One of the lovely words that feminism has created is “mansplaining”. Unlike “bromance” or “manscaping” or “murse”, which imply that men’s non-sexual same-gender friendships, untamed body hair, or fashion accessories are somehow totally different from women’s, mansplaining is not an attempt to state that men explain things differently than women. I think Karen Healey says it well:
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!
It’s the “Well, actually…” of discussions about gender (or any topic, really). As an example of the attitude in question: I had a discussion today with a guy who thinks that he knows everything. On any topic for which you could ever dream up, he would confidently assert his opinion, stated more as fact than opinion. While I admit that he is certainly well-read, no one is capable of being an expert in every topic. But conversations with this person quickly devolve into a lesson about how you are wrong and he is right. He frequently cuts people off to interject his disagreement before even having anything to disagree about, and relays his points with didactic condescension. All-around, he is just an annoying conversation partner. Take this attitude, and put it in the context of men conversing with women, and you have mansplaining.
But I’m here today to defend mansplaining. (In a tongue-in-cheek fashion, of course.) Why? Because mansplaining is just so much fun! It’s easy to do, and the feeling of superiority just does wonders for the self-esteem.
Feminists, in their use of the term, often point out the sexism inherent in mansplaining. And I absolutely agree with them on that point. However, I think that there are additional dynamics to the phenomenon that go beyond perceptions of the inferiority or incompetence of women. So I’d like to touch on a couple of those in my defense of mansplaining. (And yes, I’m aware that by saying that feminist critiques of mansplaining are incomplete, I am, in essence, mansplaining about mansplaining.1 Forgive me the indulgence, please…)
And He Huffed and He Puffed
Like I said, mansplaining is just plain fun. Teaching others who clearly don’t understand things as well as you do gives you just a wonderful sense of your own superiority. Or, not necessarily even superiority so much as just simple feelings of competence and expertise. It’s nice to feel like an expert. And when it serves the dual function of (a) feeling like an expert and (b) avoiding the work of actually becoming an expert, there are obvious dividends. Women clearly just haven’t figured out this wonderful approach, so it’s good that I’m explaining it, right? And although mansplaining can make you come across as a sanctimonious, pedantic ass, it’s easy to write off the people who voice those opinions because, well, they’re clearly just jealous of your expertise!
I’m convinced that many of the things that men do have nothing to do with intentionally being sexist. Certainly our actions can often be sexist, but there is generally little intention to be sexist. Really, in many cases our actions have more to do with other men than with women at all. The gender norms surrounding men are overwhelmingly about excellence: Be smart, be successful, be wealthy, get lots of women, have a large penis, be tough. Essentially, be the best at everything, and bonus points if you can do it without putting in any effort whatsoever. This leaves a large portion of men in a relatively constant state of inadequacy. We are not smart enough, successful enough, tough enough, and so on, and we must prove to everyone around us (especially the men, since they are the ones whose opinions “count”) that we are. In this ultra-competitive, uber-manly state of mind, it is easy to see how men could be drawn towards mansplaining. Sometimes it’s to prove to those women how inferior they are, but often I think it likely has more to do with the implication, “Look how competent I am.” And without acknowledging that dynamic, it seems as though the explanation is incomplete.
Of course, to get back to the sexism of it all, the aggrandizing effect of mansplaining is easier to maintain if we in the boys’ club collectively agree that women suck. If I am trying to prove how competent I am, challenging another man is not the optimal strategy—since they’re also trying to prove how competent they are. Women become an easy target, and if we as men agree that women’s opinions don’t really count, mansplaining lets us prove our competence and let any criticisms roll off our backs. Even if the women we talk to think we are condescending and insulting, we can still show our superiority to ourselves and other men. And it’s done without any need for direct confrontation with other competitors.
The Sky Is the Minimum
See? Mansplaining is just a great strategy! But I think it goes even further. In addition to a constant need to prove one’s superiority, men are also raised to take charge. This part of male privilege starts from an early age, from extra time given in class to answer questions, to encouragement from parents and other family members to strive toward prestigious careers like doctors, lawyers, etc. Feminism has made excellent strides toward teaching girls that they can take on any career that they like. And that is a great message! But I’m not sure that boys are given the same lesson. They are not told that they don’t have to be competitive if they don’t want to; they are not told that they don’t have to take charge or be superior; they are not told that being a stay-at-home dad is just as excellent a choice as being a brain surgeon. Girls have been taught that the sky is the limit for them, but boys continue to be taught that anything less than the sky is unacceptable.
With a culture that encourages men to take charge and be assertive, it is no surprise that men devolve into mansplaining. If they think something is right, it must be right, and how on earth could a woman know better? To confront the idea that a woman could be more knowledgeable on an issue than I am can be threatening. It challenges my competence, but it also challenges my assertiveness. If I acknowledge the validity of her points, then I am backing down. And just as politicians are accused of “flip-flopping” (but why would I not want a politician who changes his or her mind in the light of reason and evidence?), men can be accused of being “weak” for acquiescing to the views of someone else (man or woman).
I don’t write this to absolve men of responsibility for their actions. Even in a cultural milieu of male dominance, it is still absolutely possible for men to avoid mansplaining, and so they should. And mansplaining is definitely rooted in a sexist culture that privileges the opinions of men over women by default. But I think it is still important to recognize the underlying factors that lead men to do it. Calling it out as sexist is important, but I think more is needed. To dismantle an entrenched hierarchy of power takes the effort of all major social groups, and it requires an understanding of what props up the system. This means that men must also be involved in efforts to reduce sexism, and it means that the drives that men have must be dealt with. I don’t mean that women need to coddle men and make them feel like they’re totally competent just so they’ll stop competing with each other, but I do think that addressing those drives for competition and assertiveness is crucial. At this point, I don’t know what the best way to deal with it is, but I’m sure that there are excellent men and women out there who have brilliant ideas. All I can say is that maybe when men don’t feel as though supreme dominance is the only option for their lives, the path will be open for greater gender equality (and more tolerance for diverse ways of life).
And that, women, is the definitive word on mansplaining. Should’ve known it would take a man to get feminism right. Sheesh.
- To clarify, I don’t think feminist critiques are “incomplete” so much as placing emphasis on certain aspects instead of others. I’m certain I am not the first to make the points I am about to make, and I don’t fault feminists for focusing on the effects of mansplaining rather than the underlying causes. [↩]