What Exactly is Mansplaining (and How do We Make it Stop)?
Despite what some people (including contributors to Urban Dictionary) seem to think, mansplaining doesn’t just refer to a man explaining something. It’s when a man explains something in a patronizing manner to someone (usually a woman) whom he wrongly assumes knows less about the topic than he does.
The word rose to popularity in 2008, after the L.A Times published an excerpt of Rebecca Solnit’s essay Men Explain Things to Me. In the piece, Solnit recounts an experience of talking with a man at a dinner party five years earlier.
When he learned that she’d published a book about English photographer Eadweard Muybridge, he kept insisting she should read a “very important” book by a Muybridge expert that came out earlier that year. It took her friend several attempts to persuade him that Solnit was the expert author he was thinking of, after which he was (briefly) too stunned to speak.
Solnit didn’t actually use the word “mansplaining”—according to Know Your Meme it first popped up on LiveJournal a month later —but her essay became synonymous with it. She’d highlighted an experience many of us had been through but had no way to talk about before.
Now we can say it: mansplaining is everywhere.
One of my friends, a published author, was informed by a man at a party that she should focus on making sure each of her books sells a million copies before she writes another. Was he a bestselling author? No. Sales and marketing expert? No. Someone who’d ever worked in publishing? Of course not.
Another friend received unsolicited breastfeeding advice from her friend’s husband (not a medical professional), while someone I know via Twitter once suffered through a lecture from a (former) male friend about how menstruation works, even though she’s done it for years. Women’s bodies seem to be a favorite mansplaining topic.
When co-host of the Another Round podcast Tracy Clayton asked her Twitter followers about their worst mansplaining experiences, she was flooded with responses: from women whose math, scientific, and language knowledge was challenged by less-qualified men (hey, maybe assume a woman with a degree in Celtic Studies knows how to say “Gaelic”) and one woman who was told she was wrong about it being her period because “it’s not the 28th”.
Of course, not everyone embraces the term. Men’s rights activists consider it a slur and feminist journalist Lesley Kinzel wrote that it was unnecessarily divisive, saying, “I’m kind of a mansplainer, too.” Only she can’t be. While women certainly have the capacity to be as condescending as men, it’s not the same when we ‘splain.
What makes mansplaining so frustrating is that it replicates an existing—and concerning —power dynamic. We still live in a male-dominated society that tells men (especially white, straight, cisgender, non-disabled men with little experience of being marginalized) that what they have to say is inherently worthwhile—even on topics they know nothing about.
Studies show that men talk 75% of the time in business meetings, make up 75% of experts quoted on newspaper front pages, and speak more than their female co-stars in 78% of movies. This dominance in entertainment, the media, and politics perpetuates the status quo and leads them to be complacent about the realities of sexism. A recent Pew study found that only 41% of men think sexism makes women’s lives more difficult.
No one’s suggesting that all men mansplain, or that those who do are malicious. In a new intro to her piece in Guernica magazine, Solnit makes this 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.” Nor can we claim it’s the most pressing feminist issue–especially considering the wage gap, the prevalence of sexual violence, and the fact that men murder more than 1600 women a year in the U.S alone.
But it is a symptom of our sexist society, a consequence of constantly underestimating women’s talents and intellects, and something that makes it harder for us to be taken seriously. It needs to stop.
Specifically, men need to step up: to allow women to speak more, to listen to what we say rather than waiting to take over the conversation, and to call out other men who won’t do the same.
In the meantime, we have options: we can serve some serious side-eye, forcefully argue back, or humor them and then laugh with friends or half the internet later. My personal recommendation? Any time you hear a man start a sentence with the phrase “Well, actually…” run away. Save yourself.