One of hardest parts about explaining street harassment to someone who’s never experienced it before is the overwhelming and pervasive sense of helplessness. Worrying about actual physical violence is a big part of it too, of course. But the most prevalent feeling isn’t fear, really, but rather powerlessness. Jessica Williams’ “Feminized Atmosphere” segment on the Daily Show hit the nail on the head when it explained that street harassment sucks because little else can make a woman feel so defenseless. The threat of male violence (a statistically and culturally sound fear for women to have) constrains you to passivity whenever a man starts yelling obscene things about you. Having no choice other than to just endure that shit in silence—well, that really gets to you.
Our greatest retaliation against the men who shout condescending, patronizing, and demeaning things about our appearances is: a bitch face. Every woman has one. And no matter how smolderingly step-the-fuck-back your bitch face reads, nothing takes away the sting of having the right to speak up and stand up for yourself violated like that. On a daily basis. Often more than once a day.
In Swetha Kannan’s short but poignant game Stasis, players must learn how to endure this common female experience, otherwise known as the onslaught of sexual comments you elicit by simply being a woman and existing in public space. “I wanted players to feel the growing sense of tedium, annoyance, and discomfort that women feel when facing street harassment,” Swetha explains. In the game, you’re just trying to walk home at night after missing the bus. Harassing speech bubbles from men immediately start getting in the way, though, halting you in your tracks. The primary mechanic of Stasis is simply to try and fling away their harassment, but the ever-accumulating speech bubbles stop you from progressing again and again. The protagonist’s controls are cumbersome, too. She’s slow to start up again when stopped, her walk tentative even at full speed, recreating the wearied experience of having to deal with street harassment on a daily basis.
Nivetha Kannan, Swetha’s sister and a fellow game designer who helped conceptualize the game, says that “when we were developing the system, we wanted to really focus on that repetition. When the speech bubbles block your path once or twice, it’s mildly annoying. The third and fourth time, it’s aggravating. But by the end, when the woman cannot walk very fast or far at all, it’s absolutely enraging.”
That definitely rang true to both my playthrough and real life experiences of street harassment. Though the design choice proved controversial, Swetha also decided to have the protagonist remain silent throughout the game, “because that’s how most women actually deal with street harassment in real life. When the character is silent, the silence is deafening. It is noticeable, but her silence speaks in ways words can’t.”
But while she hoped the protagonist’s wordlessness would serve as a statement, many people (mostly women) told Swetha that Stasis needed more action, allowing the woman to at least fight back in some way. But the tedium and passivity felt necessary for the message. And, “surprisingly, it was my male friends who supported me making the game controls as exhausting as they are. They recognized that in the real world, women can rarely call out their harasser’s behavior. So having to stay silent on a daily basis should feel exhausting.“
I myself only broke my silence on one occasion, when a couple teenagers at least seven years younger than me decided they had the right to appraise my appearance and inform the public. I cursed at them—vehemently and in two languages. They proceeded to follow me for several blocks afterward, like my own personal choir of hooting prepubescent boys.
Street harassment is humiliating, no matter how you slice it. You feel like your harassers plaything, left to his whim, enabling him to make you as uncomfortable and afraid as he so desires. The real-life event that inspired Stasis was a particularly frightening experience Swetha had as she waited for the bus in a crowd of people. A man stood uncomfortably close to her while repeatedly asking obscene questions about her sexual history. But since that’s not uncommon, what actually stood out to Swetha was how “he kept saying things like ‘don’t be scared, and ‘I’m not gonna do anything,’ and laughing about it.”
Here’s a fun fact: whenever you’re innocently standing or walking in a public area, you’re probably not scared—until someone feels the need to point out that you shouldn’t feel scared. Then you get scared. Like, really scared. But that’s the thing about street harassers; they know exactly how to twist their attack with a positive veneer (like through a compliment or reassurance.) Swetha’s experience also reveals a prevalent misconception about street harassment: more times than not, it actually has little to do with sex or desire. It’s about male power. Street harassment is about men taking pleasure in exercising their privilege over women, and their assumed rights over their bodies. It’s about men inflicting patriarchal authority over us, because they can, and because they like to remind us that they can.
Eventually, Swetha had to give the man who harassed her at the bus stop money so he’d leave her alone. She had to pay a man in order to gain back her right to not be humiliated and harassed publicly. “In hindsight,” she laments, “I really wish I wouldn’t have given it to him and that I wouldn’t have let him talk to me the way that he did.”
It’s a lose-lose situation, whether you fight back (and have that backfire) or endure it quietly. Regardless of what you do or don’t do, a sense of shame always follows horrible experiences of street harassment. That’s part of what Swetha hopes Stasis might help do: start a conversation to break the silence and shame. “My favorite part of development was that, after sharing the game, many players felt comfortable sharing their own experiences that left them shaken. The experiences they were forced to get over because ‘it happens to everyone.’” Swetha says she “[wants] street harassment to be something we can share and talk about without having to write it off as an everyday occurrence. Those who are harassed should feel righteous in their anger, and those who do the harassing should understand the social unacceptability of this behavior. At the end of the day, I hope to bring about what every artist wants: change.”
The tedium and stress of passivity the player undergoes in Stasis is impressive because it tackles both the worst part about street harassment, and the hardest part about explaining its awfulness. “This exhaustion is what women feel on a daily basis,” Swetha explains, “and the reality of that is hard to understand from an outsider’s perspective. We’re exhausted. Plain and simple. And I hope Stasis helps communicate even an ounce of that.”
In the end, Swetha and Nivetha hope the game resonates with everyone, forcing us to ask ourselves why such a barbaric practice remains so commonplace in so many parts of the world. “We want to raise important questions for people—not just women, but everyone. Questions like: Why do we stand for this? Why do men stand for this? Isn’t this tedious for all parties involved?”
To some extent, we often talk and refer to street harassment as an an almost necessary kind of evil. But it isn’t, is it? It’s a product of a deeply unbalanced societal power structure, rather than an inherent male or human quality. Street harassment is learned behavior, and in fact more easily eradicated than we tend to imagine.
You can start considering some of these questions yourself by playing Stasis for free on any web browser. To follow more of this sisterly duo’s work, go to Swetha and Nivetha’s respective websites.