The diagnostics of “manspreading” isn’t furthering gender equality 

Photo by: Charlie Martin

No, slow cinema is not the film equivalent of “manspreading.” 

Six years ago, BuzzFeed put out a video called “Women Try Manspreading” which lived in infamy for a long time. The video drew heavy criticism for being a prime example of slacktivism—an attempt to take down the patriarchy where the key moments were just harassing tired bus riders by filming them. 

The video was frustrating for two reasons. First of all, it’s a silly premise because even if it’s true that men spread their legs a little more when seated, there might be an anatomical *ahem* cause to account for that. More importantly, the video became a feeding ground for the alt-right for years, proving that blue-haired feminists are just ridiculous man haters. This popular perception seriously pulled wind out of the sails out of the work that feminists have been doing to close real gaps of gender inequality, creating a false perception that the push for equality between the sexes is just disguised resentment from unfinished schoolyard arguments. Speaking of employment injustice, BuzzFeed isn’t in a great position to claim progressive points either considering in December of last year they laid off 12 per cent of their workforce because they were moving into TikTok territory. 

If anyone was convinced that the hysterical slacktivism that came in the wake of the Trump presidency was over, it still rears its ugly head every now and then. 

Late last month The Guardian put out a piece titled “Guys, length isn’t everything when it comes to film-making” in reference to long-form cinema. The author’s contention is that long films are just another way to manspread: “There’s an argument to be made in some cases that the three-hour cine-slog is just a form of manspreading; another example of men taking up space just because they can.” 

This is irksome, not just because slow cinema auteurs like Andrei Tarkovsky and Béla Tarr are amongst my favourite filmmakers, but because Chantal Akerman is one of the bigger names in slow cinema with her 1978 film Les rendez-vous d’Anna being a widely celebrated French film. 

In another sense, as someone who has spent a good deal of time reading gender theory, this piece irks me in a way that’s become so patently obvious even in the the internal debates between feminist strands of thought: a feminism that stays at the level of standpoint epistemology — a fancy way of saying identity politics — uses masculine habitus as a scapegoat for personalizing systems which can’t be wholly personalized. According to this logic, Margaret Thatcher was a feminist icon simply for being the first female prime minister of Britain. Her austerity measures devastated the lives of the poor, and yes, that includes working class women who now had to deal with domestic labour on top of precarious work and a lack of a social safety net. 

No doubt, there exists a venn diagram between features of capitalism and patriarchy, and there’s been debate in materialist feminist circles for decades over just how huge the overlap is. Around the 1980s, many in the lesbian-feminist movement took the radical view that the venn diagram was basically a circle and if women realized that heterosexuality was a tool for male supremacy, class distinctions would break away. This strikes most readers today as antiquated. 

Patriarchy is something much more mysterious than capitalism and harder to historicize;where capitalism’s origins can be adumbrated within the confines of clear historical shifts. The movement away from European feudalism with the French Revolution or the Industrial North of the United States having a material interest in ending slavery in the Agricultural South because of their need for the employee-employer form of labour arrangement, leading to the American Civil War, both arise out of relatively linear material advancements. 

Another example of the mystery of patriarchalism is the tribal Tiv peoples in Nigeria who make up 2.4 per cent of the country’s population. These tribes are matrilineal and polyandrous, yet women are used as “pawns” to pay off blood debts. The men transfer their women to other men to pay off blood debts, and sometimes have a village wife who has sexual relationships with all the men in the village. 

This is not a tacit endorsement of patriarchy, but it is to say that feminist criticisms that boil down to highschool insults are, as Noam Chomsky would put it, gifts to the right. 

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