‘Manspreading’ is merely silly, not a sign of the apocalypse

“Manspreading” is a thing, and bloggers of the world are desperate to prove it. Every day I see men on public transportation sitting with their legs spread, sometimes at a comically obtuse angle, taking up more than one seat. It can be annoying and look a little weird—but is it a swiftly sweeping global scourge that we must be hyper-vigilant against and merciless in our mockery and shaming of?

I’m going to say no.

This, I hasten to clarify, is neither a defense of manspreading nor a defense of the men who practice it. Those who do try to defend it usually come off like idiots or assholes. I won’t want people like this representing my gender.

Take this guy, with his rather unenlightened note about human anatomy:

When I sit, my knees naturally spread out to a distance wider than my hips. Call it manspreading if you like. It’s also totally and completely natural and involuntary. Arguments about men’s hips vs women’s hips and the way boys and girls are raised are irrelevant: It’s dead simple to close your legs, no matter who you are.

And I’ll tell you from personal experience: It has nothing to do with balls. Men who claim so are lying or they are acting stupid on purpose. Their overt anti-feminism pushes them off the tracks of logic and sense. But I don’t have patience either for the bloggers who argue with them on those idiotic terms. Writers who try to shame men for a made-up, non-existent problem—needing room for their balls—are embarrassing themselves and wasting their readers’ time.

Men who sit like this are not thinking about their genitalia or their posture or the position of their legs.

For me, usually the problem is not my legs but my shoulders, especially in winter when we are all wearing more bulky clothing. Sorry, but I can’t collapse my torso in on itself.

No, this is not a defense of manspreading. This is a plea for calm in the face of panic, reason in the face of lunacy.

We are being asked to believe that this is a public crisis. An epidemic! A gross, public assertion of privilege! A social ill to be cured with campaigns of righteous indignation! It is characterized, bizarrely, as a virus that is COMING TO YOUR TOWN, leaving a trail of ruin and waste in its careless wake.

Annoyance has occurred on public transportation since the first passenger train chugged out of the first passenger train station. Yet for some reason, it has been collectively decided that the real problem, suddenly now, above all other, is people, specifically men, who take up too much room with their wide-swinging legs. A recent New York Times article about the MTA’s umpteenth campaign against subway rudeness describes manspreading as the bane of female subway riders.

I wish the MTA luck, by the way. Maybe this time they’ll win.

Men and women have been annoying each other on the subway for a long time. (NY Transit Museum)

Why must this be a man-on-woman crime, when it clearly affects everyone (including men)? Even the word “manspreading” is little more than a socially expeditious product of the age of hash-tivism and Twitter outrage.

Why must this be made a stand-alone issue at all? I guess it’s easier to vilify one category of people than to criticize a wide range of behaviors, equally as annoying, committed by everyone. It’s more fun to get a dig at the patriarchy—by photoshopping the Death Star or kitties between men’s legs—than to do something actually useful. Demanding politeness of everyone doesn’t win you as many followers, shares, likes or comments. It doesn’t fulfill our need to be important.

In Philly, SEPTA’s “Dude, it’s rude” campaign is handling this the right way, too—apart from the signs being hideous and barely readable—by aiming at a slew of bad behavior. Take your trash. Watch your language. Don’t block the front aisle.

SEPTA takes on rude passengers.

Purses, backpacks, briefcases and shopping bags take up human-sized spaces. Men, women and children take seats reserved for elderly and handicapped passengers. Taking an aisle seat instead of a perfectly good window seat knows no gender. Moms and dads refuse to collapse their baby strollers, in defiance of posted signs, the castigation of bus drivers, and common sense (particularly now that the strollers have reached the size of small Volkswagens, and parents can use them as much for transporting their own stuff as for the baby). Some people are so obese that they take up one-and-a-half or two seats. Some people will even fall asleep and lean into their neighbors.

And manspreading is of exactly as much consequence as these acts of spacial privilege. So let’s all take a breath and count to 10.

I’ve watched these clouds roll in since I first tumbled upon Your Balls Are Not That Big, a “rage blog about dudes on New York City subways,” and its more thorough cousin, Men taking Up 2 Much Space on the Train, years ago. Manspreading is not a new phenomenon. What’s new is the ability to photograph it, blog it and wag a public finger at it.

Look at the Billy Penn picture here. How many of these guys are actually, actively preventing someone from sitting in the adjacent seat? Maybe the guy in the lower right. The rest of them: Where is the problem?

One of these things is not like the other — because that's the one guy who's actually preventing someone from setting directly next to him. (From Billy Penn)

One of these things is not like the other — because that’s the one guy who’s actually preventing someone from setting directly next to him. (From Billy Penn)

This is common among hidden-camera, vigilante gotcha-grams. Most of the images on YBANTB don’t actually show men preventing anyone from sitting. When you start looking for it, you see it everywhere. Many of the spread legs I see in real life are equally as innocuous.

In this one, the problem isn’t even the legs: It’s the bag.

The bag is the problem, but the only bag this blogger is interested in is a scrotum. (From yourballsarenotthatbig.tumblr.com)

The bag is the problem, but the only bag this blogger is interested in is a scrotum. (From yourballsarenotthatbig.tumblr.com)

I don’t know why the lady with the baby isn’t sitting there instead. Maybe she asked nicely, and the dude flipped her off. Maybe she doesn’t want to ask him to move it. Maybe she prefers to stand. None of us will know. But thank goodness SOMEONE was there to take a picture!

(A note to other would-be vigilantes of sexual justice: If you want to stand up for the lady with the baby, then literally stand up and offer the woman YOUR seat. Then ask #blackhoodie to move his bag so you can sit.)

Of course the men in these isolated contexts look ridiculous. The posture does look arrogant, privileged and, with the right caption, even belligerent. Gah! These guys are drunk on power … reading their newspapers … fidgeting with their iPhones … sweating all over everything like overheated wildebeests.

I can’t help but notice that most of these pictures are taken on uncrowded subway trains. If the cars were packed, and people were prevented from sitting by rude assholes taking up two seats, you wouldn’t be able to get a picture of them from across the aisle—because there would be a crowd of passengers standing in your way.

When people have space, they take it. I freely confess: If there are seats on either side of me, and there is no one hovering over me with an eye on them, I’m not going to set up base camp, but neither will I close myself up like a clam. No one should. You can call it a micro-aggression. I call it normal human behavior.

This almost always happens when there is room for it. (From Mic.com)

This almost always happens when there is room for it. (From Mic.com)

Asking someone to move is not an epic battle against the patriarchy. And it’s not a gross inconvenience. It’s simply the way public transit works. As a subway car begins to crowd, people who understand how mass transit works do not hesitate to ask someone to slide over, close their legs, move their bag, make space. There’s no shame in it. Assert your right as a paying passenger and sit down. You don’t even need to speak the language: Just point, smile and grunt.

If you don’t want to touch people (or be touched by people), if you can’t bring yourself to ask for space, consider a bike or a cab.

You can give the stink eye all you want to that guy over—just sitting there … look at him … he makes me sick. You may find comfort in posting a photo to Facebook or Tumblr, where you can watch your friends’ comments rush in to validate your misanthropy. You can write a blog post that gets thousands of hits, shares and likes. If you choose not to engage with other passengers, you can stand or find somewhere else to sit. But the one who asks the guy to slide over has a better chance of getting a seat.

BUT WE SHOULDN’T HAVE TO ASK! you might shout.


Speaking of privilege, how special are you that you are exempted from dealing with the public part of public transportation?

Who on the subway has at the forefront of his or her mind the needs and comforts of other passengers? Someone might stand for a pregnant woman or an old person, but the run-of-the-mill passenger is invisible. The report due at the office, the sick kid at home, the boyfriend who just doesn’t get it, the cost of those baseball tickets, the desperate need for a cup of coffee, a prayer to really nail that job interview, the degree to which that movie really sucked, the sudden recollection that you left your keys in the door at home—these are the thoughts of your fellow passengers.

If the first thought on people’s minds was other people, we would not see passengers running for a door about to close, leap aboard, and then STOP in the doorway because never in their wildest dreams would they consider that someone else may have had to run for the train, too.

Someone … else? Is that the word: “someone else”? Yeah, I don’t get it. I made it onto the train. I don’t get it. 

In our culture, we have the luxury, the privilege, of thinking about ourselves first. Everyone feels it. Understanding that you are not foremost in your neighbor’s mind, of course it makes sense to ask someone to move. You have a need to sit that, in that moment, usurps someone else’s need to take up space. If a dude has his legs spread, I know I can sit next to him and he’s going to have to close his them. Otherwise, he will have to suffer the discomfort of our thighs exchanging body heat. Can I sit there? Done. If there’s room, the vast majority will oblige. If he pulls a face, screw him. Why do you care? If he refuses to move, then you have a problem. Until then: NOT AN ACTUAL PROBLEM.

So let’s agree that the problem is actually the guys who maintain that wide stance when they don’t have the room for it. It’s the guy who invades the personal space of people already sitting. Instagram him, pillory him, stare him into next week. He’s the villain.


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