Upon starting this piece I began by asking a number of male friends and relatives whether they knew what mansplaining was. After all, I’m a woman and am very familiar with the term, no less the phenomenon, although I wasn’t quite sure how common knowledge it was among the other sex.
I was somewhat surprised to find that besides one man, who happens to work in a female-dominated sector of public service, most had absolutely no idea what I was asking. Another had the cheek (or was it self-deprecation?) to posit that it meant explaining things to men.
As a public service announcement to men (and women) everywhere, here is a little breakdown on the ins and outs of mansplaining. We'll cover exactly what it is, where the word came from, and how you can avoid doing it.
What Exactly Is It Then?
A portmanteau of man and splaining (short for explaining), the Oxford Dictionary defines mansplaining as “the explanation of something by a man, typically to a woman, in a manner regarded as condescending or patronizing.” It’s the name for the phenomenon that has plagued women for much of history, with most women who I asked exhaling a knowing “Ahhh yes.”
There are multitude reasons why being mansplained to is frustrating, ranging from the fact it might be what you just said repeated back to you in a different way or perhaps the explainer is attempting to coach you on something they are ignorantly unaware that you know a lot about. Whatever the reason, it’s no secret among women that men have been doing this for a very long time and now there’s a word for it.
Who Decided This?
A woman, of course. Back in 2008, writer Rebecca Solnit didn’t use the word itself but she did explain the concept in an essay entitled Men Explain Things To Me: Facts Didn’t Get In Their Way. In it, she recounts a story where at a party a man engaged her in conversation knowing that she wrote books. After talking about her latest, on Eadweard Muybridge, the man cut her off to talk about a very important book on the photographer, which had been released that year and how she really ought to read it. Turns out it was Solnit’s book and the man hadn’t actually read it, despite his attempts to one-up her on a topic she was clearly very knowledgeable on.
The term was coined soon after with Solnit’s essay an alleged inspiration. It first gained traction on social networking site LiveJournal, followed by feminist blogs and later entered the mainstream. In 2010 it was one of The New York Times’ words of the year. In 2014, Solnit published Men Explain Things To Me, a book of essays on similar themes, and stated:
“Every woman knows what I’m talking about. 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.”
Hang On, That’s Sexist
Yep, we know. What started out as an essay making light of that-thing-that-many-guys-do, in turn was given a gender-biased name which quickly went viral, arriving a decade later to the oft thrown around term we know today. Critics of the word mansplaining highlight the problems inherent in its usage including essentialism, double standard and at times a reductive approach to discussion, falling into ad hominem territory. It veers into misandry and its current over-saturation is only diluting its impact.
Solnit is hesitant of the word herself, adding: “I hasten to add that the essay makes it clear mansplaining is not a universal flaw of the gender, just the intersection between overconfidence and cluelessness where some portion of that gender gets stuck.”
And while the gender breakdown can happen in any combination (man to woman, woman to man, man to man etc.) it overwhelmingly occurs in this power dynamic. Studies show that men are more likely to interrupt a conversation while women are more likely to be the ones interrupted, with females more inclined to “smile, nod, agree, laugh, or otherwise facilitate the conversation,” undoubtedly due to social conditioning. Power imbalances in conversation have been studied and discussed in academic literature for a long time, so while mansplaining is a new term that’s rather crude, it encapsulates the frequent sexism in discussion succinctly.
Am I A Mansplainer?
Well, that’s something only you can answer for yourself. But you’ve definitely witnessed them before. Celebrities and politicians aren’t exempt from this phenomenon unfortunately, in fact the public and all-encompassing nature of their jobs often means that when they do it they go the whole hog.
Lily Rothman detailed in The Atlantic some historical examples of mansplaining, wherein politicians have mansplained why women don’t want suffrage or why removing language which supports the Equal Rights Amendment is in the interest of women. It’s much like today’s debate on abortion.
Chronic mansplainer Matt Damon is a more recent perpetrator. After spitting the dummy in 2015 while appearing on his own HBO show, Project Greenlight, Damon put his foot in it again late last year regarding the #MeToo movement. Chiming in about the “culture of outrage” of the last six months since Weinstein-gate, Damon wanted to mansplain that not all harassment women encounter is created equal:
“You know, there’s a difference between, you know, patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation, right? Both of those behaviors need to be confronted and eradicated without question, but they shouldn’t be conflated, right?”
Actress Alyssa Milano replied, highlighting the crux of the issue: “They all hurt and they are all connected to a patriarchy intertwined with normalized, accepted – even welcomed – misogyny.”
Damon’s casual passing off of butt patting as a form of assault that shouldn’t be taken as seriously as rape is highly offensive and helps perpetuate unhealthy behaviors among men. But it was the fact that he felt the need to mansplain to the public what should and shouldn’t be considered assault with regards to a woman’s body–something he clearly does not have and cannot speak for–that overstepped the line.
How Can I Avoid Mansplaining?
It’s actually pretty simple. For starters, actually listen to what the person you’re talking with is saying. If more time was spent actively listening to the other person in a conversation there would be less potential to misunderstand information. This is key to avoiding mansplaining – it’s not that the explainer necessarily knows more, it could be that they’re inadequately interpreting information resulting in a desire to input their perceived superior knowledge.
Secondly, surrender your ego. Nobody likes a know-it-all and especially one who uses conversation as a vehicle to show off how intelligent they are. Is what you want to say relevant to the discussion at hand? If so, there are ways to do so respectfully. And if you become unsure about something mid-conversation, ask, don’t try to make up for it by aggressively showing what you think you know. The risk here is that the person who you’re talking to could know much more on the topic than you, as demonstrated by Solnit.
Lastly, call it out. If you see someone mansplaining, bring it up and give the woman a chance to speak. Whether it’s in a business meeting or social interaction, pointing out when a man undercuts a woman’s voice is vital to progressing from this nasty stereotype. Whether it’s a seemingly well-intentioned correction (as per Justin Trudeau), an extremely ignorant comment (see above re: Matt Damon) or a malicious attempt to curb women’s rights (see much of politics), mansplaining can have much wider implications for society than simply making a woman feel bad.
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