Even if you don’t know what the word “manspreading” means, there’s a good chance you would recognise it by sight. On trains, metros and buses across the globe, men (we hate to generalise, but yes, we do mean men) are attracting steely glares for the wide angle at which they position their lower limbs. There’s even a Tumblr blog, Men Taking Up Too Much Space On the Train, dedicated to shaming the guilty.
Admittedly, this issue isn’t particularly high on most peoples’ priority lists. Travellers do lots of annoying things on trains, and someone with three suitcases or a buggy is just as, if not more disruptive than, that guy who can’t keep his legs to himself. Nonetheless, the battle for legspace has now left the internet and made it to the highest levels of transport regulation.
In late December, Mew York’s Metropolitan Transport Authority launched a campaign to dissuade manspreaders. It took the form of this somewhat embarrassingly phrased sign, rolled out to subway cars across the network, and forms part of a wider campaign promoting etiquette on public transport:
If that wasn’t dramatic enough, the issue subsequently made the front page of the New York Times. In the story, Paul Fleuranges, the MTA’s senior director for communications, proudly said that the sign’s jocular opener was his idea: “I had them add the dude part, because I think, ‘Dude, really?’”
Since the campaign’s launch, the manspreading debate has climbed up the agenda in other cities. Similar signs have appeared in Philadelphia, where transport bosses have opted for the more confronational, “Dude It’s Rude… Two Seats – Really?” In both New York and London, intrepid female journalists tried out “woman-spreading” to guage the public’s reaction (tuts and photograph-taking, mostly). A Toronto news channel noted a wave of support on Twitter for a manspreading ban aboard the city’s public transport.
And around the world, people are asking the question: why manspread in the first place? Is it, as angry commenters on the Tumblr blog regularly assert, a question of anatomy? Or is it, like mansplaining, an act of pure selfishness motivated by the horrible structural forces of patriarchy? Until we have the definitive answer, the war will rage on.