You’re at a club with your buddies, nursing an overpriced craft drink — your treat to yourself as a reward for that B- on your math midterm — and chatting about spring plans, summer plans and planning to plan. You lose touch with the conversation for a moment as your gaze wanders and you see two girls walk in, one in a light blue Georgette dress and the other wearing a brightly colored floral shirt. You decide to go compliment the floral girl’s shirt, but a Silicon Valley techie-looking guy walks up to the girls with his friend, hugs the dress girl around her waist and moves in for a kiss. Oh bummer, you think to yourself, they must be with those guys, and you almost look away, but something is wrong. The girl is leaning back, away from the guy and pushing on his chest. He leans in further, to the point where she’s doing the limbo dance bent over his arm just to stay away from him. You know something is wrong, so you walk over and say, “Excuse me, is everything okay here?” and the girl says, “Actually, I have to go.” The techie sullenly releases her, and she grabs her friend to leave while mouthing a quick, “Thank you.”
The next morning in math section, your TA is describing divergence of vector fields on the whiteboard when the door swings open and a tall, bearded man bursts in.
“Hey, are you guys in session?” he says loudly, without so much as a “Beg your pardon,” or, “Sorry to interrupt.”
“Yes …” the TA says.
“Well, for how long?” the man demands.
“Um, about another hour?” replies the TA.
“Well, we have a faculty meeting in the next room but our projector is broken so we’re thinking you could just switch with us.” Your TA seems flustered in searching for the right response, and the four freshmen in your section just stare blankly.
“Excuse me, sir,” you say, “I don’t know who you are, but we’re in the middle of class right now, so I’d appreciate it if you’d be more polite to my TA, whose room you’re asking for.” The man’s face turns red.
“Of course, of course, I’m so sorry,” he says apologetically, “We’ll figure something out,” and he gently closes the door behind him.
At least, that’s how I wish it had happened.
Reflecting on these incidents made me think of the hopelessly corny Gillette commercial I’d seen a while ago — you know the one — that shows rows of soccer dads droning in front of their barbecues, kids being chased by hordes of bullies (an experience I’m painfully familiar with) and two almost cartoonish examples of bystanders stopping overaggressive men from hitting on girls, followed by the tagline, “The Best a Man Can Be.” When I first saw those words on screen, I had to question whether they were actually trying to be serious. After moon landings and discovering penicillin, carrying children from burning buildings and jumping on grenades to save friends, the bar for “the best a man can be” was set to someone who says, “Not cool, bro” to a cat-calling dweeb? Did Gillette think it was new and fresh to intervene, or had they not seen every action movie ever? I already knew bullying, assault and rape are bad, and I know to help someone when they’re screaming for help — I’m a veteran, it’s what we do. Besides, I couldn’t believe that anyone who thought otherwise was going to be swayed by a two-minute commercial, so it felt like this billion-dollar shaving company was just patronizing me.
But then I witnessed the situations I described and discovered something about myself: All I did was watch. See, I didn’t stand up and say anything to anybody. I didn’t stand up at all. I sat there and stared while the Georgette dress girl finally reached over to her girlfriend to get pulled away and the tall man just got frustrated and slammed the door in my flustered TA’s face.
As I thought about it, my opinion changed. After seeing those events and recognizing that in both cases I’d failed to step up to the plate, the first thing I tried to do was rationalize my lack of action. It’s not my problem, I thought, they both happened in public places, and if it really became an issue there were bouncers around, or my TA could have made a formal complaint if the man had stepped out of line. But the truth is, I had to accept that I had just been weak. I had a responsibility, not just as a man, or because I’m strong, or because I’m a veteran, sworn to “defend those unable to defend themselves,” but because I was a person who was there who knew that what was happening was wrong.
That said, in no instance was anyone’s life or physical safety actually in danger, and certainly no one was screaming, so why shouldn’t I just brush it off as something that didn’t really matter? Maybe — if for no other reason — it’s so the victims can know they’re not alone. Maybe it matters because they need to know that a bar full of people is not just going to sit there nonchalantly while a girl’s personal space is being so egregiously violated. It matters because no one, no matter how much authority they have, should be able to unapologetically impose their will on those less powerful than them. It matters because the way I respond to the minor harassments that I witness will strongly influence the way I respond to an assault if I see one, and if I want to be brave enough to stand up to a dangerous rapist or murderer, I first need to be brave enough to stand up to a petty creep.
So while I still wish men had been represented as slightly more nuanced than a row of sloppy soccer dads, I did learn something from the shaving commercial: I, too, have a long way to go. And while I can’t promise I’ll always do the brave thing, I can promise I’ll try a lot harder. For that, I thank you, Gillette.
Contact Nestor Walters at waltersx ‘at’ stanford.edu.