We all know about manspreading. Blogs like the aptly named “Men Taking Up Too Much Space on the Train” have helped recognize the widespread phenomena of men unconsciously taking up more space than women in public places like subways, buses, and movie theaters. The internet is full of the manspreading think pieces and manspreading memes (including my favorite: “Saving Room for Cats”).
But while manspreading is a well-known issue on public transit, there are very few public transit agencies talking about it. In December, New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority took the plunge and included manspreading in their “Courtesy Counts” campaign. Among a dozen messages targeting public transit do’s and don’ts installed on subway cars, one placard read, “Dude… Stop the Spread, Please.” The anti-manspreading sign sparked a big hubub, including this interview the New York Times did with Johnny T, a native New Yorker and puppet:
All the media coverage got me interested in what subway riders themslves were saying about manspreading. So few weeks after the MTA’s efforts made headlines, I filed a public records request through MuckRock.com for MTA emails containing the word “manspreading.” The transit agency sent me a file of 18 email comments about the campaign from over the course of one month.
Of the 18 emails, nine of them called out the campaign for being sexist against men, anti-male, or contained gripes about how they ways women take up space are a far worse problem. The complaints range from the predictable to the offensive to the downright perplexing.A couple of them contained weird racial microaggressions (“Would the MTA also have a campaign ‘hey black folks, stop using the poles to do your dance routines?’ That would be racist by most counts, correct?” You’re correct. It would.) But from the worst of the worst we get a glimpse into the pushback a public agency gets when it dares to address issues around gender.
Many of the complaints tell the MTA that asking dudes to “stop the spread” is “blatant sexism.” Like this charming email that says the PSA amounts to publicly funded man-bashing:
It’s interesting—but not at all surprising—that a request for men to think about whether they’re taking up inordinate amounts of space on the subway was met with a wave of antagonism from guys who cry “misandry!”
Women are no stranger to having our behavior policed. Sometimes it can seem like “sorry” is built into the beginning of any comment we have, as if we have to feel regret for thinking anything at all. In public space, that apology is translated into shrunken bodies, with legs crossed and hands folded in our laps. We constantly feel the pressure to make ourselves smaller (whatever that means). Men are encouraged to take up more space, physically and conversationally. So when even the most innocuous PSA asks them to address their spatial privilege, the response is to excuse their behavior by trying to erase gender from their offense and by pointing out ways that women have made similar offenses.
Here’s a typical email that dismisses the PSA as a “sexist attack on men” and argues that the real problem is fat people and women with large breasts. Nice, dude.
A number of the complaints charge the MTA to address other types of space-taking behavior… which the MTA did. The eleven other Courtesy Counts placards address non-manspreading issues, including people being “pole hogs,” taking up space with backpacks, blocking doors, and how it’s polite to offer your seat to an elderly, disabled, or pregnant person. In fact the image for the Courtesy Counts rendition of how to “keep your stuff to yourself” is gendered as a woman and while we certainly could argue that this is also a little bit sexist (what with all the shopping bags and what not), I think we can all agree to let this non-issue go.
Buuuut this irritated New Yorker wants to know why “purse seating” isn’t also a problem. Yes, it is interesting to consider why men consistently take up more space, as documented by numerous blogs and videos, isn't it?
Manspreading is a gendered term for a gendered act. And just like the rest of the Courtesy Counts campaign, it addresses an issue of thoughtlessness on public transportation. As Ana Karsparian pointed out earlier this year, manspreading doesn’t have to be the main stage for our conversation about gender oppression. But the way gender colors our relationship to public space matters. Manspreading is pretty harmless compared to some of the other behaviors men exhibit in public spaces and on public transit. It’s male entitlement in its least threatening form.
Not all of the complaints about the manspreading were so senseless. One person pointed out that there are circumstances when a man needs to sit with his legs open. Unlike the countless tweets comments about the limitations set by their genitalia, this person sites the serious, although likely uncommon, instances of medical procedures that would make closing his legs uncomfortable and even painful. He actually raises another question about the politics of manspreading: Where do we figure the ethics of public shaming in all this? The inclusion of manspreading in the MTA’s campaign was very likely due to a cultural climate surrounding a blog that takes and posts pictures of strangers without their consent. What do we do with that?
To their credit, the MTA stood by the campaign. In the MTA's form-letter response, they remind the bellyachers that the aim of the posters, anti-manspreading and otherwise, were merely an attempt to make riding the subway better for all.
It’s difficult to pack the nuances of gender politics into a subway PSA. It’s difficult to have any kind of conversation that even remotely relates to gender without feeling the whiplash. MTA set out to try and help remind people to be a little more courteous on the subway. This is what they got instead:
Related Reading: Every Street Should Be a Safe Space.
Emily Hopkins is a Boston-based journalist who writes about housing, transparency, and social justice activism. Follow them on Twitter.