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Commuters ride a TTC subway west from Kennedy Station in Scarborough, Ontario Wednesday, September 25, 2013. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Commuters ride a TTC subway west from Kennedy Station in Scarborough, Ontario Wednesday, September 25, 2013. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Manspreading: The gender-focused battle for urban space Add to ...

It might come as a shock, but it turns out that Torontonians don’t thrill at being body checked. I would know – this past dreary Monday I bumped into roughly 150 unsuspecting denizens on their way home from a long day’s work.

On purpose.

There was a reason behind the rudeness. I was hoping to replicate an experiment by 25-year-old New York labour organizer Beth Breslaw.

Breslaw spent the end of last year trying to gauge whether public space entitlement is a gendered issue. For a surely excruciating period of several weeks, Breslaw didn’t adjust her path to move out of other people’s way, waiting instead to see who ducked out of hers. In other words, she walked into people. A lot. According to Breslaw, more often than not the people she found herself slamming into were men. Women were more likely to make room for others.

Breslaw’s social experiment has been dubbed “manslamming” by New York magazine, coming quick on the heels of the buzzed-about scourge of “manspreading” (that is, men taking up more than one seat on public transit with their widely splayed legs). This month, New York’s transit authority launched an awareness campaign encouraging male riders to “stop the spread, please,” in consideration of shared (and limited) space. In return, a group of Toronto men with great concern for their own testicular prominence pre-emptively protested a similar campaign here, saying closing their legs would be “physically painful.”

In dense urban landscapes, space has become a luxury. Some people can afford to buy it, like first-class air travellers who shell out for the perk of legroom while the rest of us increasingly feel like we’re flying steerage. The shrinking economy airplane seat gave birth to the Knee Defender, a $22 (U.S.) plastic gadget that prevents passengers from reclining their seat – and resulted in a fight on a United Airlines flight last year. With the 99 per cent increasingly sardined in shared spaces, it’s no wonder that grumpy mayhem ensues.

The battle of the sexes has long been considered at least partly to blame, with art and fashion fixated on the relationship between gender and space. In the 1970s, German artist Marianne Wex assembled thousands of photographs of men (sprawled) and women (contained) in public, later collected into the book Let’s Take Back our Space. The so-called “power suits” of the 1980s boasted linebacker-sized shoulder pads to masculinize the new career woman’s silhouette, reaffirming that in order to be taken seriously, women would need to literally broaden their physical zone.

Seen this way, manspreading and manslamming are two expressions of “microaggression,” a term coined by Harvard psychiatry professor Chester Pierce in the 1970s to describe the offhand remarks, untoward glances and general cumulative rudeness experienced by black Americans. The word eventually came to describe day-to-day slights inflicted upon any marginalized population, including women.

Both new terms constitute “a useful example to teach that gender isn’t the truth of who we are, but something we do,” says David Seitz, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto who studies gender and sexuality in the public sphere. Flagrantly spread legs show that men often see public spaces as an extension of their own bodies. Women, on the other hand, are socialized to make themselves small and unobtrusive.

This seemed to hold true when I began my truncated version of Breslaw’s experiment. My destination was Toronto’s PATH, the underground walkway flooded with a terrifying mob of commuters twice daily.

My first attempt to disembark from a claustrophobic eastbound streetcar en route was thwarted by a guy wearing giant headphones and an air of disregard, blocking the exit with his overstuffed gym bag like a bro-sized military fort. I bobbed under his outstretched arm to get out one stop late.

But what happened next surprised me. Of the dozens of people I knocked into, one every five to 10 seconds, women seemed only slightly less likely to check my down-padded shoulder. On the whole, all genders presented as more or less equal-opportunity targets. I barrelled around like a grey-parkaed pinball. I only lasted 15 minutes.

Etiquette expert Karen Cleveland puts manspreading and manslamming in the same category of entitled cluelessness as taking up an extra transit seat with a shopping bag. “We can get a little self-important. And we put our comfort above everyone else’s,” says the Toronto-based Cleveland. She doesn’t see these behaviours as necessarily male or female, but more of (as she puts it) “an asshole thing.”

Then again, she does think women tend to be more aware of their surroundings – both because women are socialized to be more considerate and are more on guard about their safety in a crowd. That makes sense. During my pinballing, men were less likely to notice they were being bumped into, while women were more inclined to get angry. Women were also much likelier to say “sorry.”

The results of my evening’s collisions weren’t a huge surprise to Seitz. Everyday power dynamics fleshed out in public spaces are about a lot more than just gender, after all.

“Presumably it was a lot of middle-class professionals [you were bumping into],” Seitz says of my post-work Financial District excursion. Though of course I encountered people of different races and genders, the similarities in their education and income, he says, might lead them to “move through space more similarly.” I flash back to one immaculately coiffed blonde who sharply warned me to “watch where you’re going!” as I rumpled her Mackage coat sleeve.

Our microaggressions come down to what’s inside our heads and hearts, what’s inside our pocketbooks and good, old-fashioned manners. No matter what, we might all benefit from a little commuter kumbaya.

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