I probably don’t have much to add that hasn’t been said before about mansplaining, but I’m always amazed how many people don’t know the term. However, most people (women) I know *do* recognize the behavior. It happens to me every day at work, in a male-dominated industry. Because part of what I live for is calling people out on privilege they are not aware of, I’m writing this post. And because another thing I live for is waking people up to internalized oppression. Like women who shut up when the man is talking. I also want to draw a straight line to the more extreme forms and effects of mansplaining. They are not negligible.
What is Mansplaining?
Mansplaining isn’t just the act of explaining while male, of course; many men manage to explain things every day without in the least insulting their listeners.
Mansplaining is when a dude tells you, a woman, how to do something you already know how to do, or how you are wrong about something you are actually right about, or miscellaneous and inaccurate “facts” about something you know a hell of a lot more about than he does.
Bonus points if he is explaining how you are wrong about something being sexist!
Think about the men you know. Do any of them display that delightful mixture of privilege and ignorance that leads to condescending, inaccurate explanations, delivered with the rock-solid conviction of rightness and that slimy certainty that of course he is right, because he is the man in this conversation?
That dude is a mansplainer.
Shakesville’s post on mansplaining gives links to some of the best posts on the topic and lists of examples (see for example Zuska’s “You Might Be A Mansplainer If…” post). SMK explains her take on why gender-neutral terms don’t work in this case, and raises the societal factors that lead to it. (Karen Healey also discusses this here.)
Mansplainer even made the NY Times list of the best new words of 2010 … Though of course the concept is not new. In 2008, Rebecca Solnit wrote an op-ed in the LA Times called “Men Who Explain Things“.
Solnit tells of an event where a man pontificated to her about a “very important book” that came out on the subject she had written about… And simply wouldn’t hear the many times it was pointed out to him that Solnit had indeed written that “very important book”… Which it turns out he hadn’t even read, just saw in the NYT Book Review.
Solnit writes that in her experience, this type of behavior is gendered.
“Men explain things to me, and to other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about. Some men. Every woman knows what I mean. It’s the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence.”
Almost every post on the topic is accompanied by the writer’s experience in giving into self-doubt when faced with the Man Who Explains. It took Solnit a while to realize there wasn’t really another “very important book” out there — she was willing to doubt herself, if even for just a while. Jennifer Ouellette, a science writer, also faced a learning curve in taking control of mansplaining attempts, because of course, she’s “just a girl” so what can she know about physics?
These are not isolated incidents. Samhita, in Feministing, writes that part of mansplaining is that when you are confronted with even blatant sexism, you are made to believe you are imagining it. She gives a list of several types of statements/responses that can help you spot mansplaining, including:
This is not a big fucking deal: AKA, we have more important things to worry about. Yes, there is sexism out there, but this is hardly an example of it…
I need more evidence: AKA, I think you are imagining that you experienced sexism, but maybe you can prove it to me. Get in your defensive position, and I’ll be the judge… And here are all the reasons maybe that wasn’t really sexism (maybe the guy was just an asshole, not a misogynist)…
You were “just kidding”: AKA, you feminists have no sense of humor. I know all about sexism, you are just not able to appreciate my “highly nuanced, deeply political humor”.
You find one woman to claim you are not sexist: AKA, if a woman agrees with me, it doesn’t matter how many women I actually offended.
The list goes on…
(Note that the list is Samhita’s, the definitions are my own interpretation of what she wrote.)
It’s All About Privilege
The mansplainer’s problem isn’t so much that he’s trying to teach a woman something, but rather that he takes it as a given that she doesn’t already know whatever it is he is going to tell her.
As someone who lives life as a female human, the sheer numbers of women in comment threads who have recounted experiences of Being Mansplained To is not at all surprising. Despite my general competence at life, dudes mansplain things to me all the time.
The thing is, no man who does this is consciously thinking – I am a man, therefore I know more than this woman who has written books/gotten degrees/just lectured on this subject. The thing with privilege is that when you say “people” the default person is a man. In the US, he is a white man. So the default [i.e., correct] attitude is that of a white man. Any explaining that comes from that privileged status to someone is not of that privileged status, has a risk of being ___splaining. Like mansplaining to women, there is also whitesplaining between whites and people of color.
Whereas whitesplaining is the result of the white experience being “normed,” mansplaining, is the logical result of males possessing the privilege whereby they are largely assumed to be both default human beings and automatically competent at life. If white people and men, and especially white males, are not aware of this, they are incredibly likely to wrongly assume themselves to be more competent than women and people of color at pretty much everything, up to and including what it means to live as a female or person of color in society.
Here is another good example of mansplaining from Jill in I Blame the Patriarchy. (We all love it when guys tell us why we’re wrong, and if we disagree with them, it is probably because we don’t understand, and if we “honestly” disagree with them, we really aren’t feminists. Because *they* know feminism better than we do…)
In addition to silencing women and making it difficult for them to be heard (and therefore advance, or even enter) in their own fields of expertise, and in addition to women being socialized not to make a fuss about it, the basic attitude at the heart of mansplaining has significant ramifications.
It is the attitude that what women have to say is unimportant, or even worse — unreliable, that is at the heart of various practices that harm women directly. For example, in Saudi Arabia women may not testify in court. In the rare cases they are permitted to, their testimony is deemed “non-factual”. This is particularly onerous if a woman is the victim of a crime, or if she is raped, as the perpetrator’s testimony is deemed more reliable than hers, so she must have male witnesses to the crime, and how often does that happen?
So every time a guy “gets” it, I feel a small sliver of hope. Here’s one who does: http://roboseyo.blogspot.com/2011/05/let-me-tell-you-about-mansplaining-ill.html.