This week “manspreading” surfaced once again from the depths of Tumblr to make one of its now regular appearances in the mainstream media, after two men in New York were arrested for taking up too much room on the subway, where this allegedly gendered behaviour has reportedly (and incredibly) been made an offence.
Anyone who has a passing familiarity with the pop-cultural discussion of gender that takes place on twitter and in online organs such as Jezebel and the Huffington Post, will a) know what “manspreading” is supposed to represent and b) know exactly where they stand (or sit) on the issue.
For my part, it strikes me that if men can not only be publicly humiliated by women for the way they sit on public transport, but arrested for it as well, then it’s a very strange form of Patriarchal privilege indeed that they are apparently enjoying.
But the dodgy ideological reasoning behind stigmatising men for the way they sit has been raked over plenty of times already. What I want to write about is the gulf between the alleged scourge of men sitting legs akimbo on the tube, and the behaviour of men that I actually witness on a daily basis while travelling on public transport in London.
I mainly take the bus at the moment, where for some reason “manspreading” is less forensically monitored by the Tumblerettes who post sneakily-taken phone images (creepy objectification anyone?) on their “Men Taking Up Too Much Space on the Train” blog. But during six months last year I commuted on the overground train that runs between east London and west London.
The train is packed at rush hour and you would routinely find yourself standing for the full 50-minute journey. Almost without fail during the six months I made the commute, at least once during the two-way journey I would see a man either offer to give up a seat he was sitting on for a perfectly able-bodied woman, or demure to allow a woman to sit down if there was some confusion as to who had got to the seat first.
Occasionally a woman would politely refuse, but in the majority of instances she would smile with gratitude and happily take the seat to avoid standing for the best part of an hour.
Now, you might argue this is a form of “benevolent sexism”, in which these men don’t think women are strong enough to stand on their own two feet. Granted, occasionally there would be something a bit patronising in the exchange, but far more often it appeared to me that the man offering his seat was doing so out of a sense of the etiquette that he knew was expected of him. More importantly though, in the instances when there was uncertainty as to who got to the seat first, there was the unspoken weight of shame he would be subjected to as a man for “stealing” a seat from a woman.
Whether you agree with this gendered role play or not, what it certainly doesn’t show is that these men hold an inherent sense of entitlement over public space.
But the point I really want to make here is that I’ve never seen so much as a tweet or a Facebook post to acknowledge this small, but en-mass, daily display of self-sacrifice by men. Spend a day travelling on the tube in London and I guarantee you’ll see a man give up his seat, you’ll probably also see a man help a woman carry her pram up an escalator, or help another with her luggage.
But if you were to take your assumptions about how men use public space solely from the virtual world of social media and online commentary, you’d be forgiven for assuming that all men do is lounge and leer their way through the subways and streets of London and New York.
Of course it’s not particularly surprising that we don’t hear about men’s daily small acts of random kindness – no news is good news, after all. But what is a problem, is if the constantly-repeated negative messages about men start to become ingrained in our preconceptions about them too. After all, that is precisely what tends to happen when we’re constantly fed negative messages about a particular group of people.
So I’ve decided there’s only one thing for it. I’m going to start a Tumblr. It’s going to feature selectively-taken phone clips that set out to prove a one-sided worldview and it’s going to be called: “Men Giving Up Too Much Space on the Tube.”
By Dan Bell
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