The 'Women Eating On the Tube Protest' Was Pretty Weird
But not as weird as Tony Burke.
As I’m sure you’ll be aware, given the coverage in the Guardian, Jezebel and on Radio 4's Today programme, there’s recently been a lot of hoo-ha surrounding a Facebook page set up to gather pictures of women eating on the tube. Before it was closed, the group – titled “Women Eating On the Tube” – provided an outlet for camera-wielding voyeurs to take a break from sneaking up-skirts and instead indulge in a far more manageable, less arrest-able form of creepiness: sneaking pictures of women eating food on the London Underground.
The page’s founder is "filmmaker and artist" Tony Burke. He claims that taking candid iPhone shots of women mid-chew is “an observational study” and “reportage photography”, as opposed to a bunch of arseholes embarrassing busy people for indulging their basic human need to feed themselves.
The page was closed last Friday. On the day of its demise, Burke visited the Radio 4 studios to sit down with pissed off student Lucy Brisbane McKay, who had announced a protest on the Circle line against the page – “Women Eating Wherever the Fuck They Want”. McKay was correct in what she said: the policing of women’s behaviour in this way is unacceptable, weird, degrading and pretty embarrassing for Burke. But her reasons for the protest seemed more flimsy; she said she wanted it to be a “celebration of women eating”.
Quite what there is to celebrate about eating, I’m not too sure. There’s also something a bit top-hats-and-monocles about a picnic protest on the tube, so I went along to see if the organisers had figured out what point they were trying to make between the radio interview and the moment they stepped through the Oyster barriers.
The feast was to begin at High Street Kensington station. A total of ten to 15 people showed up, mostly young women of student age, along with the odd older lady and a couple of guys thrown in to round out the demographic. One of the men was dressed as a sort of strip club musketeer and was defiantly eating a weird lunch of plain penne pasta with a spoon.
There was also a self-described "stand-up comedian, feminist, socialist, activist and joy distributor" named Chris Coltrane, who you can see taking a picture of himself in the photo above.
Frances Scott (second from right) with some people she handed 50:50 shirts to
Before we set off, a woman called Frances Scott arrived. Scott is the organiser of the 50:50 Parliament campaign, a venture calling for a more balanced House of Commons. She handed out T-shirts and posed for photos with the young ladies at the centre of the event, but the girls soon removed the shirts, accusing Frances of attempting to hijack their protest.
Once we got on the train, it turned into an uncomfortable mini-frenzy, mostly because there's just not much room for a protest on a tube carriage. Seasoned TV journalists and photographers jostled and argued with each other about shots and interviews, and I was personally interrupted about three times by some busybody from Channel 5, or somewhere, who wanted to speak to the girl I was having a conversation with.
The camera crews were obsessed with the girls who'd brought giant, point-making picnic bags along for the ride. They seemed most interested in one who had about five bunches of bananas on her. I asked her if she'd ever encountered media attention like this before. She looked away for a second before completely ignoring me and chatting to her friend. It made me feel alone.
So I turned to one of those women who weren't being bombarded by cameras, and asked her how it felt being ignored by cameras at a protest held to encourage people to ignore women with their cameras. She gave me the kind of daggers you'd normally give someone after they’d kicked your dog in the face.
I went down the train to speak to a few commuters. Though they agreed in principle that the page was a bit gross, they were all basically uninterested.
The author, eating on the tube in solidarity
The more I thought about it, the more bizarre the whole event seemed. The train was unbearable to be on – journos elbowing each other out the way for photo-ops while scribbling stuff in shorthand that anyone who isn't an idiot would probably already agree with. I can understand people uniting in resistance against some grand, overarching, damning social paradigm, but a gathering against a couple of dickheads with smartphones felt a bit pointless.
Still, anything organised to kick back against pricks who write stuff like, "Everywhere I go, I see women eating on Tubes. Like little mice hiding packets of crisps and biscuits in their bags and purses. Slowly, secretly, guiltily raising each bite-sized morsel to their salty lips in the hope that no one’s watching. Well, I’m watching. And I’m photographing, documenting the fascinating world of the Women Who Eat on Tubes,” can't be all bad.
The great public transport feast of early summer 2014, then: Not all that great but nowhere near as bad as Tony Burke. For everyone else, it was just a bunch of people eating cheap sushi and cheese and onion crisps on the tube.
This copy was edited at 6.42PM on Monday, 14th April to reflect the fact that "Women Eating On the Tube" hasn't been removed from Facebook but is now a closed group.