It hasn't just been a summer for political conventions, the Olympics, and a slough of politicians and comedians saying stupid things about rape. Summer 2012 is also the season in which the idea of "mansplaining" may have moved beyond the feminist blogosphere.
The concept has entered the broader culture, appearing in the pages of the Nation — and inspiring apoplectic indignation in the comments section at the Good Men Project.
Though no one's sure who coined the term, the consensus seems to be that the idea goes back to this April 2008 Rebecca Solnit article in the Los Angeles Times. In it, Solnit never used the actual word "mansplain," instead talking about the invariably gendered "confrontational confidence of the totally ignorant." Within a year, other bloggers were using the term, closing in on a consensus definition. As Solnit put it in a follow-up piece last month, mansplaining is the "intersection between overconfidence and cluelessness where some portion of (the male) gender gets stuck."
In nearly 20 years of teaching gender studies courses, I've seen a lot of guys get stuck at that intersection. What's changed is that more and more of them are recognizing it as a problem, even if that recognition is steeped in defensiveness. In class last week, one male student brought up mansplaining unprompted; he complained that "feminists think any time a man shares an opinion, he's a 'mansplainer.'" For men like this student, "mansplaining" has become the new sexual harassment allegation — an unfair charge that no man can disprove, defined by shifting and opaque rules.
As I learned teaching workshops on sexual harassment to all-male audiences, most guys don't want to do or say offensive things. Their misunderstanding of what sexual harassment entails led some to fear that even their most well-intentioned gestures or remarks would be misconstrued as harassment. The bulk of my job was making it clear that sexual harassment was less of a vast catch-all than they imagined. Not harassing women, in other words, was less difficult to avoid than they imagined.
The same is true for mansplaining. Despite the fears of many fellas like my student, mansplaining isn't a term for any time a guy tries to explain himself. Mansplaining is about a very specific instance of "privilege and ignorance… 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."
But that description may still be too vague for some guys. So to help them out, here are five ways the fellas can check to see if they're mansplaining –- or just men, talking like human beings:
- Do you actually know how much the woman you're talking to knows about the same subject?
- Too many of us were taught to divide knowledge into separate spheres: "guy" topics like video games, cars, and sports; "girly" subjects like fashion, children, and celebrity gossip. Mansplaining happens quickly when a guy presumes that women don't know much (or aren't particularly interested in) man stuff.
- Are you using your supposed expertise to prove something about your manhood?
- Masculine culture –- what Michael Kimmel calls "Guyland" –- places a premium on demonstrating proficiency, in talk if not in action. Casual conversation about sports, for example, isn't just a way for men to pass the time or to break the ice. It's an opportunity to display one's guy credentials. As this classic ESPN ad shows, the great fear for so many men is to be caught talking out of their asses. Too many men, anxious to prove their be-penised bona fides, forget the old saying about it being better to stay silent and be thought a fool than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt. When you're talking to prove expertise rather than to connect with another person, the chances are high you're mansplaining.
- When she talks, are you listening to what she's saying or merely rehearsing your next line?
- One of the hallmarks of mansplaining is that the 'splainer is rarely really hearing what his interlocutor is saying when she speaks. He may be listening, but his focus is less on taking in what a woman is saying to him –- and more on how he can shape his next sentence to prove his point. A mansplainer uses a woman's turn to talk to think about how he can better marshal his arguments for his next salvo.
- Are you talking about your own experience, or are you universalizing about how everyone feels? Are you explaining her experience to her?
- We all have theories about why people do what they do. A lot of us enjoy analyzing other people. Where that normal human penchant slips into mansplaining is when a particular guy assumes he knows more about women than the woman to whom he's speaking. Men do this partly out of arrogant presumptuousness, and partly out of an eagerness to demonstrate that they "aren't like other guys." In a world where men assume (not entirely incorrectly) that most other fellas don't know very much about women, proving that "you're the guy who gets it" presents itself as a promising strategy for impressing the ladies. It rarely works as well as mansplainers hope.
- Do you actually know what you're talking about?
- As Rebecca Solnit pointed out in her original post on the subject, mansplaining at its heart is about the cocksuredness of the ignorant. It's one thing to be an insufferable know-it-all when one actually does know it all. It's another thing –- a mansplainy thing –- to pretend you know more about botany or fractals or Riot Grrl than you actually do. A mansplainer presumes that the actual truth matters less than the calm confidence or rhetorical flourish with which he explains his version of the facts. (See Ryan, Paul.) A willingness to admit what one doesn't know, accompanied by a genuine expression of interest in learning something new, is an excellent vaccine against mansplaining.
Jezebel columnist Hugo Schwyzer teaches history and gender studies at Pasadena City College, and is a nationally-known speaker on sex, masculinity, body image and beauty culture. He also blogs at his eponymous site. Follow him on Twitter: @hugoschwyzer.