Town,” Popular Science (January 1967): 68, 67.

[33] Peter K. Manning, The Technology of Policing: Crime Mapping, Information Technology, and the Rationality of Crime Control (New York and London: New York University Press, 2008), 52. Lawyer Lee Loevinger is often credited with the push for the consolidation of a national emergency number after his move from the Justice Department to the Federal Communications Commission. See Kimberly Zarkin, et. al., The Federal Communications Commission (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2006), 184-5.

[34] “Once this point has been grasped, it is difficult to continue to consider the agencies of public signification and control, like the police, the courts and the media, as if they were passive reactors to immediate, simple and clear-cut crime situations. These agencies must be understood as actively and continuously part of the whole process to which, also, they are ‘reacting.’” Stuart Hall et al., Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order (London: Macmillan, 1978), 54.

[35] Hanhardt, 101-2.

[36] Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007), 10-11.

Beth Capper is a doctoral candidate in modern culture and media at Brown University, where she is researching a dissertation on the politics of labor and community in feminist performance. Her work on the filmmaker Shirley Clarke’s 1970s media workshops has been published in Art Journal. She is currently a co-organizer of the Providence-based film and video series Magic Lantern Cinema.

Michael Litwack is a doctoral candidate in modern culture and media at Brown University, where he is completing a dissertation on race, media, and the question of technology in the long civil rights era. He has taught courses in American studies, ethnic studies, and comparative media theory at Brown, RISD, and Providence College.