Last night, I was on the C train on my way to a meeting of feminist poets, standing facing an MTA poster that first went up a couple years ago, announcing the return of the Poetry in Motion program. “Many of you felt parting was not such sweet sorrow,” reads the poster, but whenever I see it, I wonder, Did people really write or call the MTA clamoring for poetry? I then thought about how easy it is to run into a poet on the subway or on the streets of Brooklyn, and figured that it was possible that I lived in a city where people were hungry for more poems to read on their commutes. Still, I was skeptical.
After the meeting, I came home, scrolled my feed, and saw an article reporting that the MTA’s new courtesy campaign announcements would target “man spreaders.” Man spreaders! I thought to myself. “Man spreaders!!” I said aloud and then posted on Facebook along with the article, delighted by the elegant ridiculousness of the term. I felt a wave of relief go through my body, a cultural-linguistic tingle similar to what I’d felt the first time I’d heard the term “mansplaining.” Oh, there’s a word for that. And then suddenly many separate incidents, many men, rushed forth from memory to cluster around the term. Man purse (or murse), Man sandals (or mandals), and man nanny (or manny) had only ever made me laugh or roll my eyes, but a term like “man spreaders” does something different.
Besides sounding vaguely like a personal assistant who will spread Nutella on toast for you when you ring a little bell, “man spreaders” more importantly offers a succinct, clever, easily-rolled-off-the tongue way to name those guys on trains who spread their legs over three seats while those around them stand hunched over by the weight of three bags. #NotAllMen are spreaders, and not all spreaders are men, but on an average day on the train, the person sitting with his legs splayed is usually a man, and the person standing holding three bags is usually a woman. (The reasons for those three bags are for another post, but from one bag lady to some others, it’s true.)
“Man spreaders” have recently come more urgently into popular consciousness. My own friends and I have been talking, online and IRL, about this phenomenon for the last few years, and the internet has done an amazing job of documenting it. My brief review of the meme life of man spreaders reminded me of Men Taking Up Too Much Space on the Train and One Bro, Two Seats. And then of course there is the beloved Saving Room for Cats:
I have to admit that I was a surprised to learn the MTA was going to launch a campaign to target man spreaders (along with backpack-wearers and other offenders). I love mass transit, but something in me is still hesitant to believe that my subway system could really be in favor of spreading poetry love and telling men to take up less space, and that both of these programs were launched in response to customer feedback. What world is this? Mine? Here I caught myself in my own self-defeatist thinking: Patriarchy, unavoidable. Shrug. I live in a world that largely does not share my values, shrug. This train can take me to my feminist poet group but hates feminism and poetry, shrug.
Who knows how the MTA decided to target man spreaders. But those spread legs, it turns out, are actually illegal, and can get you a $50 ticket: “the MTA’s disorderly conduct statute prohibits passengers from occupying more than one seat when doing so interferes with the comfort of other passengers.”
The term “man spreader,” and the fact that the MTA is addressing the issue, reminds me of two lessons I learned from the brilliant feminist poet Danielle Pafunda, who suggested a few years back, with her co-curator Mark Wallace, that we avoid using the modifier “male” and replace it with “man” or “men”:
We choose the term “man” to augment “poet” in order to extend the query to all individuals who identify as men, regardless of how their bodies are sexed, and because we are discussing gender, which is the cultural perception of one’s biological sex, not biological sex itself (though I know it is common practice to use the terms interchangeably). “Male poet” reads more felicitously precisely because the term “man” is more often an assumption than an utterance, the assumed quantity in the human figure (poet or doctor or senator or lion tamer). Woman poet. Man poet. We mark the unmarked category, reveal its difference.
The use of “man” in “man spreaders” also takes the linguistic air out of the argument that men are somehow spreading their legs for biologically male reasons, which seemingly hundreds claim they are, according to this crowdsourced poem by Abraham Adams, “Men Defending Their Balls: A Superpoem”:
do you want to know why guys cant close their legs as much as women? because we have dicks
males sit with legs apart for a very good reason: testicles
okay, men have balls, they can’t close their legs otherwise it really, really hurts
men have something called a penis that makes it uncomfortable to sit with our legs squished together in a fetal position like you apparently insist we should
this is a matter of anatomy
MEN SIT LIKE THIS BECAUSE OF THEIR ANATOMY
I’d say genital differences plays a role.
And so on.
But as we all know, MEN SIT LIKE THIS BECAUSE THEY THINK THEY HAVE THE RIGHT TO MORE SPACE JUST CUZ THEY WANT IT.
They’re man spreaders, not male spreaders.
Danielle was also the first person to say to me, “Women need to take up more space,” something I remind myself and others regularly now. But the flipside of women taking up more space is men taking up less. Danielle lives out on the vast plains of Wyoming now, where you’d think there’d be enough space for everyone, but remember Manifest Destiny? The lust for land and personal space is hilarious on Tumblr, but the large-scale effects of this drive in a dominator culture can have devastating results.
I’m flashing back to bell hooks talking to Gloria Steinem at the New School earlier this fall, saying that some people need to learn to speak up a little bit more, and some people need to learn to speak a little less. Dial it up, dial it down. We all probably know where we are on the spectrum, and how we might make the world—even the parts of the world where bodies aren’t crushed up against each other at rush hour—a little more inhabitable.