Laila Laurel’s supposedly “tongue in cheek” manspreading chair is only the latest in a concerted campaign by feminist activists to make men feel bad for supposedly taking up too much space. It is the result of decades of feminist grievance-stoking that has led us to the point that feminists think they should be congratulated for having the gall to tell men how to sit.
How could it happen that some women—with institutional support—could come to feel it their right to lecture men on keeping their knees together?
In 1988, feminist theorist and University of Illinois philosophy professor Sandra Lee Bartky published an article about women’s social position that demonstrates the intellectual roots of this particular strand of anti-male bigotry. Bartky used the ideas of French post-structuralist Michel Foucault to explain how it was that women in the late twentieth century west were technically free, and yet still profoundly, and seemingly willingly, constrained in a variety of ways, ranging from the way they moved and sat to their tendency to smile more than men and to spend a great deal of time and energy making their bodies conform to ideals of feminine beauty. No matter who they were or what they did with their lives, they were always aware of themselves, she claimed, as bodies on display.
Foucault’s theory, developed in his book Discipline and Punish (1975), was that modern regimes had moved away from what he called the power of the sovereign—brute power, often haphazardly applied–to a far more subtle, widespread and effective micro-power that resulted in individuals willingly monitoring and disciplining themselves, becoming what he called “docile bodies.” Though Foucault was far more interested in men’s experiences than women’s, Bartky saw his theory as uniquely applicable to the modern woman, whose body became “docile,” according to Bartky, as a result of the micro-regulation of her gestures, her posture, her movements, her facial expression, and even her tone of voice. What made women regulate themselves, according to Bartky? Nothing and everything—the culture at large. Everything about men, in contrast, from the way they stood and positioned their bodies to their assertive, unconstrained behavior in public spaces, bespoke their less-regulated gendered selves.
Bartky’s is an entirely social constructivist view of womanhood, and the feminist movement in general has taken a strictly constructivist approach to social change over the years. And feminist social change has amounted to a deliberate, institutionally enforced reversal of sex roles, following Bartky’s list of grievances almost to a T. Feminism aims to make men experience greater and greater restrictions on what they can say and do while women demand and achieve ever greater freedoms (without responsibility) in dress and behavior. A few men can get a pass if they are approved by women or beyond the reach of feminist enforcement mechanisms. But a majority of men experience a steady erosion of their autonomy and freedom, to the point that they’re not even sure it’s okay to touch a co-worker on the shoulder or give her a compliment. And they’d better keep their knees together when they sit.
Feminist demands are often framed in terms of women’s safety or social justice. Laila Laurel, for her part, has claimed that how men sit is a part of the everyday sexism that encourages men to “command space” while forcing women to make room for them. But don’t be fooled. The anti-manspreading project is designed to force men to endure the shame and humiliation that Laurel believes, falsely, has been forced on women by men for centuries. It is a project of blatant collective punishment typical of totalitarian movements.
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