27 July 2016

Female Body as Unexpected Object

The thing that aggravates me most about biking while female is when people look straight at me and then step right in front of me, causing me to have to slam on the brakes, lay rubber, eat my handlebars, and occasionally eat pavement.

During the summer, I bike as an obvious female. During the winter, all of the layers mean I'm taken for a man almost all of the time. The differences are huge.

Drivers give more room to female cyclists because they assume we're inexperienced or incompetent. I once had a police officer look at me and climb on top of a barrier to get out of the way. Yes, there was plenty of room for me to get by. Yes, I can ride in a straight line, even at slow speeds. But he and his buddy thought it was hilarious to act as though I was likely to run into him by accident.

The assumption of incompetence is aggravating, don't get me wrong. But I'll take the extra clearance, because it means an extra margin of safety in case I need to avoid a pothole, an opening car door, or a texting pedestrian.

When winter clothing disguises my gender, and when people look at me, they generally get out of the way, either pausing to let me pass, changing course, or speeding up. In the summer, it's obvious that I have a female body (and I often bike in skirts, because they're comfortable and don't get caught in the chain). I regularly get ignored. Maybe they figure since I'm female, I won't mind stopping for them. Or they assume they should have priority over a lesser member of the species. 

But I suspect it's like the gorilla in the basketball game.

Daniel Simons and his psychologist colleagues made a video of people playing basketball. They showed it to people and asked them to count passes, and in the middle of the video they had a woman in a gorilla suit walk through the middle of the game. 
from Dan Simons' research page
Half the people watching the video don't notice the woman in the gorilla suit. Simons calls the phenomenon inattentional blindness, and it happens when people "fail to notice unexpected objects."

I suspect the juxtaposition of mammary glands and the front wheel of a bike is, for many people, an "unexpected object," because if there's a bike, they expect to see a male rider. So their minds just don't process the information that there's something they should pay attention to, and they step into the street right in front of me. I nearly hit a guy today when I had to brake hard on top of a subway grate and didn't have much traction. He didn't even notice.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the intersections of objects and female bodies in the Exeter Book Riddles, the subject of the final chapter of my book on Old English literature and environmental issues. It seems to be a social construction that lingers, a millennium later. My fellow bikers, what do you think?