February 3rd, 2011

Bikes exemplars of gender projection

Until the twentieth-century it was as natural for architects to think of buildings as being male or female, as it is natural today to ascribe genders to bicycles. 

From Left: Male; Female.

In part buildings were all neutered by English, our language, the world's lingua franca, perfect in every way except for its tendency to call common nouns "its" rather than "shes" or "hes". I was 16 when this difference between English and the Romance languages first got past my solipsistic resistance to learning anything foreign. That was how old I was when I was listening to Laurie Anderson and lyrics like these:

My guess is that a pineapple is more macho than a knife.
Si! Correcto! Pineapple es mas macho que knife

Writing in Latin, the ancient architectural theorist Vitruvius had no qualms calling Doric columns male, and Ionic ones female. We English speakers can be left feeling bemused by distinctions like that. We wonder if ancient, Renaissance and Beaux Arts architects weren't just romantic saps. Then add to our language, our indoctrination by those architect heroes of Modernism who set about replacing all the cool bits of our jargon, with mechanistic words like "function" and "form". I recommend Architecture and The Crisis of Modern Science to anyone keen to read how our art was demystified. All the pseudo science leaves us now, feeling like Winston in George Orwell's 1984, looking but not finding anything like the word "love" in Big Brother's Newspeak Dictionary. In our hearts we know qualities like robustness and angularity in architecture are masculine, and that curviness and diaphanousness are feminine qualities when we see them in buildings, but the traditions of architectural hermeneutics that would once have vindicated our deeper senses, are now too faint to be heard over attacks from curvy men and robust women. You know the type. They get mighty touchy when angular dudes like myself starting using stereotypes. 

In this coming age of the bicycle, bikes will be on our minds (the way cars were in the 50s and 60s) and therefore it will be natural that we will use bikes more to explain things. The Pashley roadster and princess above, illustrate beyond doubt that inanimate objects can have genders attached. But I also think they explain what's happening here, why one is male and one female.
From left: Moulton; Dahon.

It seems to me the Pashley models' genders are cultural constructs. The mens bike came along first, and the ladies bike is a modified version, adapted for ladies skirts. From then, the idea that one was for men and the other for women, just kinda stuck. Had bikes been invented in some land where women wore jeans and all men wore kilts and played bagpipes, it might be the Pashley Princess we were calling the mens bike.

As for natural/biological explanations, I'm personally not partial. Yes, I can see the roadster has a rod thrusting forward from its male rider's crotch, and that between the knees of a woman riding the princess there would be a big hole. But then I look at the Moulton and Dahon above. While the Dahon (right) has a top tube one might read about in the Kamasutra, or see in Khajuraho, still,  the bike actually looks kinda dorky. Meanwhile, the horizontal top tube of the Moulton, that I freely admit emanates from low enough to tackle a dachshund, despite all that, looks kinda manly. I think it's because the Moulton looks more like a mens bike, as we traditionally expect mens bikes to look. This is why a Doric capitol looks masculine to my eyes, while phallic towers look like bad jokes. Doric is male according to a convention I'm proud to say I'm aware of. That means more to me that any supposed projection of my member upon the horizon.