EDITOR’S NOTE – The Guardian published this with a straight face …
‘Upward-thrusting buildings ejaculating into the sky’ – do cities have to be so sexist?‘
Toxic masculinity is built into the fabric of our urban spaces, writes Leslie Kern, author of new book Feminist City. And the results aren’t just divisive – they can be lethal.
Glass ceilings and phallic towers. Mean streets and dark alleys. Road names and statues of men. From the physical to the metaphorical, the city is filled with reminders of masculine power. And yet we rarely talk of the urban landscape as an active participant in gender inequality. A building, no matter how phallic, isn’t actually misogynist, is it? Surely a skyscraper isn’t responsible for sexual harassment, the wage gap, or even the glass ceiling, whether it has a literal one up top or not?
That said, our built environments can still reflect patterns of gender-based discrimination. To imagine the city and its structures as neutral places where complicated human social relations are staged is to ignore the simple fact that people built these places. As the feminist geographer Jane Darke has said: “Our cities are patriarchy written in stone, brick, glass and concrete.” In other words, cities reflect the norms of the societies that build them. And sexism is a deep-rooted norm.
As far back as 1977, an American poet and professor of architecture named Dolores Hayden wrote an article with the explosive headline “Skyscraper seduction, skyscraper rape”. Hayden tore into the male power fantasies embodied in this celebrated urban form.
The office tower, she wrote, is one more addition “to the procession of phallic monuments in history – including poles, obelisks, spires, columns and watchtowers”, where architects un-ironically use the language of “base, shaft and tip” while drawing upward-thrusting buildings ejaculating light into the night sky.
If the sexism of the city began and ended with architectural symbolism, I would’ve happily written a grad school essay about this then turned my attention to more pressing matters. But society’s historical and ongoing ideas about the proper gender roles for men and women (organised along a narrow binary) are built right into our cities – and they still matter. They matter to me as a mother. They matter to me as a busy professor who often finds herself in strange cities, wondering if it’s OK to pop into the neighbourhood pub alone. Ask any woman who’s tried to bring a pram on to a bus, breastfeed in a park, or go for a jog at night. She intuitively understands the message the city sends her: this place is not for you.
Turns out the suburbs are sexist too, according to this writer …