By Graham Peterson
Apparently the internet has made a big hullabaloo about “manspreading” (a spinoff of the already ridiculous word “mansplaining”) that is supposed to identify pernicious misogyny — men sitting with their legs spread on the subway. Sitting with legs crossed, forward, or spread certainly is a gendered and classed phenomenon.
I once watched a little girl’s father tell her “close your legs; you ain’t a boy,” while she sat. I feel more comfortable full-crossing my legs when I’m in a higher status environment like a nice restaurant (note that this class reversal – where upper class men are more effeminate – seems to give the lie to hegemonic masculinity) . Women close and cross their legs because of the tradition of skirt wearing, but skirt wearing is gendered. There’s no obvious reason why men don’t wear skirts.
So leg crossing is gendered; this much is obvious.
But leg-crossing norms are old and evolved largely independent of train riding. Train riding norms also are also old, and evolved mostly independent of leg crossing norms. The CTA in Chicago has a routine announcement on trains about keeping your bags off the seat next to you. The CTA is 100 years old. After 100 years people still don’t pick up their bags for other passengers. And the announcement about bags is not aimed at a gender.
It seems unlikely that after paying focused attention to the problem of rider comfort and issuing repeated warnings about courtesy for years, and after paying a not-small amount of attention to leg crossing norms for years, we’ve just now uncovered a ubiquitous example of patriarchy at their intersection.
The uncritical discussion of manspreading hasn’t stopped internet feminists from taking it even further, though. The logic here is, “we have very little evidence for our beliefs, so the time is ripe to project them even further.” Now the complaint is that men will not defer to women’s paths on the sidewalk. The evidence is a “social experiment” in which an activist walked down the sidewalk and refused to change her course when men were coming her way.
It would be an interesting experiment if it were actually an experiment.
Did she just wait for men to end up in her path at random, or did she walk into men’s paths? What kind of men did she walk into? What kind ended up in her path randomly? White, black, suits, sneakers, taller, shorter? Were they on a cellphone or distracted by a car wreck? Did she make or avoid eye contact with people coming toward her?
If she did walk into their paths, how many paces away did she merge in? Did that give them ample time to see her? Did she walk into women at the same rates as men, and then compare proportions? When she compared across groups, did she hold constant the context like the block they were on or racial composition of the neighborhood?
Did she observe other people walking toward one another in order to ascertain which patterns of sidewalk walking are general and which particular?
None of these factors got discussed or controlled for. The experiment gets an F in an undergraduate course. A woman who was angry about women’s (supposed) lack of body sovereignty just started walking into men on the street, called it an experiment, and five thousand people subsequently broadcast it, nodding along.
Like I said, these are interesting questions. Leg crossing is certainly gendered, and playing chicken on the sidewalk certainly can be about dominance. I’ve played chicken with many a young thug on the sidewalk in order to assert myself in the hood. Our high-school principle used to walk straight down the hallway without swerving.
It might not be the case that not being able to get a seat on the subway, or able to get to work without colliding into people, is evidence of patriarchy. But we’ll never know as long as “look at this picture of this dooshbag wearing a suit on the subway with his legs uncrossed lol retweet” and “I’m paranoid about patriarchy so I created an experiment with no controls and wow I’m surprised I confirmed my hypothesis lol retweet” is the standard of evidence.