Although it has been three years since I relocated to the sunnier space of South Florida, I consider myself a city girl and proud former Philadelphian. My passion for the City of Brotherly Love runs deep; I experienced many “firsts” and essentially entered adulthood in the quaint Center City neighborhoods amid looming brownstones, historic monuments and rustic BYOBs. It is and always will be a city teeming with heart and history. So imagine my concern when I found out that the urban dwelling I hold near and dear was running a deeply disturbing billboard campaign. Generated by the geniuses at the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation one of its current citywide banners outwardly encourages sexism and street harassment.
Unsolicited commentary in public spaces has always sparked a special brand of rage in me. Many a movie clip normalizes the off-handed “Hey baby” shouted into the wind from a passing car. Upon first seeing their prom partner donning formal wear, an affable whistle of approval is innocuous coming from a teenage date floating in a heady hybrid of hormones and hair gel. These conspicuous catcalls, non-verbal noises, evaluative sniggers, even objectifying remarks sheathed in good intentions somehow socially sanction us for acceptance of our bodies as products for consumption.
Long before I identified as a feminist, I was furious at the audacity of certain individuals who presumed they had some implicit right to remark upon my body and appearance while I was simply enroute to my place of employment, school or even my home. I was a human, not an item they were entitled to assess and objectify and then publicly comment upon. I felt silenced, small and scared. I took to mapping circuitous routes throughout the city that would bypass the areas I knew I would be subjected to this sexualized scrutiny. How was it that in a city that boasted being the birthplace of freedom, I was having my basic civil rights violated two steps from my front door on a regular basis?
Only years later after relocating did I hear about Hollaback!, an awe-inspiring initiative, Hollaback!, who currently has an impressive presence in 50 cities, 17 countries and nine different languages. Now a nonprofit, the movement seeks to empower citizens to essentially “hollaback” at open and objectifying commentary, dehumanizing behavior and gender-based harassment. Users are encouraged to share their stories through the organization’s website (or via their iPhone app), including uploading photographs and geographic locations of the perpetrators. Because street harassment is so often tacitly accepted and the offending parties rarely held accountable, Hollaback! serves to encourage women to use their voices in a non-violent manner.
Through Hollaback!’s Philadelphia site, I was alerted to the recent advertisement from the masterminds at VisitPhilly.com. A billboard prominently featured on the iconic Broad Street in downtown Philly (and strategically displayed during the Broad Street Run, when exposure was heightened) says: “Dear Walking this Way, I like the way you move it, move it”, while cheekily signing off “With Love, Philadelphia XOXO.”
If you could see me at this very moment, you would observe the plumes of steam shooting from my ears. I am so utterly disturbed that such an overtly offensive message was approved and placed in a public sphere. This billboard is dripping with disrespect and practically sanctions street harassment.
Hollaback!Philly in their diligent and amazing activism attempted to show GPTMC the error of their ways. In an email response, Meryl Levitz, the President and CEO weakly defended the ad, citing that it was meant to reference the song, “’I like to Move It, Move It” as “sung in the children’s film, Madagascar 2” and that the collection of letters were meant to be pieces of a larger conversation, the ‘With Love’ lines “meant to be catchy, playful and topical.”
Do I even need to mention that this claim is rendered null and void on two very obvious counts? The first being that they augmented the line “I like to move it, move it” to “I like the way you move it, move it.” Second, please note that anyone old enough to understand the implication of the billboard’s maligned message is much more inclined to associate the song with the 90s House duo, Reel 2 Real, rather than the DreamWorks’ designed Bronx brood. This completely misses the mark of being bold and brazen and instead results in something uninspired and embarrassingly offensive.
A 2010 billboard from the same campaign camp’s shamelessly solicited “fellas”: “The sun is out. So are the Ladies”; the ad then urges the reader to get a front row “spot“ dining al fresco and displays the website for booking. Not only is the ad highly genderized, (there is a prominent LBGQT presence in Philadelphia), but it is one of the most blatant forms of sexist and misogynistic advertising I have ever seen. Despite fervent pleas from HollabackPhilly to the GPTMC for removal, the billboard remained. Its message encouraged and promoted outright objectification in public places and openly sold street harassment and voyeurism as a form of realistic recreation.
What is even more unsettling is that these ads aim to foster tourism. Philadelphia is one of our nation’s richest resources; a city that is home to deep historical significance. These one-liners devalue its prominence and counteract its creative vitality. Surely these campaign managers cannot think that a cheap chuckle on one street corner is an effective selling point or furthermore, a true reflection of a city with so much heart and history?
HollbackPhilly continues to use their voice at Change.org, where it has started a petition to remove this atrocious ad. To date the GPTMC has acknowledged the outrage and say they are “looking into it”. I shudder when I think of what communication it conveys to our youth, not only about the roles of male and women, but of gender and identity and the limiting narratives we are all forced into. One of Philadelphia’s greatest strengths is its diversity, which this ad outwardly renounces in its alienating and restrictive language. These messages not only devalue the city that so many call home, but they commit silent crimes against their citizens, especially the vulnerable parties that it is exploiting in an attempt to be edgy.
We all deserve to exist in public spaces without harassment and to use our voices to speak up against perpetrators without fear of reprisal. This antiquated idea that ignoring unsolicited attention will lessen its influence is reflective of a larger problem. When we don’t speak up, we become complicit with a global power dynamic that attempts to silence women and other marginalized groups. We need to foster dialogues about how to effectively fight back against public harassment, hold companies accountable who contribute to the problem and build communities that thrive on mutual respect and safety for all citizens.