Friday, April 03, 2009

Public places: Which public? (by Suzie)

           (Hang on, this post will travel far afield.)
           A friend traveled across Southern Europe and Northern Africa as a young man. He often was alone as he hitchhiked and slept outdoors. He wasn’t always welcome, but no one bothered him physically. He’s a sweet guy, but he looks mean, and he’s at least 6-foot-5.
          When I said I envied him, he replied that I could have done the same. I told him that it would be different for a young woman traveling alone. That had never occurred to him.
          Learning about yourself and the world while traveling has long been a theme in literature. Although men predominate, women have contributed to this genre. On my bookshelf alone, I’ve got “A Road of Her Own: Women's Journeys in the West,” “Unsuitable for Ladies: An Anthology of Women Travellers” and “Maiden Voyages: Writings of Women Travelers.
These books often feature white women traveling to “exotic” places, defining themselves against other(ed) people or nature. (In comparison, the Apostate recently looked at traveling as a brown woman.)
        Whatever her color, a woman is likely to find gender matters, in some fashion or another. As I wrote last week about the “Battlestar Galactica” finale, it’s different for girls. When people talk of “public” places – whether it’s a train in another country or your neighborhood park or the Internet – question whether there are some “publics” who cannot use them safely and comfortably, and why.
       Linda McDowell, then director of the Graduate School of Geography at Cambridge University, wrote an excellent book titled “Gender, Identity & Place: Understanding Feminist Geographies." She gives the example of Tomkins Square Park in New York City. In the 1990s, the Leftist position was: Young, upper-class people wanted to clear out those who were homeless, mentally ill or doing drugs so that they (the yuppies) felt safer, and their property values could rise. But this ignored gender. Some women, no matter what their circumstances, may feel less safe in places where groups of men hang out – and for good reason.
        In my high school, there was a hallway with a long bench where guys would congregate, making nasty comments if a girl walked by. The hall served one public but not another. Some boys take this behavior into adulthood. For example: the blow-up last year over men groping women at SF conventions
        The Internet has made such harassment easier and anonymous. Echidne has written on the AutoAdmit case here and more recently. The NYT explored the world of trolls, in which men predominate. The dictum is always: Don't let them bother you -- that's what they want. Just ignore them and they'll go away. Once again, women must be the gatekeepers of bad male behavior. 
         Justin Wolfers noted something that newspaper editors have long noticed: Men are more likely to send angry emails, just as they once made hateful calls or sent angry letters. The online version of many newspapers allow comments, most of which would never have been printed as letters to the editors. (Here's an interesting discussion on this topic.) The conversations can be so hateful and downright stupid that I rarely read them -- and I'm a blogger.
         At my former newspaper, a group of readers, mostly men, have infested the comment sections, driving away others. I've heard that smart and articulate readers will win out in this marketplace of ideas. But, no, they just avoid the comments. The online bullies also go after the people who are being quoted in such an execrable way that I don't know why anyone would want to open themselves up these days.
          Which "public" is being served?