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As I crabstep through the aisle of the plane, balancing my bags carefully to avoid slamming anyone in the head, my heart thrums with anticipation. When I reach my assigned seat, will the one next to it be gloriously, fantastically, beautifully empty? Or will it have a person in it?
I always choose window seats when flying; I like to look out as we go, and I find the side of the plane comfortable to lean upon while dozing. There’s also marginally more room than in the middle seat, and unlike the aisle, I don’t have to deal with careless fellow passengers banging into various body parts as they go up and down in search of the bathroom.
My ideal seating arrangement is, of course, a row totally empty except for me, allowing me to flip up armrests and spread out. Sans that option, an empty middle seat as a barrier between me and another passenger is acceptable. We can usually work out a peaceable split of resources and be quite comfortable.
THE ROWMATE NO ONE WANTS
But if someone must sit next to me, there’s one particular species of human I dread. It’s the thing that makes my stomach sink when I arrive at the row, the thing that will prod me into switching seats if I can, the thing that makes me think, “Oh, shit,” and start mentally calculating the flight time from Oakland to Chicago, Santa Rosa to Seattle, San Francisco to New York, wherever I’m going.
I speak, naturally, of the single male flier.
There’s something about men in general -- not all men, of course, some are perfectly nice -- and single men in particular on public transit that seems to be a recipe for disaster. Confident in their social dominance, it doesn’t occur to them that public transit is a shared resource, and that the space therein is a premium. They spread out, freely, taking up as much room as possible, and seem deeply affronted when you suggest that they could, perhaps, make some room for others.
They splay out their legs, put their bags on the seats next to them, take up the armrests. Even a relatively slight man can take up an astonishing amount of room, particularly if he’s a businessman, a subspecies I know well from my travels. The briefcase on the seat next to him, “Wall Street Journal” ostentatiously unfurled to cover most of his body and the neighboring seat, both armrests fully occupied, travel bag under the seat in front of him with the handles spilling out, legs outstretched.
THIS CALLS FOR INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM!
The behavior of men on public transit is a well-known phenomenon, but of course someone had to study it, and (fittingly enough), the “Wall Street Journal” reported on it. Women travelers are on the rise, and the publication is making this out to be a battle of the sexes, right down to the headline: “He Carries On, She Likes to Check.” It details some generally gendered differences between travelers, taking note of the “men taking up too much space” issue.
"I think men just feel entitled and don't notice. They are oblivious,'' said Asya Kamsky, a San Francisco software executive who flies about 200,000 miles a year. Ms. Kamsky said she defends her space against encroaching elbows and legs. "I don't have a problem kicking if I need to,'' she said.
Yes, but I think that’s only part of the puzzle. Men do feel entitled and aren’t aware of how much space they take up, because they live in a world where they’re continually reminded that everything belongs to them. But more than that, women are taught to not take up space.
Mouse-like, women should take up as little space as possible -- should be small, quiet, and introspective, rather than large, loud, and unafraid to speak and share ideas. On public transit, that translates into shrinking into a small ball to avoid contact with other people and to reduce the space used, because that’s what women are socialized to do. As Kamsky pointed out, in order to assert their right to space which they are actually entitled (by, say, virtue of paying for a seat on a plane), they sometimes have to get aggressive.
The two things feed into each other, with men colonizing space while women shrink away from them. Many men on public transit probably are genuinely unaware of what they’re doing, although it’s clear in the case of other entitled jerks that they’re fully aware and just don’t care; the businessman (again!) seated in the accessible seating on the train who refuses to move, for example, or the college student defiantly glaring at someone who wants to use the empty seat his backpack is currently occupying when the bus is packed to the gills.
The results of the “Wall Street Journal” investigation don’t come as a shock to women readers, I imagine. The larger question for me is what we’re supposed to do with those findings; yes, men take up space on public transit. Yes, women shrink back into the space that is rightfully theirs, effectively ceding room. Yes, this is unfair.
Somehow, I don’t think publishing stories rife with gender essentialism (“those ladies and their toiletries!”) is going to fix the problem. I’m inclined to side with NY Mag on this one; this sounds like a feminism and social equality problem to me. In a world where gender parity is the norm, fair distribution of resources (like precious seat inches) would be much more common. And perhaps women wouldn’t have to resort to kicking their rowmates to get what they paid for.
For more pictures of men taking up too much space on public transit, check out this Swedish blog, Macho in Public Transport.