Attack of the purse snatchers: gender and bag policies in U.S. comic book stores

This is a guest post by Kathryn Hemmann. Kathryn is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages at George Mason University, where she teaches classes on Japanese literature, cinema, and popular culture. When she’s not reading comics, drawing comics, or writing about comics, she plays video games, thus enjoying a well-rounded lifestyle. Kathryn has a blog called Contemporary Japanese Literature, on which she posts feminist reviews of Japanese fiction in translation. Her favorite Sailor Scout is Sailor Mercury.

It was 2006, and I had recently moved to Philadelphia for a graduate program. A child of the South, to me the landscape of a large Northeastern city was both frightening and exciting. I was especially looking forward to my first trip to a comic book shop. The store I chose for my first outing was a block or two away from Philadelphia’s fashionable Rittenhouse Square district, the relative safety of which made me feel less anxious about venturing into the unknown. When I entered the store, I breathed in the perfume of old paper and glossy covers and felt at home – until I took a few more steps, at which point one of the clerks said something that shocked me enough to stop me in my tracks.

Fast forward to 2014. Now, as an early career academic, I travel all over the country for professional conferences and job interviews. In April I found myself in Seattle, a city known for its thriving independent comics culture and home to cutting-edge comics publishers such as Fantagraphics Books and Northwest Press. I decided to take advantage of my time in the Emerald City by visiting a comic store about a five minute walk away from the original Starbucks on Pike Place. I’ve been to comic book shops all around the world during the past eight years, and I was no longer nervous about entering a store I’d never visited before. I walked to the counter, eager to chat with the clerk about local microcomics – but then she said something that made me like a stupid kid all over again.

What could a clerk at a comic book store possibly say to a new female customer to make her feel as alien and unwelcome as possible? Would it be some sort of overtly sexist slur, or an inappropriate comment about her appearance? Or could it perhaps be something as presumably innocuous as:

“I’m going to need to take your bag before you go any further.”

The idea behind this policy, which I have encountered in comic book stores all across the United States, is presumably that store management has either personally witnessed or heard secondhand accounts of enough incidences of theft to employ a safeguard measure involving neither expensive surveillance technology nor paper-damaging anti-theft strips and stickers. Still, I can’t help but think that the stereotype of comic book theft at play here – little kids with grubby fingers sneaking a comic book out of a neighborhood corner store – is out of touch with contemporary cultures of online piracy and the collector’s market for pristine first editions.

When I’ve pressed clerks about this policy, most memorably at a store on a trendy street in New York’s East Village that wanted to confiscate a clutch purse not much bigger than my forearm, they’ve almost unanimously responded that they enforce it with everyone, and that it can’t possibly be sexist, as men have to surrender their bags as well.

Costumer Emily Finke’s essay Slut Shaming and Concern Trolling in Geek Culture, posted on i09 roughly a year ago, acted as a catalyst for online debates on the topic of sexist attitudes women encounter in geek cultures centered around comic books in the United States. Heated discussions referencing the mythical “fake geek girl” have been popping up on various internet forums since the meme slithered out of 4chan in 2010, but the past year has seen numerous testimonies, confessions, and rants on relatively mainstream social media sites like Facebook and Tumblr.

To give an example, this past February Noelle Stevenson, creator of Lumberjanes and the webcomic Nimona, posted a comic on her personal Tumblr explaining why she had stopped going into comic books stores. Her post received over eighty thousand notes, generating responses both on her blog and on other Tumblr blogs. Some of these responses openly denounced her, while others encouraged women to visit comic book stores even if they shared Stevenson’s misgivings. In response to continued discussion of how best to reform misogynistic attitudes prevalent in U.S. comic book culture, The Mary Sue website recently launched a new column titled Pull It Together, which offers recommendations on feminist-friendly titles for conscientious comic buyers to add to personal pull lists at comic book stores. An entire Tumblr is devoted to Safe Spaces for Comics Fans, and male comics professionals such as journalist Sean Kleefeld are sharing stories of the subtle harassment women experience at comics conventions and inside comic book stores.

I’ve been following all this talk of gender, clothing, costuming, and sexist attitudes, waiting for someone to bring up the obvious, namely, the bag confiscation policy enforced by comic book stores in the United States. Claiming that this policy is not sexist because it applies to both male and female customers (and presumably people who identify as neither or somewhere in between) is a textbook illustration in false equivalence. Not only is it ridiculous and outdated, but it’s also insulting and contributes to the discomfort many female bloggers and social media users have reported feeling in comic book stores.

Of course, not all women carry purses. Still, mainstream women’s fashion makes it difficult for someone dressed in women’s clothing to keep the necessary accoutrements of daily life (such as wallets, cell phones, keys, glasses, bus tokens, subway pass cards, and so on) on her person without the aid of some sort of purse or briefcase. It’s one thing for a man to surrender a backpack or laptop case; he’s more than likely got his keys and wallet and cell phone in the pockets of his pants or jacket. It’s another thing entirely for a woman to give up her purse or shoulder bag, which – to add insult to injury – generally isn’t even large to put a comic book in without folding it, which would defeat the purpose of going through the trouble of stealing it in the first place. There are only three other situations I can think of in which an individual is asked to surrender her wallet and cell phone to a complete stranger: airport security checkpoints, courthouse security checkpoints, and prison. The last time I checked, no one perceived any of these situations as particularly pleasant.

Aside from the false equivalence between the purses (and other personal articles) carried by women and those carried by men, another troubling aspect of bag confiscation policies has to do with the extreme discomfort they can engender. As the recent Daily Show segment The Fault in Our Schools aptly illustrates, many young women learn to go about “their whole day navigating an obstacle course of sexual menace” and other threats, especially in spaces they perceive to be occupied primarily by men. One of the best self-defense tactics is being able to make a quick exit, and it’s always good to be able to call (or pretend to call) someone or to brandish pepper spray if that doesn’t work. I would like to assume that comic book stores are not prime locations for assault, sexual or otherwise, but it’s still nice to be able to leave an uncomfortable environment without having to ask for your bag, often from the people who have made you feel uncomfortable in the first place by pointedly ignoring you or making snide and judgmental comments about your presence.

By taking a woman’s bag, a comic book store is essentially taking away her freedom to escape from harassment, as well as her sense of security. On top of this, she has just given her wallet and cell phone – and her sense of identity and agency along with them – to someone who has demonstrated distrust and antagonism by asking for them. How could she possibly feel completely comfortable browsing or engaging with the staff and other patrons?

Not every comic book shop in the United States maintains a bag confiscation policy, but enough do that I have collected a fair amount of experiences of being hurt and upset upon entering a previously unvisited store in a previously unvisited part of the country. After spending the past month in Tokyo, where women (and men!) carry not just purses and shoulder bags but rolling suitcases into comic shops without the staff batting an eye, I have decided that I am done with comic book stories in the U.S. If the staff of the offending stores think that I don’t need to my purse on me to feel comfortable buying comics, they’re absolutely correct – I don’t need a purse to buy comics online.

19 thoughts on “Attack of the purse snatchers: gender and bag policies in U.S. comic book stores

  1. Regis

    Huh. I’ve run into this in bookstores as well as comic book stores, and hadn’t really parsed it as a gendered thing. (I am female and often carry a backpack or messenger bag but not a purse.)

    1. Kathryn

      I generally carry a messenger bag (instead of a purse) as well, because it is important to maintain possession of a book – or at the very least an e-reader – at all times. What if there were a zombie apocalypse and I were stuck outside without reading material to bring with me into the lock-down shelter?

      I’ve only encountered the “check your bag” policy at one bookstore during the past decade. I mention this not to downplay your experience, but rather to have a small chuckle over the irony that this was at a self-described “anarchist bookstore.” I recall being asked to hand in my bag more often when I was younger, though. This may be because teenagers are perceived as having sticky fingers, or it may be that the world has moved on since then. It is perhaps only in my imagination that dedicated bookstores, like dedicated record stores, have come to the conclusion that there are easier ways to steal or to otherwise freely acquire paperbacks and CDs (even for people without internet access) than to risk unnecessary unpleasantness by lifting something from a small and closely watched specialty store.

  2. Living 400lbs

    I’ve had museums & stores want to me to check backpacks but not purses. If I check my backpack, I generally remove my asthma meds, wallet, & other “purse” articles from my backpack in clear view of the clerk.

    1. Kathryn

      How do the clerks generally handle this? Do they allow you to then hold on to a smaller bag to keep these items collected on your person? Since this has happened often enough to me as well, I also have to ask – do you in fact carry a smaller bag for these articles? How do you manage juggling them all, especially in a museum?

      One thing I didn’t get into in the actual post were the ableist implications of bag checking policies. Sometimes one simply does not want to announce to the world that one needs to have access to certain medication at all times by removing it from a bag and holding it in hand.

      Tangentially related to the above, I imagine this also applies to facial tissues, tampons, and other such products.

      1. Living 400lbs

        Generally I’m taking my asthma inhaler, cellphone, wallet, & keys. These tend to fit in a pocket or (if necessary) bra. I do have a clear plastic zippered case I keep antihistamine pills & eyedrops, Hydrocortisone cream, band-aids, and other small “first aid” items in. I could conceivably carry it but I haven’t tried that yet.

      2. Living 400lbs

        And no – I haven’t had any complaints about me removing these items to my pocket. If anything I’ve had a few “Oh, it’s your purse!!” comments at museums that ask patrons to check “large bags” but not “purses”!!!

  3. megpie71

    “It applies to men too.”

    The law in its majesty prohibits the rich and the poor equally from camping under bridges and sleeping in the streets.

    1. Infophile

      Was planning to quote that myself if someone else didn’t get to it first. Kudos!

  4. Roberta Guise

    Perish the thought if would-be robbers know about this purse pulling policy in comic book stores. If you do decide to go back into one, wear clothing with ginormous pockets to stuff your phone and wallet into.

  5. Augusta

    The problem is, it’s often a liability thing. I run a Fantasy/Geek Art Show, and have to ask people to check larger bags with a security person at the front of the gallery. Anything larger than a clutch is checked partially to at least make it look like I’m attempting security measures, (people complain if you don’t, specifically the artists with smaller items that can go missing easily) but also because a lot of the people that come in aren’t coordinated enough to maneuver narrow panels and flimsy walls. Having watched folks in backpacks who are visibly unaware of where the pack is in relation to walls, displays, and art, and have knocked over entire glass displays by turning around and smacking the display with the bag under their arm. The thing is, someone intent on stealing will find a way to do so, but when the end of the day comes and I have to answer to the higher-ups for missing items, and paying the artists for those items. I’d rather deal with making people check bags and be able to say “I did my due diligence” to my superiors, than look like I’ve made no attempt at security at all.

    1. Mary

      Right, but there’s issues on this both ways now. The OP points out that in doing so, you’re making it so that anyone being harassed etc at your art show must either flee the space without their possessions or be willing to put up with it while retrieving them.

      Do your anti-harassment policy and procedures address this case? How? When there’s reports of harassment, do your higher ups investigate how any policy and procedures facilitated harassment?

    2. Kathryn

      This is an excellent point. Thank you for bringing it up!

      As the first person to respond to your comment notes, a heightened risk of harassment persists, which is of course its own type of liability. I wouldn’t want to be in a position in which I had to perform a cost-benefit analysis on potential theft vs potential discomfort, but certainly the effects of theft are more immediately noticeable and have a more quantifiable cost.

      Even putting the issue of theft aside, you certainly don’t want people to bump into artwork or the temporary walls and shelving on which artwork is displayed during certain events. Unauthorized photography can also become a problem. That being said…

      I think there are certain spaces, most notably museums, galleries, and art shows, in which we expect there to be a bag checking system in place. The long-standing nature of such policies in such spaces are generally accompanied by attendant policies and structures designed to make the patron or guest feel less inconvenienced. For example, many museums expect people to check coats and jackets along with larger bags. Many coat check desks also provide small shoulder bags for people who want to keep certain items on their person. Also, the fact that there is a designated “coat check” area with its own designated clerks adds to the sense of security (in other words, you’re not “just” handing over your belongings to a stranger).

      Many people from the U.S. have been socialized – if not from personal experience, then via various forms of popular media representation – to understand and accept that bag and coat check policies exist in such spaces, which include not only visual art related spaces but spaces relating to the performing arts as well, such as such concert halls and theater venues. My assumption is therefore that both men and women prepare for entry into such spaces accordingly, such as by wearing a suit jacket with inner pockets instead of carrying a shoulder bag or by carrying a clutch purse instead of a messenger bag.

      In contrast, it’s quite a shock to enter a “normal” space and to be expected to accept invasive policies without the proper preparation and without the usual structures designed to mitigate the discomfort that can be caused by such policies.

  6. Katherine

    I can think of two meanings for the word ‘checked’ in relation to bags, I assume everyone means that bags are left in a secure, supervised area, not that staff are looking into bags to ensure that they do not contain stolen merchandise etc. I don’t think I’ve encountered that here except at museums. Leaving bulky bags behind makes sense, and I don’t see why places could not have a ‘bags larger than X must be checked’ rule for everyone instead.

    1. Kathryn

      I addressed this issue in my response to a comment above, but you are absolutely correct. I just want to clarify that I am not referring to bag searches, a procedure that is its own can of worms. I’m also not referring to the institutionalized “coat check” system common to many museums and performing arts theaters. Rather, I’m talking about staff taking bags and placing them in an unsecured area, often without any sort of tagging system. I think it’s important to note that, when comparing bag check policies at museums and at comic book stories, the social and cultural context and resulting expectations are quite different. This is not to say that comics are high art, of course, but rather that museums are expected to be formal and stuffy and governed by strict rules, while the opposite is often assumed to be true of comic book stores.

    2. EmmyG

      I *wish* it meant a secure supervised area. In far too many stores, what it actually means is ‘you must leave your backpack sitting by the front desk, in plain sight, easily reachable, and we have no liability for anything happening to it.’

      Which makes shopping a miserable experience, as I’m frantically worrying about the contents of my bag all the time I’m parted from them.

      I’ve never been in a book or comic store which was sufficiently large and organised to have a proper bag-check with slots or lockers or anything. Thrift stores usually have a row of cubbyholes or something and give me a claim slip so that I can get my backpack back. Stores that don’t, I sometimes have to resort to shopping with a friend and having them stand outside holding my bag.

  7. Blaine everyman

    I feel like I have walked into bookstores/comic shops plenty of times with my laptop bag, and never been challenged. Granted, most recently this was when I would be on work travel and dressed nicely.

    I wonder what the results of a controlled experiment would be, involving men and women of various ages and dress. My guess would be that subconscious (or overt) prejudice would see the young, the scrappily dressed and women as being challenged the most.

  8. Manny

    These days at almost all major football stadiums, you are not allowed to bring in any purse or bag larger than a clutch.

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