Title Page

– The Imprint of Gender in Urban Public Spaces

© Brett Dorron 2001


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My initial idea for this study, was for a kind of transitory exploration of the roles of, for, and by, gender in Perth’s public spaces today. I started out with few questions, and expected answers to be evident. Instead I have found many more questions. I suspect the answers are deep within the cultural psyche, and formed by the mingling of Perth’s European heritage, with its ancient influences, modern commodification and Americanisation, and masked by its post-modern hieroglyphs – in a flux of multicultural otherness.

img1076092121What is ‘gendered space’, and how can it be read? Firstly, by feminist discourse, space is not gendered solely by formal physical, or aesthetic characteristics like phallicism, pictorialism, or naturalism, etc. It is gendered by its relation to, association with, or incorporation by people, groups, or discourses. In this sense (and this is one difficulty), a single space can be gendered feminine one day, masculine the next, and gay another. It can be feminine by day and masculine by night, or vice versa. It can be one gender by design, and another by incorporation or use. In fact it can be differently considered several genders at once, according to discourse, and this is further clouded by censorship and protectionism based on age – and – space is racialised. Where a white space is invisible, a black or Asian space is obvious (and vice versa).

Now, how can I thread the needle? How can I isolate gender to form an argument of value, when all is mere perception, ‘including mine’? This can be no more than an exploration of discourse, awkwardly attached to my heuristic urban snapshots (intrusions).

How is our urban space experienced? Our experience, it would appear, is built upon the historic cultural discourses. The stereotyped gender oppositions of masculine/feminine, public/private, outside/inside, culture/nature, etc (to list but a few), and the urban/rural, city/wilderness – rhetoric much the same. They interleave and overlap.


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In her essay, titled: Bodies in Private and Public, Elizabeth Wilson (Brettle & Rice, 1994) wrote:

“Since the early nineteenth century the contrast between city and country, civilisation and nature has been one of the main organising principles for the way we make sense of our visible world. The Romantic Movement provided a powerful response to the industrial revolution and the attendant growth of cities, encapsulated as the contrast between William Blake’s ‘satanic mills’ and ‘England’s pastures green’.

img1076158528This binary opposition has remained with us ever since. In the 1900s the Garden City movement made popular an architecture of cottages and village streets, perpetuated in the suburbs of the 1930s – and indeed, in today’s post-modern supermarkets and housing developments.” (p. 6).



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She discusses the distinctions between urban and country, the bustle and crowds, and the emptiness of landscape. She wrote, “If the function of the figure in the landscape emphasises its emptiness, and the individual rests in this solitude, the crowd in urban space spills over, overwhelms and bursts through the intended order of the city streets and squares.” (p. 9) She suggests that this breakdown in “intended order”, this “dangerously proliferating and uncontrolled space”, became the haunt of criminals and the sexually deviant, and drove the need for the “‘open’ city – open that is to surveillance”, and the need for “concentrated governmental intervention, reordering and regulation.” (pp. 9-10)



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Wilson wrote:

“Women in the nineteenth-century city were the bearers of much of the anxiety surrounding city life in general. The female body represented the private in public space. The enormous nineteenth-century preoccupation with prostitution suggests at some level a woman in public – a public woman (as prostitutes were called) – was for the Victorians a living representation of sexuality, and should therefore have been hidden. Women were their bodies; and whereas a feminine body was seemly and appropriate in a rural landscape – since women were closer to Nature anyway – a woman in the public spaces of the city was a threat and a danger. She should not be there; she polluted public space.” (pp. 10-11) 


She further links this to her public/private discussion quoting Franco Moretti:

“The great novelty of urban life . . . does not consist in having thrown the people into the street, but in having raked them up and shut them into offices and houses. It does not consist of having intensified the public dimension, but in having invented the private one – and especially in having transferred the meaning of individual life . . . into this new domain.” (cited in Brettle & Rice, 1994, p. 11) 

img1076259976 (A school-day outside a private girls college in the city. All gates were locked, preventing both entry, and exit. Is this protection, or containment – a fort, or a prison?)





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Wilson argues clearly that:

“The line was ideologically drawn more firmly and rigidly between the public and private spheres precisely because in practice the line was blurred. In theory – ‘in ideology’ . . . women were locked into the private sphere; in practice women passed through the city streets, massed through the working class districts and haunted the many intermediate zones created by the industrial city.


These intermediate zones blurred the lines between public and private in spatial terms. The department store (an important invention of the nineteenth century), the public library, the restaurant, the café, the hotel lobby and even the office were, theoretically, public. Yet in many cases they aimed to recreate private zones. The department store was like a private house . . . just as a café was like a salon, a ‘home for the homeless’ . . . . The relationship between boss and secretary was a pale replica of a marriage.” (p. 12)

These intermediate zones are abundantly apparent. Public spaces, that quote private. Restaurants like: Pizza Hut, McDonalds, and Lone Star, etc, are most obvious examples, but it spreads much further.



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‘Hardwarehouse’ is much friendlier, more feminine (private), less masculine than a ‘Bunnings Warehouse’. Coles supermarkets, among others, can resemble contemporary residential architecture. Mazzucchelli’s window displays quote the mantel, the display or trophy case, filled with adornments.


Wilson continues to expand her discourse with quotes from Mike Davis’ account of what he terms, the “destruction of accessible public space”:

“The contemporary opprobrium attached to the ‘street person’ is in itself a harrowing index of the devaluation of public spaces. To reduce contact with untouchables, urban redevelopment has converted once vital pedestrian streets into traffic sewers and transformed public parks into temporary receptacles for the homeless and wretched. The American city . . . is being systematically turned inside out – or rather, outside in. The valorised spaces of the new megastructures and super-malls are concentrated in the centre, street frontage is denuded, public activity is sorted into strictly functional compartments, and circulation is internalised in corridors under the gaze of private police.” (cited in Brettle & Rice, 1994, p. 19)



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And while wary of the danger of simply reducing gendered space to the inside/outside (feminine/masculine) opposition, it still appears to hold a certain validity. Many people, especially women, seem much more comfortable inside a car than out, in a quiet or busy urban street, day or night. There are few spaces as intermediate as a car – the freedom of the public/outside, with the comfort, seclusion, and anonymity of the private/inside. This safety is a commodity, and there is an inherent fear of becoming stranded. Traditionally, a ‘proper’ woman (legitimate femininity) was not meant to linger or loiter in open public spaces, especially alone. They were allowed to simply pass through public space, in transit, from one (closed) private space to another, or to an intermediate zone. To be ‘stranded’, is different for a woman, than a man.




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For me, the culture/nature opposition is one of the most-problematic. In its simplest form, Nature is attributed the feminine, but in the urban environment especially, Nature is selected, structured, controlled, contained, spaced, and pruned – both publicly and privately. It is often very cultured, arranged and grown for stature, grandeur, and posturing. Arranged as signs of wealth and power over time, of heritage, and of intelligence – through architectural design. “The masculine accomplishment of engineering and large-scale construction”. (Solomon-Godeau, 1991, p. 253) If this Nature is outside, and public – let’s say a War Memorial, the grounds of a Parliament House, or a football field – is it still feminine?



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Griselda Pollock (1988) wrote:

“Phenomenological space is not orchestrated for sight alone but by means of visual cues refers to other sensations and relations of bodies and objects in a lived world. As experiential space this kind of representation becomes susceptible to different ideological, historical as well as purely contingent, subjective inflections.” (p. 65)

img1076260900I suggest that Nature (even potted) in an open public space, not only beautifies and softens, but can be used to infer a secluded private courtyard. Or, when combined with seating or arrangements to form a box or a ‘U’, that – in the words of Pollock – “despite the exterior setting . . . creates the intimacy of an interior and registers the garden . . . not as a piece of private property, but as the place of seclusion and enclosure.” (p. 63)



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Lynne Walker (Ainley, 1998) suggests that women are not passive in the discourses and construction of gendered spaces. She claims that – from, “independent middle-class women” in the late nineteenth century cities – not only are women’s socially lived identities partly defined by the spaces they occupy, but, “in turn their presence produce[s] the social spaces and buildings they occup[y]: a process which [is] cumulative and reflexive, taking place over time, producing, and being produced by and within, dynamic, gendered space.” (p. 66)

That women are “producers as well as consumers of the built environment . . . and, most importantly, how it [feels] to be in public space . . . and the public realm.” (p. 67) 





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Wilson (Brettle & Rice, 1994) writing of the “ambiguities of contemporary space” said “If it is true that postmodernism inaugurates a new experience of the world as fragmented, and that the postmodern sensibility breaks down divisions of all kinds . . . then we should not be surprised that it breaches the public/private divide”. And although “we demand and are able to see more and more . . . our seeing causes fear and paranoia.” (pp. 20-21)

But Pollock (1988) wrote:

“Modernity is still with us, ever more acutely as our cities become in the exacerbated world of postmodernity, more and more a place of strangers and spectacle, while women are ever more vulnerable to violent assault while out in public and are denied the right to move around our cities safely. The spaces of femininity still regulate women’s lives – from running the gauntlet of intrusive looks by men on the streets to deadly sexual assaults. In rape trials, women on the street are assumed to be ‘asking for it’.” (p. 89)


A ‘gendered space’ can be as important to self-identity and a sense of self-security, as those that inhabit it, but through all of this I have hardly discussed gender. Gender is still discussed in terms of its stereotypical oppositions, the ‘great divide’, and of levels of conformity, appropriateness, sexuality, and breeding (genetics/class). But gender has gone the way of all else post-modern. There are many genders, and spaces large and small accommodate these genders to varying degrees. Nina Wakeford (Ainley, 1998) demonstrated this well when she wrote: “San Francisco has a special place in the lesbian and gay imagination . . . . ‘The city can serve as a sort of gay finishing school, a place where neophytes can confirm their gay identity’”. (p. 176) She wrote:

“San Francisco retains its image as being on the leading edge of reconceptualisations of gender and sexuality, both in public and private worlds . . . . The city retains its reputation for tolerance and acceptance of virtually any subjective definition of sexual identity. A recent advice column featured a letter (signed only ‘Dickless in Frisco’) which indicates the kind of intricate reconfiguration of body, desire and vocabulary in this local context . . . .
You bioboys [boys born boys, as opposed to girls made boys] think you’ve got problems . . . I’m a female-to-male transsexual who since my accession to sentience has been wild about boys. For years I tried to be happy as a straight female, but it never worked, I wasn’t female and I wasn’t straight. What I was, and am, is a guy who is into gay S/M leather as a master/top. I’ve been on testosterone a year and a half and pass as male most of the time, and in daily life my gender is not problematic . . . . And since I’m also a drag queen, I like being able to still look good when I go out en femme – which is not the same as reverting to female: I mean drag in corset and fishnets. Deep down, I think I’m a she-male dominatrix trapped in the body of a FTM tranny.’” (pp.177-178)


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Spaces exist – space is conceived. Sexes exist – gender is conceived. Images exist – image is conceived. Representation is everything. It exists, it is conceived, it represents, it is represented, it engenders, it is gendered, it represses while being repressed (through ‘other’s’ repression). And certainly, the injustices are not in the existence of these spaces, but in how they are assigned, and how they are represented.




Ainley, R. (1998). New Frontiers of Space, Bodies, and Gender. London: Routledge.

Brettle, J., and Rice, S. (1994). Public Bodies – Private States: New Views on Photography, Representation, and Gender. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Green, S. F. (1997). Urban Amazons: Lesbian Feminism and Beyond in the Gender, Sexuality, and Identity Battles of London. London: Macmillan Press.

Moore, C. (1991). Indecent Exposures: Twenty Years of Australian Feminist Photography. St Leonards (Aust.): Allen and Unwin.

Pollock, G. (1992). Avant-garde Gambits 1888-1893: Gender and the Colour of Art History. London: Thames and Hudson.

Pollock, G. (1988). Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism, and Histories of Art. London: Routledge.

Pultz, J. (1995). Photography and the Body. London: Everyman Art Library.

Solomon-Godeau, A. (1991). Photography at the Dock. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Wells, L. (2000). Photography: A Critical Introduction. (2nd ed.) London: Routledge.



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