Is the term “manspreading” sexist?

Until two weeks ago, I’d never heard of the term “manspreading,” although as a non-car-owing woman, I was acutely aware of the concept. “Manspreading” is when a man sits with his legs spread eagle in a public space like a bus or train car. There’s nothing wrong with a man sitting this way, if that’s what’s comfortable, but when it gets crowded “manspreading” becomes a problem.

I guess it’s called “manspreading,” as oppose to the more gender-neutral “legspreading,” because you rarely, if ever, see women sitting this way. And certainly no woman, (even the most punk rock!), would have the audacity to sit this way on a crowded train. But curiously enough, you see men of all ages and sizes seated this way in packed spaces, almost oblivious to how rude it is. Apparently, there are entire sites dedicated to cataloging some of the most egregious cases.

Manspreading 2
Image via Flickr

Take the woman in this picture, for example. I understand the frustration and quiet rage she feels. Each time I’ve been in her situation, I cuss the offending man out under my breath while I press my knees together in a vain attempt to make my pear-shaped body more compact.

Well now, it looks like there are a bunch of women out there who’ve finally said “enough.” According to a press release, starting this month, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) will put out a series of placards to remind riders in New York City to be courteous of other passengers. One of the placards will read, “Dude…..Stop the Spread, Please.”

anti-manspread ad
Image via Metropolitan Transportation (MTA)

The anti-“manspreading” movement is also gaining traction in other metropolitan areas like Toronto, Canada. But Jenny Yuen, with the Ottawa Sun, reports that a men’s rights group is leading its own movement, as a sort of backlash to all the “manspreading” hate. The group recently put up a petition on change.org. The petition, which is sponsored by the Canadian Association for Equality, calls the term “manspreading” sexist and claims that “men opening their legs is something we have to do due to our biology.”

So far, mainstream reaction to this has been mocking. “Men’s Rights Group Demands Their Balls Be Allowed to Breathe on Buses,” reads a headline on the feminist website, Jezebel. The article’s author, Mark Shrayber, claims the idea that men need more leg room because of biology, is ridiculous. I have to admit, the following quote did make me chuckle:

“I don’t have time to call an expert and ask exactly how much space is needed between one’s legs in order to prevent the balls from experiencing an asthma attack or excrucipain (TM), but as the proud owner of a set myself, I can tell you that I’ve never had to take up anyone else’s space on the bus just to keep my testicles happy.”

I myself don’t really know (and I guess I’ll never, really know) if male anatomy plays a part in men needing to sit with their knees wide apart. What I do know is, that unless a man had long legs, was heavyset, or elderly, I always assumed that if he sat with his legs splayed open in a crowded space, it was due to male privilege and arrogance. This is why the term “manspreading” is funny to people like me.

But do the petitioners have a point? Is the term sexist?

Yes, it’s true the petition posits the inane argument that forcing men to close their legs would be like preventing a mother from breastfeeding her baby. And yes, it’s also true that supporters of the petition make troll-y comments like “feminists are fucking stupid.” But as I laughed, I couldn’t deny that the term “manspreading” does single out one sex in a way that’s crude and perhaps disrespectful.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that several of the men crying “sexism” are doing so for purely cynical reasons, but is it fair to allow these men to drown out the voices of the men who are genuinely offended?

The last thing anyone wants to hear when they feel like they’ve been demeaned is that they don’t have a sense of humor. Whenever I hear the term “PC police” sneak its way into a discussion on representation, I want to flip a table. For me to turn around and to tell men that they need to lighten up would be beyond hypocritical.

So, to the men of the world who sit with their legs open during rush hour, yes, I’m still gonna roll my eyes and call you all kinds of names under my breath, but one name I promise to never call you is “manspreader.”

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2 thoughts on “Is the term “manspreading” sexist?”

    1. Yes, women certainly are more objectified and demeaned. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t also happen to men. Not all men have equal access to patriarchal power. So often when men cry “sexism,” these complaints are mocked or dismissed –even by people with good intentions.

      This is a problem.

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