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Margaret Wente

Margaret Wente

Margaret Wente

Advice to younger women: Practise manning up Add to ...

A new scourge stalks the land. It’s called “manspreading.”

Manspreading is what men do when they splay their legs wide on public transit, taking up more than their share of space, so as to give their manly parts plenty of air.

“It drives me crazy,” Kelley Rae O’Donnell, a New York actress, told The New York Times. “I find myself glaring at them because it just seems so inconsiderate in this really crowded city.” Her crusade has drawn thousands of enthusiasts. Now, the New York subway system has created an illustrated poster campaign to chasten the guilty. It says, “Dude ... Stop the Spread, Please.”

Manspreading is certainly bad manners in a crowded subway – and so is other stuff, like people wielding giant backpacks. At first, I couldn’t believe that it had become a thing. “Of all the grievances cooked up against men, this must be the dumbest,” my husband groused.

But to many people, manspreading is about so much more than manners. It’s another example of the arrogance, disrespect and microaggression men inflict on women. “It’s a metaphor for that larger space-taking that happens,” Lyndsay Kirkham, an English professor at Humber College, told the Toronto Star. “You don’t have to be a feminist to recognize and agree with the fact that men are given permission to take up more space in our society.”

How should society deal with manspreading?

Well, there’s the blame-and-shame approach. A Tumblr page called Men Taking Up Too Much Space On The Train has become a huge hit. (Its description: “A classic among public assertions of privilege.”)

Or there’s the public-education approach. (Toronto’s transit system, for one, has so far declined to follow New York’s lead.)

Or we could deal with it the old-fashioned way. When some clod has his leg splayed in front of the seat you want to sit in, you say, “Excuse me,” and sit down. Give his leg a little nudge if he doesn’t respond. That usually works. In most cases, the underlying problem isn’t hostility but cluelessness.

We need to stop monsterizing men. We also need to stop encouraging women to believe they are as helpless as kittens with the vapours.

Women are not weaker vessels. That is the fundamental premise of feminism, as I recall. We have discarded that belief as discriminatory and patriarchal. We’ve tried to raise our daughters to be strong and independent, confident and secure – resilient, resourceful, tough-minded, able to deal with what the world throws at them. That is the road to equality.

So where did we go wrong? Instead of lionesses, we’ve turned turned our brave and fearless daughters into neurotic, quivering piles of jelly.

How did that happen? How did we create an entire class of highly privileged, mostly affluent young women who feel unsafe on campus, microaggressed at every turn, utterly unable to cope with the garden-variety misdemeanours of boys and men, who have been behaving badly since time began despite our many efforts (most quite successful) to civilize them?

Well, you know the answer. The universities are hothouses for a grievance culture that sees racism, sexism and misogyny under every rug. Many of the faculty derive their livelihoods from it. These institutions have constructed increasingly elaborate codes of conduct and large administrative apparatuses to detect and uproot these evils, however subtle and invisible they may be to ordinary people.

The dental hysteria at Dalhousie is another symptom. Some of the male dental students did something serious, and it cannot be condoned. But asinine locker-room jokes are not rape. They aren’t in the same universe as rape.

If my daughter were one of the women in that class and told me what was going on, the first thing I’d ask her is: What are these guys like in person? Are they disrespectful pigs or are they decent people? (The answer, evidently, is that they are decent people.)

Then I would suggest that the adult thing for the women to do is to say, “This is outrageous and offensive, and you have to cut it out and apologize, or else we’re going to have to take it up the line.” Nine times out of 10, the guys will apologize, look shamefaced and cut it out. If not, it’s time to take it to the dean, who will deal with it swiftly and sternly, unless he’s an utter incompetent. Only if that fails to produce corrective action do you leak it to the CBC, where it becomes a cause célèbre.

Maybe the women did those things, or maybe they didn’t. If you really do think you’ve been brutally violated by a few crude, juvenile jokes, then maybe you do go straight to nuclear.

“Perpetrators” and “survivors.” That’s the desperately inflated language that serious people are using to discuss the tawdry Dal incident. Fifty thousand people have signed a petition to have the male students expelled – even though they have no idea who did what or how extensive it was.

Here’s some advice for young women: Practise manning up. Like it or not, the world beyond the cloistered halls of academia is teeming with guys who take up too much space and occasionally act like total jerks. Sooner or later, you will have to learn to deal with them. Fear not. You can.

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