22 March 2010

Cycling and gender

A month and a half ago, the Chicago Tribune mistook me for a man.

A photo of yours truly briefly appeared on the home page of the online edition. The photo, part of a series on stalwart Chicagoans resolutely enduring the latest meteorological assault on their daily lives (you'd think it never snowed here in February), was taken while I was riding my bike to work. In this photo, I am seen to be wearing black pants, a red parka, and a helmet; you may also be able to discern the snowboots, lobster gloves, and balaclava. The caption reads "A cautious bicyclist makes his way through the snow in the 6100 block of South Dorchester Avenue in Chicago on Tuesday morning."

Upon learning from a friend that I had made the front page of the Tribune as a cautious bicyclist making his way through the snow, my first reaction was something between embarrassment and shame. Then I felt vaguely insulted. Then, being the sort of analytical wanker who not only goes to the University of Chicago for college but also keeps working there because I just enjoy the culture so much, I wondered why I felt anything at all beyond "Hey cool, I'm in the Tribune."

Why did they mistake my sex? And why did it bother me so much?

Far as I can tell, there are four possible answers to the first question:

1. The English language lacks an acceptable gender-neutral pronoun.
2. Most bicyclists are men.
3. Most bicyclists riding around in the middle of a snowstorm are probably men, given that men generally take more risks than women do.
4. In that photo, I look like a man.

But if you think about it, the first three possibilities boil down to the fourth. My appearance in winter cycling apparel gives no evidence that the default masculine pronoun would be inappropriate, and I'm statistically more likely to be a guy anyway---and besides, a girl, being more sensible and risk averse, wouldn't be be doing something so crazy.

So there I am, cautiously riding my bike in the snow, looking like a man. I look like a man because I don't look like a woman. There's nothing about me that suggests that I'm actually cautious female bicyclist.

So what does a cautious female bicyclist look like? Well, thanks to the Bicycle Movement, we now have some idea. I'm just not it.

I've seen some laudable efforts to make cycling more appealing to women. Most of them focus on safety and practicality, given that we're generally more cautious and sensible than men, but these efforts benefit everyone across the board. I've no argument there.

It's the practical aspect of the discussion inevitably veering off into the manifestly unpractical realm of fashion that rankles me. Suddenly it's all about bikes with step-through frames and upright positions---the better to ride comfortably in a skirt, of course. It's about avoiding sweat by riding slowly and avoiding helmet hair by simply not wearing a helmet. It's about getting out there on your bike and looking fabulous all year 'round to show everyone---but especially other women---how safe, practical, easy, and fun it is to ride a bike and look fabulous all year 'round.

As a result, we now have this image of what a female transportation cyclist is supposed to look like---fabulous. She's not wearing anything that she wouldn't wear off-bike because it's unflattering and weird. She's probably not wearing a helmet. She's almost always not wearing pants.

But I don't want to look fabulous; I just want to get to work. Besides, it's snowing. Who cares?

So why do I care? Why did it bother me that someone at the Tribune thought I was a dude? Why does it ever bother me---me! who was never much into being all girly anyway---to be confused for a guy?

I've been trying to figure that out myself. Believe me, I do realize that it's an enormous contradiction to both insist on being a tomboy and yet rage at being treated like an actual boy. It doesn't make any sense, and yet here I am whining about it pretty much all the time. I think what bothers me is the implicit sexism of this image of the fabulous female transportation cyclist. Men aren't expected to sacrifice safety and convenience for physical appearance. On the other hand, women are---but look, we don't have to! You can ride a bike and still look pretty and feminine!

So of course, we're expected to. All the time.

Yes, that's what rankles me. It's the implicit sexism. Of course, any effort to promote bicycling to women is going to be sexist pretty much by definition. It's unavoidable.

So I guess I just keep on being rankled and looking like a guy. And trying not to care.


At 23 March, 2010 06:59, Blogger Freewheel said...

This is excellent

At 23 March, 2010 07:55, Blogger Adam said...

I'm not 100% certain that it is sexism that is at play here, or at least I'm not sure how sexism is defined when applied to the societal pressure for women to look fabulous on bikes. As a dude, I really couldn't care less if the female riders around me wear rain gear and helmets or sun dresses and heels; nor do I think most other men care either. The societal pressure seems to me to be entirely centered on a single gender. All the pressure seems to be being directed towards and coming from women. Men aren't in the cross-hairs of this because we don't care how we dress either. Maybe this is a sexist observation, I don't know.

At 23 March, 2010 09:16, Blogger Fixed gal said...

Thank you for articulating what I've been stewing over for some time now.

At 23 March, 2010 16:51, Blogger Jennifer said...

I think it might be largely self-imposed, now that it's no longer the middle of the night. We women do impose some pretty silly social norms on ourselves.

At 24 March, 2010 09:58, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder how much of sexist bike marketing is just based on the vague notion that the kind of ladies whose primary concern about a bicycle is whether they'll be able to look fabulous on it are the ones most inclined to overspend on a bicycle and thus provide a fat profit margin. You're probably not going to sell a $2000 Dutch bike that does nothing an old Raleigh wouldn't to someone who thinks like you do.

Of course the strange thing is that the kind of woman likely to put a bicycle to serious use probably does think like you do, but no one said the bicycle industry was bound to make any sense.

At 28 March, 2010 20:54, Blogger gna said...

Very interesting. I read your blog and I also read Let's Go Ride a Bike. Both are by women cyclists in Chicago, but that's about all they have in common. While I'm glad that people are riding bikes, whatever it takes, I'm puzzled by the cycle chic movement.


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