Forgive me for venturing to explain mansplaining; I worry it makes me a mansplainer.
Having encountered the term countless times, I finally thought I should do some research and figure out what the phenomenon was all about. Perhaps I’m just behind, and you already know anything I could tell you – I won’t assume, I’m no mansplainer. Nonetheless, if you came here seeking the same answers for which I’ve combed through the archives of Internet history, here is mansplaining – broken down.
What is “mansplaining”?
I’ve consulted a variety of questionable sources for this answer – mainly Know Your Meme, Urban Dictionary, and Wiktionary. Wiktionary’s definition is perhaps the most concise:
“To explain…condescendingly (to a female listener), especially to explain something the listener already knows, presuming that she has an inferior understanding of it because she is a woman.”
The term grew out of a 2008 LA Times article called “Men who explain things,” in which author Rebecca Solnit writes of a particularly painful dinner party during which the male host, after learning Solnit wrote a book on Eadweard Muybridge, asks her if she knows of a recently-published, “very important Muybridge book.” Solnit admits that she has not, and he explains it to her (despite having never read it), before finally hearing that the book is Solnit’s. Solnit further examines this condescension towards women and how it might impact social issues such as mental health, domestic abuse, education, and rape cases.
Though Solnit did not coin the term, eventually “men who explain things” morphed into the catchy portmanteau, “mansplaining,” the first known instance of which appeared in a LiveJournal comment thread.
Is “mansplaining” a new phenomenon?
Though the term might be trendy, Lily Rothman argues, in her article for The Atlantic, “A Cultural History of Mansplaining,” the concept is hardly new. She outlines instances of mansplaining throughout the centuries – men assuming they have superior knowledge than women, even of women’s issues, such as the suffrage movement.
One popular tumblr blog, Academic Men Explain Things to Me, started collecting stories from academic women sharing their experiences as mansplainees in their own areas of specialisation, but soon expanded to include anecdotes from all areas of life, including men explaining the nature of the menstrual cycle and the female orgasm to women. And this past year, the media has shown us plenty examples of mansplaining, such as US Congressman Todd Akin’s anti-abortion assertion that in cases of “legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down,” in one fell swoop “explaining” both what is “real” rape to rape victims, and how a woman’s body functions, to women. Well done.
But thanks to the Internet, a veritable breeding ground for arrogance and not-thinking-before-you-speak-ness, mansplaining has been taken out of its twin ivory towers of academia and politics and brought to the masses. Forums and comment threads are swarming with mansplainers, and recent light has been shone on the particularly misogynistic sphere of gaming.
My husband recounts the tale of a former World of Warcraft player he knew, one of, if not the best of her class on her server, who never played female characters and avoided speaking during games, because if male players knew she was a woman, they would constantly explain the game to her, as if she weren’t completely capable of kicking all their asses.
Mansplainers vs. Know-It-Alls
But how do we know this is a particularly gendered phenomenon? Maybe so-called mansplainers would have the same megalomaniac attitude towards fellow men. Indeed, most definitions of the term imply that people of both genders can be mansplainers. Hugo Schwyzer, a gender studies professor writing for Jezebel, comments that some men see mansplaining accusations as being “the new sexual harassment allegation” used by feminists “any time a man shares an opinion.”
To clear up matters, he cites one woman’s definition of mansplaining as a “mixture of privilege and ignorance.” Though both writers are referring to a specifically gendered idea of privilege, the term can work in other, no less harmful ways. Assuming that you’re more intelligent and knowledgeable than another (even on matters that concern them as individuals or as members of a particular segment of society) based on sex or gender identification, ability, education, age, class, race, political leanings, etc., is what tips the scales from sharing an opinion, or even being a garden variety know-it-all, to an offensive mansplanation.
Perhaps a more politically correct (albeit less-catchy) term would be “privilegsplainer,” to acknowledge that men aren’t always the only ones at fault.
What about empathy?
In her Cultural History of Mansplaining, Rothman has little sympathy for truly ignorant and insensitive mansplainers. But she does make a case for empathetic attempts by men to speak to women’s issues, as long as they admit that they can’t fully understand what it’s like to be a woman. She calls it a “fine line,” but I disagree – if you are acknowledging the limits of your knowledge, you are, by default, not mansplaining. Thankfully, many men have no shortage of empathy and are able to express an opinion without oppression or insult to women.
How to avoid mansplaining
Easy, really: just don’t assume you more know than someone else. Share opinions, but be open to listening to those of others. And before you criticize someone’s opinion or the facts they quote, maybe learn a little bit about them first. Schwyzer provides more great tips on avoiding mansplaining.
How to shut down mansplaining
Many mansplainees make remarks like “I made the mistake of admitting I wasn’t sure.” Even Solnit says she “was perfectly willing to entertain the possibility that another book on the same subject had come out simultaneously and I’d somehow missed it.” Knowing you might not be the foremost expert is reasonable, but you can also mention your PhD, those courses you took, or your years of experience in the field as the bases for your own opinions. Most people will +realise when they’ve put their foot in their mouth and back off. Not everyone though...