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Why the Debate's More Than Just About Women Who Eat On Tubes

I'm a member of divisive Facebook. I joined because I didn't like what I saw. If you've read enough on the subject, or need to alphabetise your dried herbs, you're excused.

I'm a member of divisive Facebook Group Women Who Eat On Tubes. I joined because I didn't like what I saw. If you've read enough on the subject, or need to alphabetise your dried herbs, you're excused.

I joined to post a satirical 'photography critique' (see below) in response to my friend Helen's picture being put on there. It's a great photo (unlike most of the grainy images where the taker has clearly dived over bags and children to get 'the moneyshot'); the focus is crisp, she is captured mid-bite, with a bright pink copy of 'The Feminist Porn Book' open on her crossed legs and her eyes glancing sideways, seemingly at the mobile phone of the stranger sitting next to her. An immortalised moment with multiple possible narratives. If only she'd known she was the subject. This was her grievance on finding out she'd been snapped, displayed and discussed on a public forum; couldn't you just have asked my permission? The group's reply to her query was that if you ask a subject for permission, they'd probably tell you to "f*ck off". The prosecution might indeed rest.

It raises the interesting question of photographing people. When television films in the street, the public must sign release forms. Of course we don't seek the same agreement when we're taking holiday snaps of a busy market place. What's less usual than capturing bystanders in the corner of your panorama is 'hunting' (one member's phrase) for a specific subject on a daily basis.

From debates with friends, reading comments on the WEEOT page and other online articles, here are the main issues that have come up:

1. Why is it inherently- if not intentionally- sexist, be you male or female?

There isn't Black People Who Laugh On Buses; that would be racist. (Although they would make more 'interesting subjects' than white people, to follow the logic of the WWEOT explanation). And yes, Tubecrush is sexist towards men. Not to get polemical, but the argument goes that men haven't been objectified under the Female Gaze for centuries, so it holds a less oppressive connotation (sing the last sentence to the tune of Knees Up Mother Brown, it's more accessible).

2. Eating is problematic.

There's a complicated history between women and food, inextricably linked to appearance. Absurd* or not, it focuses on a well-worn narrative for women about how we look; how we are SEEN. I'm not saying Helen ran away screaming from her computer, stuck her fingers down her throat and etched 'nothing tastes as good as skinny feels' on her forehead, renouncing all apples. She was just largely annoyed. But it's a significant subconscious subject matter to arrive at I reckon. And plenty of comments discuss how the woman is eating, with questionable adverbs.

3. Are we making a banquet out of a canapé?

Maybe for those playing. It's gone from 2,000 odd to 4,000 plus members in weeks. It's been put to me that by talking about it we're given them more air time; free PR for the group and feeding the beast (or should I say, women?!? #megalolz). I'll take their ever increasing membership and profile over a covert group any day, because I'd rather be a part of the conversation than an oblivious subject.

4. All this debate is good.

Whether you're an official feminist group, a man called Tim sitting at his desk in PWC looking for a distraction**, Helen, some mates or anyone writing an article, you will have an opinion. And that's what's been interesting. A male friend is rethinking his understanding of the feminist position, so contradictory have been all the opinions flying around. Don't worry, feminists still just want the same stuff as men- so we're all feminist unless you're a chump. But let's take the word 'feminism' out of it for a second and use our brains to judge What Feels Okay. A useful litmus test in this instance is to ask yourself, "Would I feel happy for my grandma to be involved in this?" If you answer yes, however you imagine her involved, immediately seek help.

With WWEOT, I think safety and privacy should become the issue. Does it break the law to photograph me? No. Would I feel okay about confronting you snapping me? Yes. But loads of women- and girls- wouldn't. My housemate text me just tonight saying "I really want to eat on the tube but I'm too scared.." The opportunity for an absurdist game amongst friends has passed when so many people tell you they don't feel comfortable with how you're behaving. If I was told that my actions were creepy and offensive, I'd be mortified (cue comments box). And the folk of the WWEOT group are clearly intelligent enough to see both sides of the Scotch Egg.

How did Helen discover she was posted in the group? A friend of hers turned out to be member. So it's not a case of the pitchfork waving in-need-of-a-good-seeing-to, can't-have-fun, irrational feminists against the ignorant, pigheaded privileged young white men. It's an opportunity for us all to sit around having some important discussions that we don't often have. Wherever they lead. Just avoid the Metropolitan Line, it's bloody slow.

* Cats wearing bonnets and swaying to Frank Sinatra in Waterstones are absurd. Hotels on Mars are absurd. Boris Johnson is absurd.

** I made up Tim. Apologies if you're real.

NB: In order to include the posted image of Helen, I had to seek permission from the person who took the covert picture. I'll leave you to unravel the layers of that philosophical irony onion. If the picture's not included here, it's because permission was either not granted at all, or in time for this post. No judgements made.

Photo- Sophie Alderson 2014

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