Apparently there’s this thing called ‘mansplaining’. It used to be Internet Speak; then it was Word Used By Journalists Desperate to Remain Relevant to Internet Speakers; and finally, in 2014, it was elevated to Word, thanks to its inclusion in the Macquarie Dictionary. And before there was ‘mansplaining’, there was ‘Men Explain Things To Me’.
Of course, I’ve heard the term a few times while browsing the Interwebs. But never having heard of Solnit’s essay, I thought that ‘mansplaining’ was a cute term for when men try and explain their supposedly incomprehensible actions to women. I thought it was the sort of thing that belonged to the world of sitcoms and similar: “No, babe, you don’t understand. Men watch sports because they don’t like knitting /cooking /shopping / insert condescending female stereotype here”.
Now, of course, I know better; ‘mansplain’ is what happens when a man explains a concept to a woman in a way that is patronising. It describes a particular situation where women are considered to be intellectually inferior to men, and it was inspired by (although not coined by) Rebecca Solnit’s short essay, ‘Men Explain Things To Me’.
Now, I’d say that I’ve been fairly lucky in my life; at home and at school, I was generally surrounded by men who embraced intelligent brains, irrespective of what kind of packaging they came in. But I’ll admit that this did not make me immune to Explaining Men.
I’m sure many people will read Solnit’s essay and wonder why she is fussing over the way that men explain things to women. Aren’t there more important issues feminists need to tackle: wage inequality and sexual assault, for instance? And many will argue that Solnit is imaging things to begin with, that all people will explain things to others in condescending ways.
But Solnit is ready for these arguments. As she notes, Explaining Men may not necessarily pose a physical threat to women – a patronising attitude is not the same as physical violence, after all – but as she notes, it is a symptom of a social power structure that is deeply flawed. It is a power structure which assumes that women are inferior, intellectually and physically, and that their right to speak is somehow not as powerful as a man’s. And so what in one form is supposedly harmless condescension is in other situations an “invitation to silence”, an assumption that a woman’s word is not as powerful or as valuable as a man’s.
At times, Solnit’s awareness of potential critics can be a little overbearing. She continually feels the need to note that not all men are like this, that she knows kind and caring men, as if this one little fact will somehow appease all the Haters. It troubles me, because on the one hand people have too often assumed that men are somehow excluded from feminism, that feminists hate men, that men gain nothing from movements which set out to challenge the rigidity of gender roles. And perhaps if more feminists highlighted the fact that they believe feminism benefits men as well as women, if more feminists acknowledged the good, kind, and thoughtful men in their lives (and in the world) perhaps more men will feel a part of feminism.
But the other half of me thinks – shouldn’t this all be obvious? I’ve always known that ‘men’ in general are not the problem. I’ve always known that men can be kind and thoughtful, that they can be good people just as much as women can. Are there really so many people out there who don’t think this way? Solnit’s insistence in every essay – I know good men, not all men are violent/rapists/condescending to women – is obvious to most, so why does it need endless repetition? It’s as if we feel we need reward men for good behaviour: if you’re nice and respectful to women, you get a cookie.
Perhaps it’s a sign of what it means to identify as a feminist in this day and age. ‘Feminism’ is used too often in many circles as shorthand for ‘hates men’, and anybody who wants to point out the specific problems that women face in this day and age immediately has to acknowledge that not all men are like this, that men face specific problems too, as a form of self-preservation. All of which is obvious and true. But perhaps it’s not always seen that way. Which is perhaps why I’ve found myself doing it so often. I’ve done it over the course of this very review. It makes me sad to think that some men see feminism as a threat to them, or feel alienated from discussions of gender because they believe they will be biased against them. It’s certainly not the way that I imagine feminist discourse. It’s certainly not what I myself believe. But then maybe I’ve been a little too naive. Maybe I need to acknowledge – not so much the wonderful men in my life – but the wonderful people in my life, and keep reminding them why I think they’re brilliant.
So I guess for the moment it’s necessary to stress that, when discussing gender, we are not necessarily making a snap judgement about all men or all women. As Solnit notes in ‘The Longest War’, what we’re trying to do is acknowledge patterns which may be influenced by gender. If we can acknowledge that the way society imagines masculinity and femininity is flawed, we may actually be able to have productive conversations about gender. And men, as Solnit also notes, should be a part of the conversation; they should be allies, she adds, as many men already are (‘The Longest War’). Solnit is on to something here, and perhaps we should take a leaf out of her book.
Solnit’s collection is thought-provoking and well written. There were times when I disagreed with her, but I ultimately found myself glad that I’d read Men Explain Things To Me. Apart from ‘mansplaining’, she tackles some tough issues, including sexual violence, with sensitivity and insight. Although I haven’t discussed it here, one of the later essays, ‘Grandmother Spider’, is a beautifully written reflection on the way that women disappear from written history, from memory, from their own stories. Ultimately, Solnit got me to think (even if a lot of it was taken up by a pedantic discussion of whether or not we need to obsessively acknowledge the good men). As always, that’s the best kind of book.
Rating: 4.5 Stars