Why You’ll Never Hear Me Use the Term “Mansplain”

This probably would have been way better if only I'd had a man to help me write it. KIDDING!

Aug 16, 2012 at 1:00pm | Leave a comment

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This is my angry face. It freaks my husband out like whoa.

My husband and I have these marvelous screaming arguments on a regular basis. They’re spectacular, and I sometimes wonder what our neighbors must think.

To our credit, we almost never fight about everyday stuff -- although it’s true that I do occasionally and unpredictably go batshit about dirty dishes in the sink -- but primarily about social justice politics, sexism, racism, homophobia, and so forth. They usually start when I assert that something is misogynist or whatever, and he disagrees. Then, together, we cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war, because the fucking battle is ON. Together. Like a couple!

One of the most important things to know about my husband if you ever need to spend any amount of time with him is that he is a knee-jerk devil’s advocate. Sometimes I suspect he takes opposing sides to arguments just because he likes debating things, and then, like me, he digs his heels in further and further at the merest suggestion that his position is indefensible. 

(Some time ago, I read somewhere that there are two types of successful long-term couples -- those in which both individuals always want to fight about everything, and those in which both individuals are equally conflict-avoidant. Given that my husband and I are both obstinate assholes in equal measures, we are well matched.)

When we are arguing about things he knows more about, it’s one thing -- but when we’re arguing, say, over whether something is sexist or misogynist, I often feel as though my opinion should get more weight. Not because of my ladyness -- at least, not ONLY because of that -- but because I’m kind of a Misogyny Expert. And I’m pretty damn resistant to some GUY turning up and telling me I’m wrong about this stuff. Even if I do happen to be married to him.

“Mansplaining” -- for which I will cease using scare quotes forthwith -- is an internet-born term for what happens when a dude comes into a conversation, usually online, usually happening between a group of women, and proceeds to commandeer the discussion to explain to said women things that they already know. The concept seems to have originated with Rebecca Solnit’s 2008 article in the Los Angeles Times, “Men who explain things to me,” in which she recounts an experience at a dinner party where a male guest repeatedly spoke over her to extol the virtues of a very important book on a particular subject, unaware, in spite of Solnit’s attempts to tell him otherwise, that it was a book of which she was the author.

He kept us waiting while the other guests drifted out into the summer night, and then sat us down at his grainy wood table and said to me, "So? I hear you've written a couple of books."

I replied, "Several, actually."

He said, in the way you encourage your friend's 7-year-old to describe flute practice, "And what are they about?"

They were actually about quite a few different things, the six or seven out by then, but I began to speak only of the most recent on that summer day in 2003, my book on Eadweard Muybridge, the annihilation of time and space and the industrialization of everyday life.

He cut me off soon after I mentioned Muybridge. "And have you heard about the very important Muybridge book that came out this year?"... He was already telling me about the very important book -- with that smug look I know so well in a man holding forth, eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority.

...[My friend] had to say, "That's her book" three or four times before he finally took it in. And then, as if in a 19th century novel, he went ashen. That I was indeed the author of the very important book it turned out he hadn't read, just read about in the New York Times Book Review a few months earlier, so confused the neat categories into which his world was sorted that he was stunned speechless -- for a moment, before he began holding forth again. Being women, we were politely out of earshot before we started laughing.

While we don’t all have such sublimely brutal stories to tell, most of us have had this experience at one point or another, where some man is insistent that he knows better than we do, sometimes even when we’re talking about our own inexorably personal experiences. 

While the early concept of “men who explain things” may have come from Rebecca Solnit, the precise origins of mansplain-as-portmanteau are a murky subject. I took to Twitter to crowdsource the first use and while we couldn’t quite arrive at a definitive moment, the term seems to have come into common use amongst internet feminists around 2010, with much of its momentum coming from this post on ScienceBlogs. By this point, the definition had been expanded a bit:

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!

My husband does occasionally fit this description; after all, this is the guy who recently informed me, during the Mars Curiosity landing, that I “had no idea what they were talking about” in the control room, after I shushed him so I could listen. Admittedly, he was annoyed because I shushed him, and that’s fair, but he also probably didn’t expect me to assert the ferocity with which I had been following the development of this rover for years now and YES, I do actually have a rough idea of what they’re talking about in my own amateur way, thank you.

This is OK, though, because I’m kind of a mansplainer too. I credit (or blame) my years in the soft sciences of academia, where I became very good at speaking knowledgeably on a range of subjects, and even better at making shit up (under the hilarious misapprehension that I could impress people with my imaginary wisdom) when necessary. (Where my scholars at? Back me up here.)

I’ve never called what I do mansplaining, obviously -- I’ve always called it “lecture mode,” and I even have this habit where I take a deep, semi-dramatic breath before it shifts on, and I begin, on the exhale, with, “Well--” I always begin with “Well--” and I always conclude with, “Does that make sense?” probably because I am always expecting someone to explain to me that I am totally wrong about everything I just said. This is something I’ve gotten used to, as a lady. I come to anticipate it, even as I’m going all know-it-all myself.

I hate the word “mansplain.” I’ve never liked it; I didn’t like it even when it was gaily burning through feminist conversations like a cleansing fire lighting up all the annoying crap guys say and do when they feel threatened by feminism, or by feminists. A guy has injected himself into your conversation to tell you why you’re all being unreasonable? MANSPLAINER! It was funny, and empowering, a self-aware scarlet M applied to anyone who failed to choose his words with care.

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Everyone uses a knife to read the internet, right?

Mansplaining came out of a palpable frustration with the way some men choose to silence, interrupt or talk over the voices of women, and to tell them why they're wrong to be hurt by both casual and overt sexism. The anger that spawned the word is legitimate. I'm angry too. I get it. But I’ve never used it -- I am pretty sure this post is the first time I’ve ever done so -- because humor aside, I have a bunch of problems with it.

For one, it’s mad essentialist, and by this I mean it assumes a certain universal set of truths shared by all men. Men mansplain, because they are men, and this is an attribute of a masculine gender. Except there are lots of men who don’t mansplain, and who would rightly be a little irritated by the assumption that something in their chromosomes or genitalia or gender identity somehow operates to make them all susceptible to a particular shared behavior.

The truth is anyone, regardless of gender, can be guilty of this incredibly annoying, frustrating, and dismissive conduct. While it’s certainly powered by sexism, men are not its sole proprietors -- have you heard some of the arguments I’ve gotten from women on stuff relating to body image, about which I evidently know absolutely nothing of merit despite making it my primary field of work for well over a decade? -- and it’s no more acceptable if it’s coming from a non-man. 

More than that, "mansplaining" is kind of lazy and dismissive. Folks, there are few things as deeply satisfying as deconstructing a dude’s shitty argument point by point. Even if you do happen to be married to him. Throwing down the mansplaination gauntlet to end a pointless fight may well turn the tables on a rude jerk’s efforts to dismiss your points, and it may even offer gratification (and certainly self-protection) of a sort. But it also impresses upon that dude that he has no business in discussing or stopping sexism. Which is not a great outcome.

Finally, it assumes that men are bad. Like, inherently bad. While I’ll cop to the notion that many aspects of masculine gender socialization utterly suck, I try really hard not to survey all the men in my life with wariness and suspicion. I mean it: I try really hard, because I do often regard men with an intrinsic distrust, which is probably the wages of engaging in feminist stuff for a really long time -- that minority of men who are terrible people and who are so LOUD all the time, can become representative of their sex. 

But if I am going to lose my freaking mind when a dude attempts to discredit me based on what he believes is a set of universally shared characteristics of my gender, I kind of feel weird about doing it right back.

More than that, whenever we call a dude a mansplainer, we're knee-jerkily assuming that he is unable to understand anything we're talking about. Which is both a depressing and terribly hopeless way of seeing things. Men are entirely capable of getting sexism and recognizing these issues, but the constant use of mansplaining makes it sound like they're not. It sends expectations through the floor, when really we ought to be expecting guys to step up in these conversations, and learn something.

I don’t avoid using “mansplain” because I’m unwilling to alienate douchebags. Please, rest assured I couldn't care less about protecting douchebag feelings. And I’m not saying you can’t or shouldn’t use the word. Use it all you like.

I don’t use it because I don’t want to perpetuate the idea that gender is somehow an excuse, or an explanation, for bad behavior. No, I am not angry because I’m on the rag, and a guy is not a douchebag because he has a penis. A douchebag is a douchebag because he or she is a douchebag. And after all, having my authority and ideas shit on by men never did convince me to sit down and shut up and placidly swallow whatever I was told and do whatever was expected of a proper lady -- I don't know why I should expect that returning the favor would suddenly inspire compliance in them either.

I do have names for people who hijack conversations about social justice and try to undermine the difficult or unfamiliar points I am trying to make. I just don’t call them mansplainers. I call them a wide array of things probably inappropriate to publish on this website.

Even if I do happen to be married to one.

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