On space, trains and the performance of masculinity

Men Taking Up Too Much Space on the Train

Men Taking Up Too Much Space on the Train

I just moved to New York City three months ago. I love it here. It sounds trite, cliché, corny and all that stuff to say, but it’s true: it’s everything I imagined it to be and more. I like that there’s always something going on and it’s never more than train ride away.

That’s something I’ve had to get used to, riding the train. I grew up in a suburb in southeast Virginia, where everything is only accessible by car. I hate driving. Some people get a thrill from it all, but it requires way too much mental energy I feel could be better put to use on solving life’s great mysteries, like how to end patriarchy or why the cartoon characters of my youth shunned pants. Zone out too long on Darkwing Duck’s naked lower half while you’re driving, and accidents will happen. Not that I’m from speaking from experience or anything.

That isn’t the case with the subway. You just hop on and ride. Theoretically. I had the romantic idea of riding the train in NYC and listening to music, or reading, or chatting with friends until I reached my destination. But there’s much more thought to put into it than I originally anticipated.

Not just on a crowded car where you’re trying to figure out how to squeeze everyone in and not feel violated (this is impossible), but I now think more consciously about my performance of masculinity. Stay with me. If you’ve seen the “Men Taking Up Too Much Space on the Train” Tumblr, you have some idea of what I’m talking about. I see these guys all the time. Legs spread wide, taking up the space of three or four people, leaning against the train doors and blocking the entrance, stretched out so no one sit next to them. It all plays out like an assertion of male dominance, in which every one of them feels as if they have to claim their territory and their manhood in this public space, even at the discomfort of all the other passengers. Who gives a fuck if you can’t sit, they are men. See their balls.

I never thought about the way I sit or stand in public before now. I never felt the need to sit with my legs wider than the shoulders of an NFL linebacker to feel comfortable. When I stand, I sometimes cross my legs. I move to accommodate people. And now I wonder what people see when they look at me doing so.

Perhaps they think I’m exceedingly polite. Maybe I’m a docile black man. I may be read as effeminate. I never worried about these things from behind the driver’s seat of a car. But now people can see me, and as much as I want to divorce myself from the idea of there being a proper way to perform masculinity, I find myself burdened with thinking I’m doing it wrong.

And this is what our culture does. It takes the most mundane of activities and turns them into performances that are supposed to articulate or worthiness as human beings. When I stand with my legs crossed on a train where people can clearly see me, I’m supposed to feel bad about myself. I’m supposed to adjust into a more “manly” pose, whether no regard for whether it feels natural or comfortable. Apply that to things more important than how one looks riding the subway, and the crisis of masculinity becomes a real, dangerous one that requires our introspection.

Now I’ve got to go make sure the L is running. I love New York.

MychalMychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute who writes with his legs crossed. 

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9 Comments

  1. Posted December 11, 2013 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    I was in Israel the first time I noticed someone taking up too much space on public transportation. The bus was over crowded, and the man across the aisle from me said he was saving the seat next to him for a friend. A friend who never showed in the 3 hour bus ride. At one point a soldier sat in the seat next to him, but the man pretended to sleep and extend his legs out over the soldier’s seat during the drive. When we were at a stop and he got off, I picked my nose and wiped it where he was sitting. I never said I was a good person.

  2. Posted December 11, 2013 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    You know I’ve heard people talk about men and taking up space. There’s something else I’ve noticed on public transportation that no one seems to be talking about and that’s people (and it’s almost always women in my experience or maybe I just notice it more when a woman does it) placing their bags on the seat next to them. Isn’t that a form of claiming or marking out their territory? People wouldn’t assert this as being a form of masculinity.

    BTW I’m a former weightlifter whose butt fits in a chair, but who can’t fit my upper body into the confines of a chair without removing my arms and shoulders. I’ve always accommodated people as well and never really gave much thought to what other people thought about me performing masculinity. Maybe I don’t think about it because I used to weight lift and kick box. Would that be considered privilege to not have your masculinity questioned?

    • Posted December 11, 2013 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

      I have to say I agree with you. While I see many men taking up excessive space on the subway by spreading their legs as they sit, etc, I find that they are usually pretty accommodating when someone actually does sit beside them. As such, I feel like this may be more symptomatic of an internalized, subconscious male privilege that allows men to shift their weight around in an unrestricted way rather than a purposeful claiming of space. In contrast, I see many women spread their bags and purses out over the surrounding seats which seems to be more of an intentional act to claim territory, especially since women are generally taught to take up as little space as possible by sitting with their legs crossed inward, keeping their bodies small, etc. I am not sure if I would contextualize this as a political act on behalf of women who refuse to take up as little space as possible; whether men or women do it, it is inconsiderate to other people. But I definitely think this issue is a bit more complex than men purposefully claiming masculine privilege or power.

    • Posted December 11, 2013 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

      I think the privilege therein would be not noticing whether or not your masculinity is being questioned.

      As a woman, it seems I can’t do one thing or the other without either being a lesbian or a frivolous, pink-loving tart. When I was in the Army, I used to keep my hair short. It was great for me, I loved not being forced to try and keep stupid-long hair in regs. But every male soldier assumed I was a lesbian; we’d talk and share dirty jokes and I would just be one of the guys. Then I would mention my boyfriend, and suddenly I went from being “one of the guys” to being a thing that made them nervous, that made them posture and snarl at each other like lion cubs, that was simply there to be looked at and, hopefully, fucked. I was no longer a soldier, and I didn’t have that option. From then on, if I let slip that I liked to lift weights or that I practiced martial arts from a young age, or (god forbid) they found out I was bisexual, then it was simply assumed that I was actually just a closeted lesbian. If I talked to them about my admiration for Coco Chanel or how much I enjoyed decorating my room in the barracks or getting pedicures, then they would roll their eyes at me, and I would automatically become weaker than I was, daintier than I had a right to be and still be a soldier, and altogether just a joke to them. And I wasn’t allowed to be these two things, at the same time, and occasionally I would receive a bit of hostility for not fitting in to either of these two categories they had for me. It wasn’t enough that I was a soldier; I became a representative of my entire sex, despite not being the only female in my platoon, company, battalion, etc.

      It’s a strange thing, to be constantly aware of how others are going to interpret your sex or your sexuality. And it’s a nice thing when you don’t have to pay attention.

      • Posted December 13, 2013 at 10:31 am | Permalink

        I’m sure men are so patrolled and monitored as you are, and not just because of their general human condition, but also in relation to their gender and sexuality. There is a series of structural presuppositions about male sexuality that charge men, and if a asshole want to explore vulnerabilities to embarrass, intimidates men, there are plenty resources. Not by coincidence men are the leaders in suicide. You just dont see male social exposion because you are not one, and because men are not supose to talk about it – what is just another vulnerability.

    • Posted December 14, 2013 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

      Those two behaviors seems similar on the surface, but are actually potentially very different messages.
      I’d refer you to the book “What Every Body is Saying” by Joe Navarro, on body language.
      “Notice how confident or high-status individuals will claim more territory with their arms than less-confident, lower-status persons.” (In this section he’s talking about reading arms specifically, but the same is true for taking up room with your body in general, as he notes on p. 102 describing “splay behavior.”) “A dominate man, for example, may drape his arm around a chair to let everyone know that this is his domain… higher status individuals will usually claim as much territory as possible immediately upon sitting down, spreading their arms or their objects (briefcase, purse, papers) on the table.” (p.120)
      But compare that to later in the book where he says, “The use of objects is a sign that an individual wants distance, separation, and partial concealment, because he or she is being less open–which goes hand in hand with being uncomfortable or even deceitful.” (p.213-214)

      Both are basically ways of saying “Don’t fuck with me” but in using your body it is an offensive posture, in using objects alone it is defensive. Men are more likely to take up the offensive posture, women the defensive. I remembered this part of the book in particular because I typically take up more space on places like city buses using my body posture in a more masculine way.

  3. Posted December 11, 2013 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    You make an important set of points about masculinity, power displays and taking up space, but then it strays into an odd place with:

    ” and as much as I want to divorce myself from the idea of there being a proper way to perform masculinity, I find myself burdened with thinking I’m doing it wrong.”

    Which distances masculinity from what it is constructed by the dominant cultural form to be. That is why you feel uncomfortable; because you are prescribed something by a force much greater than you, which has been internalised by everyone else and overrides any notion of agency. If you have a problem with the features masculinity was constructed to have, then you have a problem with masculinity. There is no other way to perform masculinity, as it belongs to that dominant cultural form.

    It’s like saying “this potato isn’t orange, so as much as I want to distance myself from the notion that there’s a proper colour for a carrot, I find myself burdened with thinking this potato is doing it wrong”.

    Where a carrot is constructed as being an orange vegetable in the language and shared concepts of your culture and thus *your* language and concepts. If we don’t like orange vegetables, if orange vegetables are toxic as a result of their orangeness, then carrots are going to be a problem.

  4. Posted December 12, 2013 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

    As a transgender person who has transitioned to male I have thought way more than is healthy on performing masculinity throughout the years. At first I thought it was such a chore to have to take up more space when one may not feel so entitled. I have come to think the better solution for more equality is if women take up space also. It shifted for me when I saw a TED talk on body language and how spreading your arms out and above your head for 5 minutes before an interview boosts testosterone and lowers adrenaline which amounts to higher confidence. Women deserve whatever brings assertiveness/confidence too.

  5. Posted December 13, 2013 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    You see, thats the problem with this text: you try to interpret generic actions as essentially linked to a complex identity of gender : masculinity . Without realizing it, you commit the same sin as the vast majority of feminists : you resort to essentialism for captive men to a very limited box. Obviously , taking too much space on the train is not a political action or phallocentric affirmation . It is simply an expression of lack of education that could be the performed regardless of gender . This mania to isolate masculinity or manhood present in every act is a constant exercise of essentialist sexism . Imagine if men do the same with women and began to see in their individual acts expressions of an essentially feminine hysteric intelligence ? A dozen sites would scream ” sexism ” . But the fact that such texts as yours are published with impunity just reinforces a general suspicion : feminism is not in the gender desconstruction business , but at the business of essentialist construction of genres , where the complexity of ” maleness ” is reduced to crude simplifications and imbeciles stereotypes.

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