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Kitty Genovese, Revisited

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Kitty Genovese, Revisited Photo

by Kelsey Duchesne | 04/07/2016

This week, the latest GIRLS episode centered (quite literally) around a play about the 1964 murder of 28 year-old Kitty Genovese. The episode was titled Hello Kitty__, and show creator and star Lena Dunham took to Instagram to pay homage to Genovese, whose neighbors' failure to come to her aid on the night of her death led to the popular psychological term, “Bystander Effect.” The killer, Winston Moseley followed, stabbed, and raped Genovese, and later admitted his reasoning was simply because he “wanted to kill a woman.”

On the same day as the GIRLS episode aired, the New York Times reported that Moseley had died in prison at the age of 81. The coincidence was eerie, and has encouraged the spotlight to return to the tragic story of Kitty Genovese. Perhaps the most uncomfortable realization is that in the 52 years since her death, the social commentary and concern surrounding women alone at night has not significantly changed.

Women walking home alone and feeling safe is still, frustratingly, inconsistent. Before I leave a bar alone, my friends always make me promise I will text them when I get home. This practice is now so standard that it feels as ritualistic as brushing my teeth, but when you strip away the “xoxo” and “Home safe! Love you!," the cold truth is staring back at you: you text your friends so they don’t think you have been harassed, kidnapped, or worse. It’s like when I call my Mom as I’m walking home at night; we both subconsciously know that it’s so I feel like I have company and she knows I’ve arrived home safely, but our conversation is always pleasant and upbeat, with no mention of the primary reason for the call.

When I texted my 21 year-old brother, Garrett, to ask if he had ever called our parents while walking at night because he was scared, he texted me back a definitive “Haha no, I’m an adult.”  After several minutes, he responded with “I am also a 190 pound, 6’3 male living in New Hampshire, not New York City. I hope you always talk to someone at night because you are in the city. Also, you are the best sister in the entire universe.” The last sentence may not be a direct quote, but even so, I appreciate the clarification, Geeps! 

Comedian and actor Aziz Ansari had an entire episode of his Netflix show, Master of None__, based around sexism, including a brilliant, cold open that juxtaposed a woman's experience of walking home at night to a man's. The music would comically change as Ansari’s character, Dev, complained to his friend Arnold about dog poop on his shoe, as his coworker, Diana, was followed by a “nice guy who just wants a chance, for once.” It is a humorous observation of an unfortunate reality, one that I, and almost every woman I know, have experienced.

As we continue to search for solutions to ending violence and harassment versus teaching women to avoid it (there are, for example, successful apps, like Companion, that have been made just to virtually walk women home), it is important for public figures like Dunham to not forget the past, and Ansari to remind us of the present realities. The best way for us to honor Kitty Genovese is to keep the conversation of women's safety relevant, and to educate dudes who haven’t experienced the same fear, because sometimes they haven’t truly thought about the differences in experience. I have already told Garrett I will be calling him later, and I’m sure he is very much looking forward to it.

by Kelsey Duchesne

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