Gender and Urban Space

The Slutwalks: Reappropriation through Demonstration

Ami Crinnion, Manchester Metropolitan University

1From a radical feminist perspective, the city has been so thoroughly characterised by male structures and pervaded by male practices that women have been kept on the margins and, ultimately, have been rendered invisible in this male-dominated environment. Urban architecture with its high-rise buildings reverberates with phallic symbols; a hegemonic narrative of growth and expansion favours capitalist practices of exploitation that exclude female practices; arguably, it is these urban features that have historically defined men’s and women’s roles and positioning in the city.

2From a less radical stance, feminist geographers Deborah Parsons, Doreen Massey, Elizabeth Wilson and Leslie Kanes Weisman have provided important discussions on how a given city’s spatial structures, its built environment and a hegemonic male narrative have jointly shaped gendered experiences. In their deconstructions of the city, they still maintain that the urban environment has perpetuated male dominance and female subordination. Patriarchy and androcentrism are still manifest in the urban environment. As there does not seem to be a female (counter-) narrative of the city, women are still marginalised in and by urban structures and practices. In line with these feminist geographers, this contribution assumes that, although women have gained the same rights as men, many gendered inequalities still exist and have continued to influence the urban environment, its structures and practices.

3At the same time, of course, the urban environment is less monolithic than this cursory overview may suggest. As any living environment, it is inherently shaped by the practices of all its inhabitants, be they male or female, be they hegemonic or marginal. When it comes to gendered experience, the city emerges as a site of contestation within which many battles are fought over its structures and practices. In less martial words: Urban public space/s serve as collective arenas to communicate discontent amongst groups. Such public displays of discontent may become acts of appropriation of urban space/s that may then not only re-define men’s and women’s experiences as well as their gendered roles and positionings. Rather, they may become expressions of belonging in the urban environment with its everyday structures and practices (Fenster 243).

4The Slutwalks movement is one such example of appropriating urban public space/s. These walks have taken place in major cities across the world since 2011. Their provocative title expresses participants’ attempt at reclaiming a derogatory term used against many “ordinary” women in everyday life to insult them and to thereby place them in an inferior position. At the same time, the Slutwalks constitute a distinctly urban phenomenon that both responds to and undermines the city’s gendered structures, practices and narratives. Many women and even men took to the streets, dressed provocatively, to protest against stereotypical perceptions of women and against the social inequalities these entail. Accordingly, the marches illustrate how the city’s hegemonic, patriarchal and androcentric, norms and practices are being challenged by the sheer physical presence of people who rebel against these very norms. Moreover, it is important to raise the question to what extent the Slutwalks may represent a tactic of reappropriating the urban environment’s spatial structures as well.

5This empirical study is based on interviews with a group of women who took part in The Slutwalks. The respondents are women from all walks of life; so, of course, factors like age, class, ethnicity and sexuality all impact on their individual perceptions and experiences not only of the city, but also of the Slutwalks. Yet, their shared narrative of having participated in the protests allows for comparing their testimonies, which will be used to give insights into the women’s personal motivations for as well as their experiences in getting involved in the event. Due to the limitations of the small-scale qualitative research project conducted for the present purposes, not every facet of gender and its diversity can be explored. Rather, this contribution will begin with a brief discussion of the theoretical background, introducing the concepts of gendered space, language, the body, and gendered social protest before outlining the interview results in order to then conclude with a discussion of how The Slutwalks may have served as tactics of (re-)appropriating androcentric urban space/s.