A scientific approach

Taking Up Space: Women vs. Men | You think I just don't understand, but I don't believe you.

Cathy “Bug” Brennan, someone who I have heard described as one of the most extreme and irrational radical feminists, has done a brief comparison of two music videos, namely Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy (1991) and The Verve’s Bitter Sweet Symphony (1997). They both take a similar format of the singer walking along a street while singing their song to the camera, but their behaviour is radically different: Nelson breezes through a very rough LA neighbourhood, apparently noticing and noticed by nobody, disturbing and disturbed by nobody, while Ashcroft, walking along a market street in Hoxton in east London, bumps into one actor, I mean, passer-by after another, and some of the actors, I mean passers-by, are young women, some of them are old, some of them are powerfully-built men (and all of those just glare at him), and at one point he jumps over a car bonnet (and the young female driver pursues him up the street, but he manages to ignore her and keeps singing) and when his path really is blocked, he stares into the window, either at the occupants or his own reflection, depending on your point of view.

cathy-brennanBrennan (who is well-known for her bugbear against transsexuals, most of her blog being a diatribe against them, hence the picture on the right) analyses them as follows:

Women take up space differently from men.

In the first video, Shara Nelson walks through a Los Angeles neighborhood. I am not afraid of her. I am comforted by her.

In the second video, Richard Ashcroft walks around London. I am afraid of him. I want to cross the street to get far away from him.

This is why Women want Women-only space. We want to be with Shara Nelson and away from Richard Ashcroft.

Can you blame us?

I asked some female friends for their impressions and as to whether they thought it was worth refuting Brennan’s “analysis”. This was one of the responses I got:

I must say, seeing the video on Brennan’s blog made me see the song in a new light. I had always thought it was a mediocre, repetitive song (perhaps the repetition is purposeful), but his behaviour is obviously very threatening; he barges people out of the way regardless of whether they are big or small, and clearly he is trying to big himself up. He is behaving like a minor gangsta, boasting that he’s “here in his mode”, that he won’t or can’t change, that he’s always on that road and, by implication, that’s always how he rolls (or rather, how he makes others roll). Like a gangsta wannabe, he won’t or can’t change — a common theme of criminal artists such as Tupac Shakur (“Me Against the World”, “Only God Can Judge Me”) and Chris Brown (“F.A.M.E.”, standing for “forgiving all my enemies”, and see his tweets from last year). He is taking his aggression out on the whole of humanity, treating all of them as his enemy. In reality, a man with his physique would not barge two powerfully-built men out of his way. At the very least, the men he pushes through at 3:10 would not budge.

He comes across as remarkably self-important, and perhaps the message is that he and his song are so important and so profound that people would just get out of his way. A 2002 review of his solo album, Human Conditions, in the Guardian satirises Ashcroft’s fondness for pseudo-profundity:

Beyond his penchant for orchestral heraldry and epic pretensions, however, Ashcroft has evinced a career-long interest in stating the blindingly obvious. The Verve even had a song called This Is Music, a handy pointer for anyone who thought the Verve were a crown green bowling team. Ashcroft’s greatest skill may be wrapping pub philosophies - “you’re a slave to money then you die”, “it’s a crazy world” - in music portentous enough to convince people they are hearing a sage’s arcane wisdom.

It speaks volumes that The Verve’s successors as kings of pseudo-profundity and cod philosphy, Coldplay, invited Ashcroft to sing the song with them at Hyde Park in 2005. Chris Martin, according to Wikipedia, called Ashcroft “the best singer in the world” and the song “the best song ever written”. The band managed to play it after only one rehearsal — which it might be expected that a band with a sliver of musical talent, like Coldplay, might be able to (it’s only four chords repeated for four and a half minutes, after all).

Brennan says she is comforted by the sight of Shara Nelson walking through LA, and is not afraid of her, which she is of Ashcroft. Nelson is clearly playing a stranger in a strange land: she is from London, she is walking through what looks like a rough part of a strange city (complete with a gang with a vicious-looking dog at the start). She is wearing a long, flowing black dress, the choice of colour suggesting a sad occasion; the style is very feminine, and at the beginning you would think she is an old lady although this impression is dispelled when you see her face. Her appearance is distinctly unlike that of anyone else in the neighbourhood, male or female. She is graceful, almost ethereal. (It just so happens that Ashcroft is not from London — he grew up in a place called Up Holland in Lancashire.)

The problem with her analysis is that you cannot judge all men or all women by the acts of two unrepresentative members of their sex in two different pop videos. I live in London and most people do not act like Ashcroft in that video, even when they are angry. Most people say “excuse me” when they want to get past someone. The only time you would push through people is when you are in a particular hurry, as when your bus or train is about to leave, and even then you would be careful not to push over an elderly person. Most men of his build would not dare push through two powerfully-built men, because you do not know if they will remonstrate (and you assume they will) or respond with violence, and depending on what part of town it is, you do not know if they are armed or not. The whole walk is an act, much as Nelson’s is, and is no more typical of how men walk on an average day in London than Nelson’s is of how women from London behave while in LA.

As for “taking up space”, this is also a sign of either conferred social dominance or not having learned good manners, if not both. Men who spread their bodies out at the expense of others are demonstrating their dominance by being wilfully inconsiderate; men who are not used to dominance over anyone do not behave in this manner, something Brennan may be oblivious to. Some people spread their belongings around them on a train, but this may be as much a way of protecting their personal space by making it less likely that anyone (who stinks of bad perfume or is eating fast food, for example) will sit next to them and, possibly, spread their legs into their space. I have, on a number of occasions in London, been told to move my belongings by someone (usually, but not always, a man) who insisted on sitting next to me when they did not have to, as there were double seats on the train or entire free tables at the curry house where I was eating. This is a way of imposing on someone for its own sake. It’s bully behaviour, and I am not sure how often it happens to women, or whether these men will do the same to any men or just those they think look weak or easily intimidated. In any case, these two videos are irrelevant to the issue of “taking up space”, because Nelson is walking along a mostly empty street and Ashcroft a busy one, but “taking up space” is not the same as Ashcroft’s display of petulant aggression.

When it comes to respecting personal space or not, there is a detail about Nelson’s recent past that might make the spectacle of her frou-frouing through LA rather less comforting: she has a conviction for stalking. In 2011, she was handed a restraining order by the courts after the British DJ Pete Tong complained that she had made nuisance calls to him and told his colleagues that she was his wife and was expecting his child. She was prohibited from contacting Tong or his family or friends indefinitely, and was issued a 12-month community order and required to complete 80 hours of community service. So, those in the “women’s space” are more than welcome to Shara Nelson. (I posted this detail in a comment on Brennan’s entry, but she did not approve it. Let’s not let the facts get in the way of our stereotypes.)

That women might sometimes want space to discuss things of interest to them with no men around (particularly traumatic things like sexual assault) is not in dispute, but these spaces do not take the form of whole streets (and I suspect that her “women’s spaces” would take in a fairly narrow subsection of mostly very like-minded women, which would keep it a lot more “harmonious” than simply keeping men out). The streets, at least in London (and even inner London, where Ashcroft’s video was set) are not full of men barging others out of their way. London is a pretty polite city, and his behaviour would have been offensive to everyone. Ultimately her post is a good example of the distorted thinking that results from bigotry. Using an act in a pop video to judge an entire group (especially as big as half the human race), for good or ill, is even more ludicrous than judging Muslims by 9/11 or a given race by the skin colour of a school bully or street mugger.

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