It’s in the Bag? The Gender Politics of Purses

July 14, 2009

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I spotted a man on the subway one recent evening carrying what looked suspiciously like a purse.

Curious and feeling unusually brazen, I asked: “Excuse me sir, you wouldn’t call that purse, would you?”

Blushing, he looked down at the square black bag slung over his shoulder, and then at me.

“No, it’s … it’s a case, ” he stammered. “A briefcase,” he said, turning it slightly so I could see the software logo affixed to its side.

That more or less settled the matter: it was definitely not a purse, unless, unbeknownst to me, Microsoft decided to give Kate Spade a run for her money.

Still, the thought of men’s tenuous relationships with handbags intrigued me so that I pulled out my notebook, right there on the red line train, and began scribbling furiously.

The man with the decidedly non-purse must have had some idea of what was going on. Still blushing, and without any conscious provocation from me, he said once again, this time resolutely, “It’s a briefcase.”

I said nothing and only smiled to myself.

Our brief (excuse the pun) exchange left me with two questions—each potentially answering the other:

Question 1: Women carry purses; why don’t men?

Answer: They are embarrassed.

Question 2: Why are they embarrassed to carry purses?

Answer: Because women carry purses. Men don’t.

The age-old argument that men simply don’t need purses (“Men just don’t carry as much as women do!”) holds no water with me.

Besides their keys and wallets, in today’s increasingly self-conscious, techno-phillic society, men carry combs, condoms, cell phones, pagers, Palm Pilots, lip balm, Altoids, eye drops … the list goes on and on.

So where do men keep these vital items now? They are stuffed in pockets, buried at the bottoms of briefcases, or, if they’re lucky, stored in the purses of female companions.

My roommate—we’ll call him Billy—carries his backpack to work everyday and insists that he couldn’t make do with a smaller, less cumbersome bag (i.e. a purse). The contents of his backpack, however, consist of a Walkman, gum, and not much else.

Come on, Billy. You’re not fooling anyone.

Billy and countless others of the heterosexual male persuasion (including, most likely, my unwitting subway specimen) seem to believe that choosing to carry their belongings in a convenient, if unconventional, fashion, would paint them in an effeminate light. Women carry purses. Men don’t.

Despite the gender equality movements of the last century, the threat of appearing less than masculine has been enough to ward off an otherwise perfectly logical purse-carrying trend among men. Television sitcoms have explored the idea—most notably, a Seinfeld episode on “European carry-ons”—but, not surprisingly, only as a source of humor rather than a subject worth serious consideration. And if the esteemed Mr. Seinfeld won’t give his stamp of approval, who will?

Before I become too bogged down with pity for the purse-deprived sex, allow me to point out one bright spot in the overall sad state of handbag/gender affairs: it’s called the messenger bag.

Introduced for mass consumption as a chic alternative to backpacks and briefcases, messenger bags became popular with both men and women. But, unlike backpacks and briefcases, messenger bags have evolved into a variety of sizes over recent years, and some are about as small as—dare I say it—purses.

Perhaps we are in fact standing on the brink of a male handbag revolution. Accessory designers and marketers may well be leading the way toward widespread acceptance for men who empty their pockets into pocketbooks. Heck, maybe someday the word “purse” and the phrase “small messenger bag” will become synonymous! Can you imagine?

It would be one small bag for man, one giant leap for gender equality.

Until then, all apologies to the fellow I traumatized on the red line train. It was a briefcase. Your manhood is safe.

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