Boys to the Back: On the Subtleties of Male Entitlement

I’ve been writing love letters to mosh pits since I was in high school. But this is not a love letter.

There are few things I love more than thrashing around at shows with my friends. This feels like the whole point of having a body, the best part of being material. We all become new best friends, dancing so close and so strange that we slam into each other.We fall down, we get scooped up by strangers’ arms and strong hands. We check in on people we haven’t met yet to make sure their injuries are minor, that they are hydrated, that they can breathe. A punk dance party (you can call it a mosh pit if you want) is a lesson in how to build community.

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling

Me at Homesick, a weekly emo and pop punk dance party in Toronto. Photo by Kieran Meyn.

Darn, I said this wasn’t going to be a love letter.

My point is: it’s all fun and games until someone takes their shirt off. And by that I mean, it’s a wholesome, reciprocal community experience until a bunch of sweaty white dudes rip their shirts off and remind everyone that this space is theirs and theirs alone.

So there I was, at a show, bopping along with my friends, when three white dudes at the front coordinated this very display of male entitlement.

Men exposing their naked bodies in public is a total power move, an unflinching assertion of power and dominance. Ripping your shirt off at a show or whipping your dick out to take a piss on the street betrays the deep sense of entitlement men have to public spaces. It’s the semi-nude version of manspreading, the word for the well-documented phenomenon of men taking up too much space on the train.

It betrays a stake in the belief that men’s bodies are natural, neutral, and completely inoffensive in a way women’s bodies can never be. My friend at the show said, “I hate when guys just take over like that.” We agreed that, as women, we couldn’t whip our shirts off to the same effect. Our bodies would be objectified and sexualized against our will, subjected to leers, grabs, and, undoubtedly, a sneaky pic some creep would save for later. No, we agreed that to have the same space-staking effect as dudes discarding their shirts, we would need to drop our pants and piss everywhere. Like dogs. This was the equivalent we agreed on. Let that sink in.

Men exposing their bodies in public also betrays their complete lack of awareness of how they take up space, and the effect that this has on the other people sharing that space. One day this summer I was walking down a residential street with my boyfriend and he noticed his shirt was on inside out. No problem, he took it off, inside-right-ed it, and put it back on as we walked. As he did this, a woman walking toward us on the sidewalk crossed the street. I don’t think he even noticed. Most men, especially the white, cis, and straight among them, are not familiar with the practice of sizing up someone approaching them on the street. How uncomfortable will this be? Will he leer at me? Will he make a comment about my body? Will he interrupt my day to try to flirt with me? Will he grab me? These are experiences we typically try to avoid, so we take a literal detour and cross the street if they seem imminent. A half-naked man signals entitlement, and male entitlement has led to so much violence and discomfort for women, so we cross the street. We physically give up space, scoot to the *literal margins* of public space, so men can take up more. We shrink so they may grow.

It’s like these dudes have never heard of riot grrrl. And maybe they haven’t, perhaps they are only like 23 have actually never heard of riot grrrl. So let’s review some of its key principles.

My feminism came out of punk rock ethos. When I was 15, my genius Sagittarius friend Justine confided to me that she didn’t “get” the punks who were misogynist or homophobic because punk rock is all about equality. She showed me Bikini Kill, beautifully illustrating her point with their demands for “revolution, girl style now!” and “girls to the front!”

Girls to the Front became a slogan for a political movement that came out of young women’s frustrations with the sexism and male entitlement in 90s punk culture known as riot grrrl. Mosh pits were extremely aggro and had a tendency to get violent. This made it terrifying and dangerous for girls to dance to their favourite bands at a live show (see above: one of the best parts of being alive). Girls to the Front was a way of organizing riot grrrl shows so that girls could participate safely and actively in the subculture they loved and helped build. You can still find grainy videos of Kathleen Hanna, who fronted Bikini Kill, saying,

“All girls to the front! I’m not kidding. All boys be cool for once in your lives. Go back. Back. Back!”

The literalization of this riot grrrl ethos was extremely necessary, but at its core, Girls to the Front can be understood as simply an invitation to consider how you take up space. Look around. Whose space are you taking? Who are you sidelining? Is everyone having fun, or just the boys? And possibly more pressing, aren’t you cold without your shirt?

Girls have spent so much time on the sidelines of subcultures, it has sparked the development of entirely new subcultures, political movements, and academic fields of study. But girls and women can’t be the only ones talking and thinking about these dynamics. Women can only take up space if men stop occupying all of it. Girls can only get to the front if boys will move to the back. And what is one small way that, as a man, you can show that you are conscious of the gendered power dynamics at play in public spaces, and can demonstrate a willingness to right this imbalance rather than uphold it? Keep your fucking shirt on.

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