I’ve lived in New York City for nearly seven months and I’m already familiar with the complexities of taking the 8:20 “4” train into uptown Manhattan every weekday morning. Not only are the subway cars filled with grumpy workaholics yet to have their first cup of coffee—the incoming trains are often already packed by the time they arrive at the station, breeding an “every man for himself” mentality.
Elbows fly as soon as the familiar ding indicates the doors are opening, and we all jockey to be the first on the train. But hundreds of short-tempered New Yorkers forced to crowd together before 9 a.m. creates a palpable tension in the air. Like an electrical current awaiting that initial spark.
I had just slipped between a tall gentleman in a suit and an older woman shouldering a gym bag, and grabbed the overhead bar for stability, when I heard a woman’s voice coming from the door I had just dashed through.
“Excuse me,” she said, in an annoyed tone to the man behind her.
It’s a reccurring theme: Person A wants to exit the train, person B wants to quickly enter.
The result: a head-on collision.
The commuters lucky enough to have already staked out their positions observed the scene with weary interest, yet we couldn’t have predicted the seriousness of the situation.
“You need to stop! Just don’t push me, okay?” the woman exiting the train said, now raising her voice.
She had turned around with palms facing out to look up at the guy who had tried to forcefully steer her out of the car. Without hesitation he spun back around to face her, leaned in close, and proceeded to tell her off in language that was so aggressive and uncalled for that I couldn’t believe it was coming from the mouth of a full-grown adult.
“Don’t start with me, b@!$%,” he yelled, causing everyone in the train to jump.
“I was just say—,” the woman started to protest, but he quickly cut her off.
“Oh, you want to keep going?” he asked.
The six-foot-something man abruptly switched from name calling to actual threats, repeating several variations of “I will knock you the f$@# out.”
He demonstrated his seriousness by stepping closer and closer with each taunt, puffing out his chest and using his height to loom over her with a truly terrifying look in his eyes. I honestly thought she was going to get hit, and I’m assuming she thought so too from the way she cringed.
The entire scene was witnessed by dozens of people who, like me, had all stopped what they were doing to stare at the man in horror. The woman slipped into the crowd at the first opportunity, disappearing into the congested platform.
I clutched the overhead bar and tried to comprehend what I had just seen. As the train lurched forward, I wondered whether the strides we have made for gender equality are still falling short of the mark when women can’t stand their ground without being labeled “shrill,” a “b@#!$%,” or worse—threatened physically.
Unfortunately, there is still this tendency in our society to think of women as “prepackaged.” When there should be acceptance no matter how a woman chooses to think/behave/live her life—you know, because we are all human beings—some of us are met with backlash as we realize that we don’t want to fit anyone’s preconceived stereotype (i.e. meek, nurturing, and soft... etc.) Witnessing this chaotic scene forced me to acknowledge that the world continues to reinforce the belief, for many women, that we shouldn’t talk back, be assertive, or insist that a man not physically assault us and expect to not pay for it in some form or another.
It is time that we pay more attention to the implications of the implicit assumptions that men and women have about gender. As children, we are inundated with messaging that eventually shapes how we come to view our place in society, and how accepting we are of people who don’t fit into those traditional stereotypes. If she is continually exposed to similar situations, will the little girl who was sitting next to her mother on that train come to think it is okay if she is treated like that by men? Conversely, will the little boy watching the chaotic scene from the station platform (if exposed to similar situations at home) grow up to think that women should be submissive, or else? The World Health Organization seems to think so. According to the United Nations’ premier authority on health, men worldwide are three to four times more likely to become an abuser if they grew up in a household with domestic violence.
Recent think pieces like Lean In, by Sheryl Sandburg, suggest that more and more people are getting on the bandwagon about female empowerment (at least, from a workplace equality standpoint). However, in other countries, this woman on the subway might have just been lucky she wasn’t backhanded without a second thought. To some degree, the global community of women share in this uphill battle against gender stereotypes that push us to conform to how we “should” or “should not” behave. Despite the advances we have made collectively over the last century, these implications continue to affect the way we are treated at work, at home and, yes, even on the subway.
If you are interested in learning about your own implicit associations, I encourage trying a few of the social attitudes quizzes developed by Harvard University’s Implicit Project.
Written by Sabrina Willard