'Manspreading': A Portent of Things to Come
Waiting in line at Tim Horton’s a few days ago, I noticed that the man in front of me was standing with his legs wide apart, astride the aisle. I nudged my husband, David: “He’ll be getting a fine for manspreading if he’s not careful,” I whispered.
“Maybe they’ll let him off with a warning for a first offense,” David whispered back, “especially if he agrees to take re-education training.” We looked around and noticed quite a few men standing incorrectly, taking up more than their fair share of space, declaring their manly anatomy too recklessly, and failing to manifest an appropriate shame at having been born male in the West.
Okay, tickets are not actually being issued for manspreading. Not yet. But feminists have certainly vociferated about the practice as if it were nothing short of criminal: “The fact is that most of the perpetrators taking up too much space in public with their bodies are men,” asserted feminist activist Davis Carr, who has expressed her contempt for men on Twitter. “It’s hard to accept that something you do so naturally can cause other people harm.” In response to the “harm” experienced by “survivors” like Carr, manspreading has become an advertising target in cities across North America, particularly in New York, where “Dude … Stop the Spread” posters have been put up by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Ostensibly focused on men’s habit of sitting with their knees apart, pushing into other passengers’ seating area, the anti-manspreading movement is only the most recent in a spate of public service campaigns (the “Don’t Be That Guy” anti-rape poster blitz perhaps the most outrageous) to demonize (white) men by focusing on male attitudes and behaviors as social problems requiring censure.
The manspreading campaign, which has apparently cost New Yorkers more than $76,000, has already received well-deserved ridicule by such anti-feminist luminaries as PJM’s own feisty Dr. Helen Smith (“And don’t give me the crap about the patriarchy. If you shame men in this way, you are a nasty sexist who deserves contempt”), the indefatigable Cathy Young (“The anti-spread campaign has little to do with etiquette. It's part of a recent surge in a noxious form of feminism”), and Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente (“A new scourge stalks the land”). These writers, along with many witty bloggers and journalists (hats off to Katherine Timpf for best satirical survey of the feminist position) have ably pinpointed the Freudian triviality of feminist ire. But the fact that the cause has been taken up so seriously by transit authorities in New York City and Seattle tells us something about our present cultural moment.
It is inconceivable that any other identifiable group would be singled out in such a humiliating fashion for public correction. Obese people whose thighs spill past their seat boundaries? Women with large packages piled on adjoining seats or in aisles? Mothers neglectful of their children, who squirm, howl, and disturb other passengers unreproved while their mega-strollers block exit doorways? All these are relatively common transit inconveniences that most of us accept with equanimity. Reasonable people would find it churlish and unnecessarily divisive to mobilize against them.
When it comes to maleness, however, the big guns always come out, and seemingly with broad public support. Our feminist-compliant authorities see men as fair game to be “lessoned.” No foible or incorrect action—whether it be catcalling, telling rude jokes, hanging a girlie calendar, proffering unwanted compliments, or even kissing a workmate on the cheek—escapes the ever-expanding net of the compliance enforcers. One of my gloomy predictions for 2015 is that the move to discipline and re-educate boys and men will proceed ever more vigorously and punitively.
Expect to see many more campaigns in which feminist activists, local police, academic administrators, politicians, government bureaucrats, journalists, and community leaders form partnerships to quell unruly male behavior. Boys and young men at public school and college will be made to attend an increasing number of anti-sexual assault classes, violence-prevention programs, “affirmative consent” seminars, and “Check Your Privilege” workshops. We will see many more poster crusades telling (white, heterosexual) men what they are and are not allowed to say, do, and think (see for example, Make Your Move, ostensibly targeting sexual violence generally but focused exclusively on the supposed violence of white heterosexual men—and now being enthusiastically embraced by the same police who had sanctioned the “Don’t Be That Guy” campaign, also targeting white men exclusively).
We will see an increasing number of man-blaming organizations dedicating to re-educating men away from violence. We will undoubtedly witness more parades of wounded female accusers—some of them stepping forward 25 years after the fact!—claiming abuse by media celebrities; and news commentators will weigh in on the problem of sexual predation as if the charges were already proven. Our newspapers will fill with yet more reports about the epidemic of women harassed in the workplace (43% according to a recent report—but look at the innocuous behavior defined as “harassment”).
Every university across North America will enact “affirmative consent” policies, effectively criminalizing a vast swath of non-coercive sexual activity defined after the fact as non-consensual. Young men at these institutions will attend performances of the Vagina Monologues, where they will see female sexuality celebrated and masculine sexuality demonized. They will sit through dozens or even hundreds of classes in which women’s achievements and experiences are portrayed as worthy of sympathy and admiration while men’s are mocked or dismissed (I know—I live in the belly of the beast). In a multitude of ways, they will be made to feel secondary, superfluous, offensive in mind and body, always in danger of a social or even criminal mis-step for which constant apology and vigilant self-monitoring are required.
It’s not the end of men just yet, but it is surely the end of the unselfconscious masculinity of young men, who are increasingly under siege by a society determined to make them uncomfortable in their own skins, guilty, apprehensive of wrong-doing, convinced that they are to blame for the world’s ills. Many feminists will applaud such a result (shame on them) as necessary for positive social transformation, but the deliberate emasculation of men is certain to have repercussions (already seen in everything from social withdrawal to self-slaughter) far more serious than matters of subway etiquette.