Is it possible to change the language?
Can you convince the world to stop (or to start) using certain words? Or does the culture have to evolve by itself, and take a long time doing it, before old words filter out and new words filter in?
I used to think you could never tell people how to speak or what to say. In the street, for example, you can’t say, “Stop calling me a bitch,” and expect the men following you to apologize and stop using the word. They’re more likely to laugh and use it again, or taunt and heckle, or move closer. Better to just look down, say nothing and get out of there fast.
Until, that is, something like the image below appears out of nowhere with an unequivocal message, Stop telling WOMEN to smile.
It’s one of a series of posters by artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh that began showing up on buildings throughout Brooklyn in 2012. I saw my first in Oakland, California, a month ago, and it took my breath away. The gaze is unapologetic, direct, powerful and as clear as its challenge-in-print.
Fazlalizadeh has made dozens of these posters by now. The process usually begins, she told The Guardian in a video interview, with a conversation in which she asks women how it feels to walk in the street alone (“uncomfortable and unsafe” is where most of them start). She takes a photo and draws their portrait, pulls a concise statement out of the discussion and creates the poster so fast that she’s out pasting up copies before the ink dries. (She also makes her own paste.)
The women in these posters turn to confront their adversaries directly. My name is not BABY, Shorty, Sexy, Sweetie, Honey, Pretty, Boo, Sweetheart, Ma, says one. The message is so bold and so true that the paper and the wall behind it tend to disappear.
You are not ENTITLED to my space, says another. The words have their own power, but it’s the gaze that nails you. No, you can’t talk to me for a MINUTE. Without a physical body to threaten or diminish, the poster arrests, shocks, resists and lingers in memory.
We know this because men began trying to reply, in writing and on the posters themselves, almost as soon as Fazlalizadeh began putting them up.
“Really,” the exasperated women in these posters seem to say, “do I have to make this message so obvious?” Many of the handwritten responses are angry and combative, but the project hit a new dimension when male feminists picked up on Fazlalizadeh’s subtle humor.
This young man to the right takes her point, for example, and suggests a way to have fun with it, too. Soon Fazlalizedah began collecting what might be called DIY poster-selfies from a new and responsive fan base.
Today you can buy posters and t-shirts from Project STWTS to help support Fazlalizedah’s work, and the Internet has already done its job by spreading the word internationally.
But she is still a lone person trying to change the world. Which brings us back to the question: Can you tell people to stop using certain words because it’s just the right thing to do? I still think the answer in most cases is no. (Remember the Equal Rights Amendment? We won’t go into that now.) But there is this: Every time a person chances upon the unwavering stare and message of one of her posters, Tatyana Fazlalizedah shows us the power of art. And art, as we know, can change the world.
Future posts: More On Language from Pussy Riot to BanBossy.com