Wednesday, 23 October 2013

So, I wore a woman's purse

For my sociology of gender course, we had to do something that would subvert our gender in some way. So I decided to wear a woman's purse to school for a few days. I thought I knew what I was getting into, but the experience was more overwhelming than I had expected.

First of all, I want to look at what makes a particular bag a “woman’s purse”.  It apparently is a very subtle difference that genders the object.  The bag that I chose is a turquoise in colour and is leathery.  It has a thin black leather strap with large ornamental metallic rings connecting to the bag.  It’s soft to the touch and the shape is malleable.  The difference is small, but definitely noticeable.  My subversion experience gave me a keen eye for what other people were wearing as well.  A few people I noticed were obviously subverting gender with their bags because they were transgendered.  But there were no other "cisgendered" men wearing women’s bags  A man will wear a bag if it doesn't call attention to itself.  It will usually be dark coloured.  Black, brown, blue, green and red are usually found on men.  The kind of bag that is appropriate for a man to wear is much more modest.  If a man does wear a purse, he might call it a “Man purse” or a satchel.  Very specifically named to indicate that it is not a woman’s purse.  What is most important to note is that men’s bags are gender neutral.  It wouldn't be a diversion or subversion of gender for a woman to wear a bag that is also appropriate for a man to wear.  A modestly coloured backpack, shoulderbag, duffel bag, suitcase would be totally normal for a woman to wear.  There doesn’t seem to be a social restriction on what kind of bag a woman can carry.            

My experience with gender subversion began when I actually purchased the bag.  The university book store was selling some miscellaneous used objects on a clearance table.  I had to gather up some courage to pick up the bag and bring it to the cashier.  I placed the bag in front of her, handed her two dollars and said “don’t ask”.  She responded with “hey I don’t judge”.  Its interesting that I felt like I had to explain myself for why, as a young man I was purchasing such an unusual object.  Another woman who was also present, jokingly remarked, “Its beautiful. It matches your eyes.”

A few days days later, I decided to bring it to school as my means of carrying my stuff instead of my usual backpack.  I wrote my name in big letters with a black sharpie on the bag just to aleve my fears that people would think that I stole some woman’s bag.  I decided that I would I use my purse to carry my wallet and cell phone.  I typically carry both of them in my pockets but I think that women usually carry these things in their purse.  This way I would have to carry the purse wherever I went.  It would give me the full purse experience.  I haven’t experienced being this uncomfortable in public in a very long time. Not since being an insecure junior high school kid have I felt so visually awkward and out of place.  As I approached the school on my bicycle, I was petrified as I passed some of the other students.  I wasn’t sure if they noticed my purse or not, but what mattered was how I felt. When I got the school, I tried keeping the purse out of sight as I ate breakfast.  I think I’ve observed a few people giving me odd looks as I walked pass them with the purse in full view.  I smiled at people a lot more than I usually do.  The kind of smile you have when you’ve been thinking of something funny.  Maybe because I was trying to unconsciously tell everyone who saw me that this odd situation seemed very silly to me as well.  Right now I’m writing this paper at a school computer, its nearly 3 pm and I’m hungry for lunch.  But I’m too embarrassed to walk up to the food court and get something to eat.

I ran into a female friend of mine at the end of the first day with the purse.  We talked about various small talk things including what I was doing with the purse.  What I found interesting was that she said she wouldn't have noticed anything unusual about my bag if I hadn’t brought it to her attention.  If I may be rudely judgmental for a moment, I’d have to say that I consider this particular friend of mine more of a girly girl(bleached blonde hair and lots of pink).  If she didn’t notice anything odd about me, why would the rest of the university?  The university is probably the most “progressive” and non judgmental place in Lethbridge, so why would people be constantly judging me as if I were in high school?   This made me think that I was making a bigger deal about carrying a woman’s bag than was necessary.  This may have been a sign that this gender subversion project was telling me more about my autobiographical identity, rather than how the rest of the people in my world see me.  Maybe it was just pointing out another instance of insecurity of my own failure to live up to this culture’s image of masculinity.  Previously I thought of myself as someone who didn’t care about being thought of as sub-masculine.  I’m never the most physically imposing person.  I don’t exhibit many overtly masculine qualities.  I didn’t think I cared too much about by place on the gender scale.  But this experiment showed me that I really am concerned about my own place in this gendered culture.  

Why are the bags we carry so important to our gender identity?  Could it be about body image?  Is it about the different kinds of gender specific objects we carry?  I think its a combination of several things.  I think what may look like an arbitrary difference in bags, is more a result of other cultured gender differences.  When I wore the purse, I used it to carry the things I usually carry in my jeans pockets.  Keeping things in their jeans pockets is the usual place men carry their everyday objects like a cell phone or a wallet.    But its very rare to see a woman carry a large object, like a wallet in her back pocket.  Well, a close look at pants fashion will give a possible clue to why this is.

Women’s pants tend to be much tighter fitting than men’s pants.  So carrying a wallet in her jeans would be uncomfortable perhaps.  But maybe more importantly, her figure would be undesirably distorted.  The purpose of her tight fitting jeans in the first place was to reveal the attractive shape of her backside.  It would then make more sense that she keep her pants clear of any object that would change her shape.  I found out that this intention is even more blatant than I thought.  In discussion with one of the female class members, I discovered that many styles of women’s jeans have impractically small pockets, making it virtually impossible to carry large objects anyway.  Men’s pants are relatively more loose fitting than women’s and have larger pockets.  This could be an example that the apparent shape of his butt is not much a concern to his body image or his masculinity.                  

Since I spend most of my time at the university, I see that men and women both carry relatively the same amount of stuff.  But in the real world, a woman may carry a bag because of a perceived need to bring more things with her.  On a daily round of errands, say a day shopping around town, the average man will not likely bring more than whatever he can fit into his pockets.  But you might expect a woman to bring her purse with her in the same scenario.  Why is this?  I cannot say for sure, but I can speculate.      

 A very interesting thing I noticed was the difference in the way I held the purse made.  If I put the shoulder strap across my chest onto the opposing shoulder, it felt a little more appropriate.  Hanging the bag on the shoulder of the same side made me feel more uncomfortable.  The way a woman carries her bag also has an effect on her body image, this could be a reason why strap positions I experienced, felt gendered.  A woman will usually wear a shirt that will reveal the shape of her breasts.  A purse strap that crosses her chest, will awkwardly obstruct her breasts if she is wearing a revealing shirt.  In order to preserve her body image, the purse will be held on the same shoulder.     

A deeper and more speculative reason for gendered bags may have to do with men and women’s difference in mentality.  Men are expected to be more dominant and possessive.  Men are expected to be more independent and personally responsible for the things we own.  We keep our wallet and cell phone very close to our body to make sure we are always in possession of it.  We can constantly feel them against our bodies.  Throughout the day, I habitually touch my wallet in my back pocket, just to comfort myself.  In fact, some men wear chains on their wallets just to be safe.  This was another odd feeling I noticed when I carried the purse.  I had to double check for my important things inside the purse throughout the day, just to make myself feel better.  Frankly I feel naked if I don’t feel the bulge of my wallet in my back pocket.  It would take a lot of time for me to get used to the state of mind of letting go of these personal objects.  

in our culture, women are often thought to be more passive and docile.  They’re not expected to be as owning and controlling as men.  The idea of a gendered bag reflects this attitude of feminine passivity.  The purse puts more distance between the object and the owner.  The woman is not as intimately connected with the objects she possesses.  Its a subtle but noticeable difference in my own experience.  Another fact that makes the purse representative of feminine domestication is how susceptible to theft it is.  A woman has less of a physical connection to her valuables   The purse is a more exposed object at risk to be stolen then say, a (chained) wallet.  It illustrates how women are viewed as defenseless in the face of adversity, requiring a man to be responsible for her.  Of course this is all conjecture, but I thought it was an interesting idea anyway.    


  1. As a woman who goes purseless except in formal occasions ( there are no pockets at all on women's formal attire ) there are some points I'd like to clarify.

    I understand completely the nakedness of not feeling the pressure from your phone/wallet in your pocket. I feel that way now on formal occasions and will verify that my wallet hasn't magically teleported out of the purse several times a night. But before I ditched the purse I was attached to the purse itself in precisely the same way and the same reflex to verify position of wallet/keys/phone independently was a simpler check to verify possession of the purse. It's like ... your credit cards are in your wallet, yes? But you don't feel the need to open the wallet to verify this. They are part of your wallet. If you have your wallet you have them. If you carry the purse long enough you will assume its contents the same way you currently assume the contents of the wallet and having the purse will be enough to satisfy the same controlling/possessive/defensive instincts that we all - male and female - have vis a vi our keys/phone/wallets.

    Now on the topic of pockets and purse straps. When I carried the purse I routinely carried it the sensible way, over the head on the opposite shoulder. This can't fall off, doesn't need to be braced by hitching your shoulder up or holding it, and it a lot harder to steal. No woman I met ever said a word about this. But men constantly felt the need to inform me that this looked bad/ugly/weird. Now I get told occasionally that the stuff in my back pockets looks bad/ugly/weird but nowhere near as often as I got nagged about the purse. For some reason it is more socially acceptable to tell me to make by breasts look more attractive than my ass.

    Oh, and women want pockets. Fashion designers just don't want us to have them. So you are right on IMO about women being expected to sacrifice practicality to look appealing to men. But are going overboard in assuming that women relate to our day-to-day valuables in a different way than you do.

  2. Thanks for the feedback. Its very much appreciated!

    You are probably right. I was trying to find sociological reasons why we carry our things differently. So I was probably over analyzing things.

    On the other hand, every individual's experience is different. Your experience as a woman will be different than every other woman's. Just as I don't represent all experiences of men.

    I see stark differences in our bags that may point to other, deeply rooted ideas of how our gender defines us. Such as the dominance of men and the helplessness of women. none of this is substantiated of course, but I think its cool to think about.

    1. Hrrmm, we're circling around a concept from different directions I think ... let me try a different tact. Society is very good about policing physical actions. Carry this bag or that bag, wear it this way or that way. Etc. But it is utterly terrible at policing *feelings*.

      So it can and will bully women into carrying their purses in a silly way because it is aesthetically more appealing to the male gaze. And this bullying will work and cause many women to carry their purses awkwardly. It will make pockets in our close unusably small or non-existant. That the fashion industry designs male clothes with the goal of "What does he want to wear?" and female clothes with the goal of, "What does he want her to wear?" is a big problem.

      But society is utterly powerless in dictating feelings/emotions. You can tell me I'm supposed to *feel* a given way all day but you can't make it true. I have the same basic drives as all humans.

      So I think you are right on when you note the "rules" and how aware of the "rules" of how to carry a purse or use pockets you are. Doing these things makes a women more physically attractive. But thats all there is to it.

      Society at large doesn't have an ulterior motive of inducing helplessness and women aren't putting up with it due to being less competitive/aggressive/protective of our valuables. To test this you might try a follow up experiment of touching a woman's purse uninvited or moving it without permission. Observe her reaction. Will she passively surrender her stuff to your control? Do you even need to try this to know she won't?

      Oh and side note - purses are not more vulnerable than wallets. Pick pockets are a bigger danger than purse snatchers because snatching a purse is highly visible and will get you tackled by observers. Purse snatching makes great TV is all which means people think about it more. /shrug