Breaking Out of Likability: A Conversation with Tatyana Fazlalizadeh


In Stop Telling Women to Smile: Stories of Street Harassment and How We’re Taking Back Our Power, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh addresses the intersectional complexities of gender-based street harassment, drawing on her own personal experiences as well as those of the women she interviews. Fazlalizadeh is skillful at capturing all of the social forces at work in a single incident of street harassment. She explains the impossible bind that some black women find themselves in of wanting to speak up against their harassers, but also not wanting to betray their already oppressed community. She highlights the particularly violent harassment that trans women experience in the face of harrassers’ threatened masculinity, and the politically and racially charged harassment that Muslim women face.

Stop Telling Women to Smile is Fazlalizadeh’s first book, and began as a street art series in 2012. Originally classically trained as an oil painter, Fazlalizadeh’s political artwork has led to her being recognized by Brooklyn Magazine as one of their “Most Influential People” and by Forbes as a “30 Under 30” recipient.

Fazlalizadeh is skilled in describing the space where identity meets violence, and what living in this space has done to women—to our sexuality, and our humanity. She also speaks to how we can begin to free ourselves and how men and bystanders can be better allies. Her work, and this book, are a gift to the reader in this way.

Fazlalizadeh and I spoke recently about unlearning likability, how to handle conversations with men who don’t want to believe what we say, and what it means—inside an oppressive system—to be your wildest, loudest, and most free self.


The Rumpus: Like many women, I’ve struggled in my conversations with men, trying to explain that these daily experiences of street harassment, racism, and sexism really do happen. I found the reframing you’ve provided in Chapter 14 of Stop Telling Women to Smile, “A Message to Men,” to be empowering. You explain how futile it is for women to try to change men’s hearts and minds, that it’s not actually our problem to solve, and that the only thing we can focus on is what behavior to accept. How do you handle conversations with the men in your life who you can’t walk away from—fathers, brothers, partners, coworkers?

Tatyana Fazlalizadeh: It can be difficult. You get to a certain point where you have to walk away from conversations with men who are centering themselves—their wants, their desires, their thoughts, their opinions—above my real life experiences as a human being, not just as a woman. If you say to someone, “This is what my life is like and this is what I go through. It’s real, it’s true, it’s valid. And even if you personally don’t do this to me, you are part of the oppressive group that does, so I need you to recognize this as true and real.” For them to then question that, to put their experiences above that, to play devil’s advocate for the sake of being fun or cute—it’s not funny or cute to me. When that happens, on dates or with men in my life, I have to firmly say, “My life experience is not something that’s up for debate.”

Sometimes you have to leave people behind. Sometimes you have to leave men behind. I know the idea is that men have to be part of the conversation. How do we change things if they’re not there, when they’re the ones perpetrating the behavior? But after I have said what I have to say to a man, if they continue to push back, I’m not going to fight with someone about my humanity. If I have to try to convince you that I am receiving and have received for most of my life oppression from men, then I just don’t want to be talking to you. I’m at the point where I’d like to get results, and going back and forth with men who have no intention of doing better, of being better, is not going to get us anywhere.

I have been fortunate enough where I haven’t had to remove anyone from my life because of this stuff, but I’ve had some very, very hard conversations with people. It can be challenging and difficult, but it comes down to being true to who you are and not betraying yourself. If we decide to continue, not only a relationship, but even a single conversation with a man who doesn’t want to truly hear us, then we’re ultimately betraying ourselves.

Even writing that chapter in the book I thought, Am I writing this for no reason? But I wrote it because when I give lectures or do speaking engagements, men will ask me, “What can I do? I’m not someone who harasses women in the street. I’m not a part of this.” I wrote this chapter to those men in particular to say, “Listen, even if you don’t harass women in the street, you are still a part of this. You still have responsibility.” I don’t think that cis heterosexual men living in our society can be free of sexism. Every man I know is sexist in some way, even if he’s a great guy, and because of that there’s work to be done.

Rumpus: In the book, you talk about wondering what art you would make if you weren’t only responding to your oppressions. I’d love to hear more about that idea.

Fazlalizadeh: What would it look like to explore my identity within my artwork based not on what people have done to me based on those identities, but based instead on what I love and I celebrate within those identities? What does making art about blackness look like that isn’t about racism? Or what does making work about being a woman look like that isn’t about what people do to me because I am a woman? A lot of these identities were constructed to oppress us. So it’s hard to detach blackness from oppression or detach womanhood from oppression, but what would my work look like if I tried to do that?

Rumpus: What are your thoughts about anger and how to exist with it? What do you do with your rage? How do you keep it from enveloping you?

Fazlalizadeh: The main way I release my anger and rage is putting it in my artwork, whether that is screaming and recording myself screaming and developing some type of art piece out of that, or taking everything I want to say—all of my anger, all of my rage—writing it down and incorporating that into some piece of art. But sometimes I wonder if I didn’t have the artwork, then how would I release the rage?

Even with making the artwork, there’s still anger there because it’s continuous, it’s not like one thing happened to me and now it’s over. It’s a continual thing. I make artwork about street harassment, I talk about street harassment, and then I go outside and I experience street harassment. It’s never-ending.

So what do you do with that rage? It’s a good question. I really don’t know. Because even if I feel like I have gotten it out, the fact that I can go outside and even if I don’t get harassed in the street, the threat of it is always there. And if it doesn’t happen today, it will happen to me tomorrow. It’s always there and simply knowing that is enraging.

Rumpus: Do you still experience internal conflict around your work? And if so, how do you move through it?

Fazlalizadeh: I do. In the beginning, it had to do with resources. I didn’t have money to buy a canvas or the space to work. When I was in my twenties, I would paint in my bedroom because it was the only space I had, and that would keep me from wanting to make art, but then I would get a rush of either inspiration or resources and I’d be making work again. It comes in waves.

Lately I have not been making much artwork, to be honest, and there are a few reasons for that. The first half of this year I made a lot of artwork. I did a big solo exhibition in Oklahoma, and then I was the artist-in-residence for the New York City Commission on Human Rights, and we created murals across the city. This all happened between January and June. Since July, I’ve been focused on the book, but I’ve also been feeling this great big anxiety about not making art, and it’s because I don’t know what to make. I have a bunch of ideas. I love talking about beautiful, grand ideas for art. But I get lost in and fearful of the execution of it, not knowing the first step to take when sometimes the first step is to simply put pencil to paper or put paintbrush to canvas. I get stuck and I freeze.

I think it’s a mental thing, an emotional thing. It’s dealing with depression, with anxiety, with fears. Based on the history of my life and my career, I know a wave will come in the next few weeks or months, and I’ll be making a shit ton of work just because it comes out that way. I try to remind myself that I’m a professional. I’m not an artist who simply works off of inspiration. I don’t have the luxury of doing that because I’m not rich, by any means. I have to make work or I don’t eat or pay my bills.

Sometimes it’s easy to do the work, and sometimes it’s very, very difficult. But it is something that I have to remind myself—I’m a professional. You gotta get your ass up and get the work done. If I have a deadline or a commission, it’s going to get done. But when it comes to creating work for myself, I can get in my own way, and it is something I have to work through every single day, to be honest, just getting up and getting this stuff done.

Rumpus: In Stop Telling Women to Smile, you write, “I hear from other women that, as girls, in the face of being sexualized from the outside, and with all that male desire asserting itself so unrelentingly, for a long time they couldn’t decipher what they themselves wanted.” Could you talk more about this dynamic and what you learned about it through this project?

Fazlalizadeh: I think about my childhood, and how early on I had men projecting their desires onto me. It confused my developing ideas about my own sexuality. I interviewed someone once who said,

I’m a sexual person. I enjoy sex. I like being desired, but I want to be the one who decides when, where, and how it happens. When I’m walking down the street, I don’t want a man to decide for me that I’m a sexual being, that he’s going to project his desires onto me and sexualize me in that moment. I want to be the one who makes that decision.

I related to that, as someone who is a sexual person, who has wants and desires, but is also an autonomous person who has agency over that desire. That is something that that really upsets me about street harassment and sexual harassment in general. When it comes to girls developing, you’re stripping away their agency over their own bodies, desires, and developing ideas of sex and sexuality by projecting onto them and forcing onto them what you want and what you think of their bodies as a man. It still happens to women as adults.

What a lot of women are fighting for is simply taking back our agency over our bodies, our selves, and our sexuality. It can be especially challenging for queer girls because men are pushing their sexual desires onto these girls who, like other girls and boys and nonbinary kids, are just figuring out their sexuality. I was a kid who was attracted to boys and girls, but was experiencing this forced sexual desire being put onto me by boys and men. So what did that do to me? And what did that make me question for myself as a kid who was growing into my own body and my own sexuality? How did that make me look at or question my own desires?

Rumpus: You’re starting to look at who you are on the other side of these oppressions, and what kind of art you are able to create if you’re not just responding to your mistreatment. I’m curious what’s coming to mind for you, looking forward to your next works.

Fazlalizadeh: I’ve been thinking a lot about sex and sexuality. I’ve been thinking about the complexities of being a person who is often mistreated and sexualized and what would it be like to express my sexual life and desire in a way that promotes some agency over it and is detached from people’s abuse of that sexuality. I’ve avoided being very personal in my work over the years because I’ve always thought that I’m boring. I don’t know if I’m interesting enough to make work about. But I’m starting to think that the reason Stop Telling Women to Smile came to be is that I was talking about myself and what I go through, and people related to that and got behind it, and that’s why the project took off. I always encourage people to make work that is about themselves and about what you go through because that’s what you know, and you’ll realize that once you do, other people will get behind it because they have similar experiences.

So, to answer your question, I’m thinking about mental health, I’m thinking about sex, I’m thinking about love, I’m thinking about blackness in this very Southern way, I’m thinking about where I come from and where I grew up, my neighborhood, I’m thinking about my family, I’m thinking about being a person who is half black—a descendant of enslaved Africans—and half Persian, I’m thinking about my queerness, I’m thinking about all of these things as potential avenues to go down when it comes to making work.

Rumpus: As you’ve learned about likability and how often women compromise and betray themselves to meet these social expectations, in what ways have you begun to shed these layers of performing likability?

Fazlalizadeh: It’s a good question. Women have this emotional responsibility that’s placed on us to be sweet, pleasant, approachable, to not shake things up, to not be a bitch, to not be angry, to stay within this very small box of emotions that are allowed to us. Breaking out of likability is difficult for a lot of women and I’m one of those women. It has to do with not just personality but things that I’ve been taught and the way I was raised. For me to try to break out of that is to really think about my safety, my wants, and my desires as a human being. I want to feel comfortable no matter where I am. I want to feel like I’m being my true and best self no matter where I am and if that means that I have to make other people uncomfortable, then I just have to do that. It goes back to what I said before about not betraying yourself. If I allow myself to stay in a situation where I know I’m uncomfortable then I’m betraying myself for the sake of a stranger, for the sake of a man.

There’s a poem by my favorite poet, Lucille Clifton, “it was a dream.“ I go to it often in my life. This poem is saying, be this, be your best self, be this wild person. For women in particular, to be wild, to be angry, to be loud, to exclaim, to be vocal is something that we want to do, but we have been taught that we can’t and so we’re afraid of doing it.

I try to think of who my best self is—my wildest self, my loud self, my free self. What would my free self want me to do, even in those small moments, like when I’m simply sitting next to someone who makes me uncomfortable? I try to move with that in mind. It’s hard, though. Getting older, I’m starting to give less of a fuck and understanding more that my safety is of concern. So I can be polite or I can be safe. I can be nice and sweet, or I can be true to my intuition and gut.


Photograph of Tatyana Fazlalizadeh by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh.

A UC Berkeley graduate, Sonia Rao was on her way to becoming a psychologist, with offers from both Stanford University's doctorate program and Columbia University's master's program. Sonia decided to go a different way, though. She turned down both of these offers and moved to Los Angeles to pursue her love of music. Since then, Sonia has appeared on NBC’s The Voice, as BMI’s “Spotlight Indie Artist,” and as a BuzzFeed “Asian American Artist to Watch.” Sonia's songs have been featured on more than 35 shows including MTV’s Jersey Shore, E!’s Keeping Up with the Kardashians, and CBS's The Bold and The Beautiful. Sonia's 2018 TED talk, “The shame and power of being a woman,” proved to be both timely and powerful. Sonia released her third album in 2016 followed by a 32-city tour across the United States, Japan, and Indonesia, and performances at Microsoft, Indiegogo, Soho House, and Disney. She is now working on her fourth album and her first book, an essay collection. More from this author →