Earlier this month, The Philadelphia Inquirer published a screed titled "Hey, grownups, it's time to lose the backpack," which sent me into a mouth-frothing, inarticulate fury for the better part of a week. It wasn't because I happen to love backpacks, although I do, but because of course the piece was written by a man and aimed at a woman who accidentally bumped him in an elevator with her "monstrous pea-green concoction."
What the author of the Inquirer piece apparently didn't understand is that it is due to the societal preference that women carry handbags that we end up being the ones to schlepp around everything, for both ourselves and our partners. It's this burden that sometimes requires us to resort to backpacks just to keep ourselves from injury. And the writer isn't unique in his ignorance: Most men don't realize that they inadvertently use the women in their lives as pack mules.
As it turns out, many straight and cisgender men tend to be wildly uncomfortable about being the bag carrier in their relationship, or otherwise splitting the load. This "feminization" of the handbag is hundreds of years old, and directly tied to the decline of pockets in women's clothing during the late eighteenth century; as slim dresses became more fashionable in the 1790s, women began using exterior bags to carry their possessions rather than letting pockets mar the design. In the decades that followed, handbags grew to be associated with being "womanly" — or perhaps more aptly, "not manly."
Even just momentarily holding a woman's bag these days can send some men into a fit. "I'm her man, not her boy or butler," one self-described gentleman told the Jamaica Gleaner last year. "A purse is designed to identify with a woman and for me to be parading around in it at my woman's whim, makes me look whipped." In The Hangover, a male character's use of a "man purse" is a comment on his own lack of masculinity. The New York Times even once ran a column with half-joking proposals for how to hold a handbag if forced; one position, The Bad Dog, involved "instruct[ing] the owner to lay purse at your feet. Do not touch it or acknowledge it in any way." Wow, that's a real knee-slapper.
Whether men are consciously aware of it or not, though, they likely rely on the proximity of a purse. Need an Advil? Your partner probably has it in her bag. Want a sip of water to chase it? The bottle's in her bag too. How about napkins to use as tissues in a pinch? You know who to ask. Such an expectation even extends to men explicitly assuming their things will be carried by a female partner. "Hey, nobody likes walking around with big bulging pockets," wrote Neil Pasricha, the author of the blog 1,000 Awesome Things, in entry #775. "So today let's give thanks to the Bag Ladies of the World for their giant purses and free storage."
My complaint isn't just about the physical burden of carrying a husband's/boyfriend's/male friend's/male relative's things, though. My alarm is that the social acceptability of women being the handbag-bearers further "mom-ifies" them as being the caregivers in their relationships. Children often grow up expecting their mothers to be the ones to have the items to take care of them, from supplies in a diaper bag to snacks, tissues, games, and books in elementary school. By the time those kids become adults, they look at purses the same way: either as potentially containing the remedy to everyday hassles (if they're men), or the means of providing those things to the men in their life (if they're a woman).
As one tone-deaf Vice photographer revealingly marveled, "as a kid, I was convinced that my mom and her friends just had to carry around all sorts of magical items, plus a couple of bricks ... in case they needed to save the world or something. As a grown man, I can't really say I find purses any less puzzling." Great.
A particularly fascinating case study of this is the recurring Us Weekly column "What's In Your Bag?" Almost every celebrity mother's bag contains things for caring for her children (Sheryl Crow apparently even lugs around a crystal for her son to rub when he's "stressed out") while many wives and girlfriends admit to carting around items for their partners. "I've gotten used to carrying Matthew [McConaughey]'s things!" confessed the actor's wife, Camila Alves. "His snus, the tobacco chew, always wind up in my purse. And I have his wallet and iPhone." Racked suggests that Alves' comment might have been her subconscious way of signaling that "she's a good wife" — apparently because women are expected to do this work for their men.
It might seem like a petty complaint. After all, I already have my bag with me — it'd be a small kindness to take the book my boyfriend has been carrying around all day off his hands, right? But it is this expectation of women being providers that leads to more substantial and entrenched societal illnesses, from the idea of women being mother figures in a relationship, regardless of if they actually have children, to the emotional labor they put toward anticipating what might be needed by someone in their lives during the course of the day.
Luckily, the bag problem might be glacially self-correcting; earlier this year, Highsnobiety announced that "men want to wear purses, they just don't know it yet." Unisex items like backpacks, messenger bags, and satchels are already common among men in the workplace; what's needed now is for such objects to make the leap to being brought along during nights out, weekends, and social occasions, too.
Meanwhile, the resistance to smaller, over-the-shoulder options for men, is dissipating. As one Facebook user bluntly told HuffPost in response to a question about if men should use purses: "Does this mean I wouldn't have to carry my husband's stuff in my bag? Then, yes."