Chivalry and Manspreading on the Sky Train

When I was younger, I would always read and watch fairytales—stories with a prince who would do anything for his princess, and where chivalry and manners were key to him getting the girl. And as I was getting older, the notion of chivalry started to disappear. I would constantly hear the women in my life, like my aunts and female teachers utter the phrase “chivalry is dead”. I don’t think that it being “dead” is actually a bad thing either. In fact, sometimes I’m glad that it doesn’t exist more. I don’t need a dude to open the door for me all the time, and I certainly don’t need a dude to push in my chair (which I would probably end up falling of off).

Don’t get me wrong, though—if a man did these things for me, I would totally appreciate it, but as an independent woman, it isn’t necessary for me to be thought of as little innocent girl who needs to be constantly taken care of.

However, as a female university student, I’ve noticed that chivalry is simultaneously alive but also dead in one specific space: public transportation. The commute to my campus takes me 2-3 buses and a sky train ride through Vancouver. On these journeys, I often do see men and male-bodied individuals demonstrating chivalry to women—they let them off the train first, they may offer their seats, and even if they are in line first, some men will let women go ahead of them. Sometimes, this “act of kindness” does annoy me. No, no, this isn’t a rant about men (after all, not all men do this), but a big part of me feels like I’m a baby when I’m treated with chivalry. I know the men mean well by these little acts, but if anything, all it does is reinforce the binary gender codes of men being superior caretakers, and women being subordinate followers. And the truth is, both men and women are more than those categories.

But the idea of chivalry being completely dead and thrown out of the window along with respect also crosses my mind when I’m on public transport. Yup, you guessed it: manspreading. Manspreading is when men or male-bodied individuals sit down with their legs spread so far apart that they take up multiple seats, as well as make the person next to them uncomfortable. As a woman, this is maddening.

A lot of people will argue that people upset over manspreading are too sensitive or over reactive. Usually, those same individuals mention that the reason men sit with their legs to far apart be due to biological reasons, and the space they take up is for personal comfort. But that's the thing…it’s personal comfort. There’s no consideration for the individual, usually a woman, sitting beside the manspreader. If anything, this is all cultural. Men learn to sit the way they do from other men in their lives. Women sit the way they do because of how other women sit in their lives.

Man spreading is an interesting representation of the way that men feel empowered to take up space, and the women, typically, do not. There’s even an entire Tumblr blog dedicated to posting photos of men sitting in ridiculously strange positions, exerting their bodies over multiple seats in an unnecessary way.

I am sure that men don’t consciously decide that they want to spread their legs on the train. It’s how they’ve been brought up, and what they know. The same goes for women: we are told to be small, cross-legs, and to keep to ourselves. Sometimes, I even feel unsafe and threatened when a man is leaning close to me or has their leg stretched over to my side of the seat. I’m not at mad at you, men, nor do I think that you’re all dangerous, but this just speaks to the hierarchal power society that we live in and the way that gender norms are constructed. So don’t these ideologies just put men and women into the categories of the powerful and the powerless?

My challenge for the people reading this article is to then observe the ways that bodies are positioned in public spaces. How does it feel when you sit a certain way? What do you think about when someone invades your personal space? And lastly, give yourself a reminder that these spaces are always about respect. Your bus ride or sky train trip might be five minutes or it might be twenty—either way, the decent human thing to do is to make sure that the people around you feel safe and comfortable.