Petty or revolutionary?

On microfeminism

Photo: Pexels

At an exhibit not long ago, I came across a photograph by artist Clyde Lepage. It shows a woman facing away from the camera. She’s poised mid-step on a busy shopping street and people are walking toward her from all directions. She’s holding her arms parallel to the ground, elbows sticking out from her body at 90 degrees. Her head is held high. The piece is part of a wider series titled “The position of the elbows (or a feminist answer to manspreading).” Lepage describes it as an exploration of women reclaiming space in the public realm.

This made me think of the recent microfeminism trend on social media. The term, which was coined on TikTok, refers to the idea of fighting gender inequality and patriarchal norms through small, everyday acts of rebellion. Some examples include apologizing less; calling men out when they interrupt; contacting a sick student’s father as the default; using fewer exclamation points (there’s actually research on this: see these studies from 2006 and 2024); no longer hiding your menstrual products at the bottom of your grocery cart … the list goes on. (For more examples, see this Reddit thread.) But one example that women keep mentioning? Sidewalk interactions. Specifically, they are no longer stepping aside for people, or men, walking toward them.

This could seem rude. It’s generally considered bad form to go about bumping into people on purpose. However, what’s striking is that as women make the conscious decision to stay their course, they are bumping into people—men, that is. Collisions seldom involve other women.

I reached out to my entourage for input. A couple of friends told me they were generally the ones to make way—either because they were used to doing so, or because they felt that they paid more attention to their surroundings. One friend who rarely moves aside said she often received pretty hard shoulder bumps as a result. She told me this always left her wondering whether the man had also made a conscious decision not to move.

Perhaps this all seems petty to some. They might roll their eyes at the idea of “manslamming,” dismissing it as yet another trendy expression for those with nothing more serious to worry about. But I would argue that something more fundamental is at stake. This act of microfeminism speaks to deeper questions about our cities.

Leslie Kern, author of The Feminist Citypoints out that built environments reflect the societies that constructed them, as well as that society’s norms. They are far from neutral backdrops. People built them. Authors such as Jane Darke or Dolores Hayden have explored the ways our cities embed patriarchy in stone and concrete, with their “upward-thrusting buildings […] ejaculating light into the night sky.” But Kern argues that this goes beyond symbolism; it matters in the everyday lives of residents. It matters to the woman trying to breastfeed in public or change her menstrual cup in a public toilet; it matters to the person lugging a stroller up a staircase; it matters to the woman wondering whether it’s too late to go out for a jog, or the woman policing herself so that men won’t harass her. In all of these instances, the city reminds her that she doesn’t belong.

The sidewalk question speaks to this same issue. If an environment isn’t neutral, surely the interactions it fosters aren’t either. Though it’s telling that so many women relate to these sidewalk challenges, I should note that these stories remain anecdotal; there’s no scholarship to substantiate them. There is research on “collision avoidance.” These studies mostly use simulations and motion- or eye-tracking systems to study behaviour coordination among pedestrians. However, as far as I can tell, none of these studies break this down by gender. (See the work of Caroline Criado Perezon the gender data gap.)  In fact, in one recent experimentall twenty participants were men. The authors found that mutual anticipation was key in collision avoidance and that body language cues should suffice to negotiate these situations. If this is true and if women are also getting bumped into more often, what does it say about our behavioural expectations?

In short, it seems naïve to assume that gender wouldn’t play a role in the ways we negotiate space. After all, we are living in cities designed largely by and for men, with sexist ideas built right into them. These collisions are neither anodyne nor anecdotal. The right to take up space goes beyond a TikTok trend. We are reproducing norms through our interactions. This is a question of gender, and it’s a question of power.

Upending these norms is complicated. True change would, for starters, require further gender-disaggregated research. It would also require us to change both our culture and the wider gender system of norms, socialization, and power relations. If, as Kern argues, the feminist city is an ongoing experiment in living more justly, then surely we can find different ways to use urban space. This starts with recognizing what’s playing out on our sidewalks.