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NYC To Buenos Aires, Fighting The Machismo Of Manspreading

A serious case of metro manspreading...
A serious case of metro manspreading...
Nora Sanchez

BUENOS AIRES It's been dubbed: Manspreading, the habit of too many men to sit with their legs wide open in public spaces that irritates the rest of the world around them. It is a typically male, and for many a sexist posture that often means invading your neighbor's space on the bus or subway. And it happens the world over, not just in Latin cities like Buenos Aires, where the metro system is asking men to close up a little as part of a campaign to improve the underground travel experience.

Two years ago, the British actress Helen Mirren was photographed traveling on the New York subway. She later told the television presenter Jimmy Fallon that as pictures showed, the man sitting next to her was "doing the classic manspreading thing." A habit she described as longstanding and "really annoying," though now men are "being called on it."

A year before, the New York Public Transit Association launched a campaign with the prominent slogan, "Dude, stop the spread please, it's a space issue," while Madrid has decided to put stickers on buses, "forbidding" invasive leg spreading with a cross sign. Here in the Argentine capital, it is not rare to see men taking up two seats on a bus or subway train, as women recoil as far as possible into a reduced space.

A sign in the New York subway aimed at male passengers — Photo: Gregor Tholl/ZUMA

The metropolitan rail transportation firm, Metrovías, says this attitude is a cultural issue. The subway system says it is talking to the city's cultural authorities to include manspreading in its campaign to improve passenger conduct. It has meanwhile issued a humorous video of a girl trying to sit down between two rather expansive men, though one viewer seeing this on Instagram asked if women didn't just as frequently act the same way "with their handbags."

It is about sexist bodies seeking nothing but their own interest and comfort without regard for the needs of those around them.

Psychiatrist Enrique Stola, who specializes in sexist violence, says "the woman's conduct with her handbag is not the same, because she does not occupy the space with her body." Why do men sit this way? Stola says "there is no biological or anatomical basis for this spatial invasion through the male body's expansion."

An expression of sexism

Metro user Martina Fernández says, "I travel every day on Line B. Almost always when a man sits next to you, he opens his legs and forces you to shift. But when you do he opens his legs further, so at the end you're all squeezed up."

Manspreading, Stola says, is an expression of sexism. "In all societies, public space is organized through the perspective of men. In the socialization process, there is the standing call for girls to control their bodies, and one for boys to expand and conquer. This is directly linked to the practice of male domination. It is about sexist bodies seeking nothing but their own interest and comfort without regard for the needs of those around them, especially if they are women or LGBT (gays)."

Paolo, a Line A metro user in Buenos Aires, says he means no harm. "You do it without noticing," he says. "You don't mean to upset anyone. When people are standing, if I notice I am taking up too much space, I move my legs in."

We're used to making ourselves smaller as women.

For Natalia Gherardi, a lawyer and head of the Latin American Team at the NGO Justice and Gender, it is about "lack of consideration for others, and abuse of the public space." She says it has to do with "how one places one's body in that space. We're used to making ourselves smaller as women. The right form for a young girl to sit is supposedly with the legs placed together in a modest fashion. The male stereotype however, is dominant. He firmly takes position and occupies a place."

Perla Prigoshin, head of CONSAVIG, the Argentine state commission designing penalties for gender-related violence, agrees men tend to take over the public space. "We tend to shrink and almost go unnoticed, trying not to disturb," she says. "We have learned this over time and painfully, as a means of survival."

Awareness campaigns to change the patriarchy

When a man suffers another man's "expansion," he usually reacts. I once heard an elderly man tell someone his own age on Line B one afternoon, "What do you want? To sit alone?" Another time I recall, a well-dressed gentleman asked a "manspreader" to make space for him on one of the subway's Mitsubishi carriages. "Eight educated Japanese could fit here," he said, winking at the female passenger next to him. It had the desired effect.

Stola says men tend to make space when another man sits next to them, "so as not to bother one another," but if it is a woman trying to sit next to them, "the movement of bodies is different and generally they (women) say nothing, as they know who wields territorial power."

Punitive laws are of little use, says Prigoshin. "I am assuming there is male goodwill. They sit like this because they are do not know they are harming or disturbing us. Awareness campaigns are the only way to change the patriarchy."

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