Eyes up, poker-faced, the woman in the video moves forward at a steady gait, without speaking. Opening titles explain: “Ten hours of silent walking through all areas of Manhattan wearing jeans and a crewneck t-shirt.”
We watch and listen as she is repeatedly catcalled, propositioned, and bothered. Closing titles inform us that she endured “100+ instances of verbal street harassment” and invite us to donate to an organization called Hollaback!, “a non-profit dedicated to ending street harassment.”
Even if you never got around to watching it, you’ve probably heard about “10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman.” With more than 36 million YouTube views, the clip has been shared endlessly and sparked a number of pro-or-con critiques.
And that’s not all: “10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman” also launched at least 10 hours’ worth of parodies and other response videos. Last week the BBC even put together a handy two-and-half minute compilation of excerpts from 46 “tribute and parody” videos from around the world.
This is hardly an isolated phenomenon: These days, you’re nobody ’til somebody mocks you online. The parody treatment is now a rite of pop-culture passage and a marker of media relevance for everything from trendy podcasts to the viral video du jour. The world of music has become a place “where popular songs exist for the making of parody videos,” David Hajdu argued recently in The New Republic, “and ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, somehow, suddenly, looks like a visionary.”
But the hours of “10 Hours” variations raise a question: What does it mean when even a video designed to draw attention to a serious issue like the verbal harassment of women gets the “Weird Al” treatment?
A pessimistic answer might be that public discourse is flattened and impoverished. The optimistic response is that the swarm of riffs draws more attention to the original, amplifying a necessary public discussion.
After spending entirely too much time actually watching a slew of these parodies, knockoffs, tributes, and responses, the answer seems like a surprising mashup of those two arguments. If the riffs help the original, that’s largely by accident — because most of the riffers are playing this game purely for themselves.
“No serious statements being made here”
The original “10 Hours” video was made by Rob Bliss, who runs a viral-video marketing agency. Evidently the clip was his idea; his girlfriend experiences such harassment routinely.
“I actually had a feeling before releasing this video that it would be heavily parodied for a bunch of reasons,” Bliss told me via email, “if it did in fact go viral.”
The structure and look of the video, he pointed out, are very specific and not hard (or expensive) to mimic. “You can easily plug in your own keywords to make a parody ‘10 hours of walking in _ _ _ _ as a _ _ _ _,’ ” he added. And: “It’s a serious topic, and there’s an inherent humor to taking something serious and making it lighthearted.”
It should be noted that some of the imitators weren’t parodies in the traditional sense, but something like straight reenactments in other settings. That BBC compilation includes several examples. A woman in Rome got about as many catcalls the New York walker did. But in Auckland, New Zealand, a woman was approached just twice — and one guy was trying to get directions. In India, there were a lot of looks but no catcalls.
Seeing the cultural variation suggested by the clips from around the world is both compelling and edifying: a high point of the “10 Hours” response phenomenon.
Most of these clips didn’t have such lofty goals, however: They are merely going for laughs, with mixed results. Funny or Die, one of the more professional entities to wade into this, has an entertaining (scripted) response, depicting what it’s like to be a man walking through New York City. The subject is besieged by high fives, requests to network, free Starbucks cards and Chipotle burritos, a job offer. Ultimately he’s treated like a king — literally. The closing text indicates “100+ instances of verbal street privilege.”
Less funny: In this video, a guy is accosted by bothersome women who want him to pay for their drinks or demand to know how much money he makes. It’s pretty lackluster, but worth noting because like many mockers, its maker adds a defensive disclaimer to the YouTube notes: “JUST a spoof. No serious statements being made here.”
This odd caveat — essentially, “Don’t worry, I’m not really saying anything” — pops up frequently. “10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman in Hijab” actually involves a woman walking for five hours in casual clothes, and then five more in the full-body-covering garment. She’s catcalled in the first scenario, ignored in the second.
So is the argument here that the solution to street harassment is for women to completely conceal themselves? The video dodges this obvious question with a “What do you think? You be the judge” non-conclusion, but the notes to the video insist it “was made to respect women of any kind who dress in any way.”
It has 2.3 million views, one of the more popular “10 Hours” variations — and the comments left by YouTubers are a depressing cesspool of bigotry.
One of the few responses that actually seemed to be making something of an argument, and standing by it, involved a guy walking “as a horse” — meaning he wears an absurd horse-head mask. (“That guy has a strange head,” comments a passerby.)
While the video’s notes endorse Hollaback!’s general motives, they also question its definition of street harassment: “I find it hard to understand what is supposed to be harassing about someone saying, ‘Have a nice evening.’ ” (Hint: If it’s a guy singling you out from everyone else on the street, and whipping his head around to watch you pass by, then even “Have a nice evening” can be unwelcome.)
The video itself ends with a gag: “It’s not easy being a horse.” Does this add to the discourse? Not really. It uses the discourse as a setup to a silly punchline. Good parody can be funny and pointed. This, like many of the go-for-jokes variations, is ultimately neither.
The people’s parody
Of course parody long predates the Internet, let alone YouTube-video culture. Politicians, serious films, and current events have long provided fodder for Saturday Night Live, even longer for Mad magazine, and so on. Sometimes the pro parodists make a serious point; sometimes they just want laughs.
But like everything else, parody has been democratized. And the upshot emerges through the dizzying variety of “walking” responses: in Seattle as an Asian (“Is that Jackie Chan?”); in L.A. as a drag queen; as an Austin hipster; as “a Jew in New York” (largely being accosted by Orthodox men assailing him to embrace his faith); as a techie in Bangalore. One video even shifts the perspective: “10 Hours of Walking in Vienna as a Catcaller” follows a would-be harasser who is consistently ignored.
Most of these are pretty forgettable, but the people’s parody isn’t all bad. In fact, this one is rather good: “10 Hours of Walking in Los Angeles as a Mime” is obviously a ridiculous premise, but when the self-professed “slutty mime” (tight shirt, short shorts, high heels) starts attracting comments, it’s the catcallers who look ridiculous — or worse.
Some guy asking a mime, “Why are you ignoring me?” is funny. And it only underscores the original video when another observes: “You don’t talk? That’s cool. I like that in a woman.” Ugh.
This turned out to be maybe the most simultaneously trenchant and amusing “10 Hours” response to emerge from the crowd: It’s a parody with a point.
It was also a rare exception. As the parodies piled up, we spiralled into the merely absurd — 10 hours as Batman, or 10 hours as Princess Leia, bugged by a variety of Star Wars characters, including Darth Vader.
At some point the only thing binding these videos together is a common set of references to the original — the opening and closing titles, the camera positioning, the moment in the first video when a man walks in creepy silence next to the clip’s subject for (we are told) more than five minutes. (In the Leia video, Boba Fett walks next to her silently for more than “twelve parsecs”).
Perhaps the oddest parody subset departs the real world altogether, re-creating the walk within gaming realms — walking in Skyrim as a woman in skimpy armor (which, notably, actually encourages viewers to check out the “impressive” original video), in World of Warcraft; in Los Santos as Trevor, in Battlefield 4, even in Minecraft.
Some of these are sort of funny; some are profane. Many raise the question: So what’s the point? It’s safe to say the people have spoken, but are all these grass-roots creations adding to the discussion, subtracting from it — or saying something completely different?
If the original “10 Hours” maker, Rob Bliss, is bothered by those jokey imitators, he doesn’t show it: “Personally I think it all raised the profile of street harassment,” he told me. “Even if it’s showing it jokingly, just raising awareness overall is helpful.”
Maybe. In his New Republic piece, Hajdu noted that pop videos these days practically depend on parodies to become hits — and the parodies can be so numerous and viral that they “now generate more revenue than official videos.”
When the crowd-parody idea crosses over to address something more serious than the potential success of a Miley Cyrus clip, the stakes change.
Yes, as I’ve noted above, a few examples hit the mark, and add something useful and new — an insight, a new perspective, even some genuine humor.
But the truth is, those are the exceptions. And most of these “10 Hours” variations aren’t even addressing the original at all — they’re merely glomming onto and opportunistically referencing something that’s popular, and trying to carve off a bit of that popularity for themselves.
This sank in when I started to notice that almost none of these riffs — even those professing to support the point of view of the original video — bothered to link to Hollaback!, let alone its donation page. On the other hand, practically all of them linked to their own promotional sites or Facebook pages, and begged viewers to sign up for their YouTube channels.
Perhaps it’s somehow true that a whole bunch of people clamoring shamelessly for the limelight somehow managed to direct our attention to an important issue that deserves consideration. But I don’t know. To me, that sounds like a parody.