Friday, April 3, 2015

Mansplaining and the overly defensive "non-mansplainer"

In conversations with friends, I often encourage men to join the feminist movement, and feel frustrated when I see feminists engage in the sort of man-hating that isolates males from showing their support for feminism. I often find myself defending men to feminists who seem to discount and even despise the notion that that males too can be oppressed by the stereotypes that society imposes on them, can be objectified, are victims of domestic abuse and rape, and often experience these struggles silently out of the fear that speaking up is somehow emasculating.

However, as a feminist, I cannot leave the male population completely blameless. The patriarchy exists in large part because certain segments of the male population perpetuate it – some consciously, some unconsciously, and more often than not in subtle ways that are hard to detect. One such subtle way that many males perpetuate patriarchal and sexist attitudes is by “mansplaining.” Mansplaining is a term used to describe the tendency of many males to patronizingly explain something to a woman, assuming (consciously or unconsciously) that the woman is ignorant on the topic when she may in fact have more knowledge that he does.

The term has been traced back to Rebecca Solnit's essay "Men Explain Things to Me." In the essay, Solnit recounts a conversation she had with a mansplainer, which started with him asking, "I hear you've written a couple of books...what are they about?" Solnit, having written several books, began to describe her most recent book, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West. Upon hearing the name "Muybridge," the man interrupted Solnit to say, "Have you heard about the very important Muybridge book that came out this year?" and proceeded to educate Solnit about her own book, which he did not realize was hers. He hadn't even read the book, but based his explanation on a review that he read in the New York Times. He had to be told four times that the book he was explaining was Solnit's book before he stopped his rant on "the very important Muybridge book" on which he thought he was an expert.

It seems comical, but this experience is all too common in interactions between males and females, and is a symptom of a society that teaches girls from an early age to be polite, not to interrupt, and be ladylike, while teaching boys to be go-getters and to exercise dominance. Indeed, recent studies have confirmed previous findings that teachers tend to reward girls for being quiet, but allow boys to interrupt them, and even praise them for it.

Perhaps the reason why mansplaining is so rampant is because female speech is granted less credibility. Writer Damon Young recently published an article in which he stated:
The theme that women's feelings aren't really to be trusted by men drives (an estimated) 72.81 percent of the sitcoms we watch, 31.2 percent of the books we read, and 98.9 percent of the conversations men have with other men about the women in their lives. Basically, women are crazy, and we are not. Although many women seem to be very annoyed by it, it's generally depicted as one of those cute and innocuous differences between the sexes.
Young does not provide any references for these statistics, but even if they are exaggerated, I would be surprised if any woman reading this post has not observed society's tendency to view female speech more skeptically than male speech.

Sitcoms and books are not the only culprits. Senator Rand Paul recently put his finger to his mouth and "shushed" CNBC journalist Kelly Evans on live television when she challenged him on a tax proposal. He then stated, "calm down here a bit, Kelly, let me answer the question." He later gave her advice on how to be a better interviewer and Evans apologized. Clive Palmer, a prominent Australian businessman and politician, told Guardian journalist Lenore Taylor that she is "very naive when it comes to politics, my girl," and proceeded to mansplain the political process to her, despite the fact that Taylor has been reporting on politics for 25 years.

Mansplaining and discrediting female speech are entrenched in our society, but that is not to say that all men engage in those practices. Rebecca Solnit notes that "mansplaining is not a universal flaw of the gender, just the intersection between overconfidence and cluelessness where some portion of that gender gets stuck." I think most women are willing to recognize that not every male discredits female speech or engages in mansplaining. However, every time I attempt to draw attention to mansplaining, I am met with comments by defensive men who agree that mansplaining is wrong, but vehemently insist that they are NOT mansplainers and that it is unfair for me to "lump" all men into that category. This occurs even though I am always careful to qualify my statements by saying "some men" or "many men" engage in mansplaining. The conversation literally goes like this:
Ahva: "Many males engage in mansplaining."
Overly defensive "non-mansplainer": "Interesting point, but what you don't realize is that not all men engage in mansplaining! And I definitely don't." 
Ironically, in their eagerness to prove that they are not mansplainers, these overly defensive "non-mansplainers" are engaging mansplaining. Moreover, nearly every feminist article that I see my girlfriends post on Facebook is met with enthusiastic comments by women, but the few men who comment almost always say something like, "this article is too extreme, not all men are like that." But doesn't the fact that "not all men are like that" go without saying when the article is speaking about trends among some males? I can't help but to feel resentful that, notwithstanding feminists' use of qualifying language like "some men" or "many men," these males are more concerned with being identified as "one of the good guys" than acknowledging the underlying issue. Indeed, these sorts of defensive comments just shift our concern from the underlying issue - whether it's mansplaining or some other sexist behavior - to making sure that males are not misrepresented by overgeneralizations.


Juliana said...

It's interesting to me, perhaps because I hadn't considered it, how defensive men get when women bring up sexism, or the fact that some men are sexist. If someone said, "racism is a problem," I don't think someone would respond by saying, "but everyone isn't racist!" The normal reaction would be to sadly have to agree. It's very striking, however, that men get overly defensive when discussing sexism? It makes it seem like if men are aware of gender oppression, then they are automatically guilty of it. I'm not sure if that is something that subsides as gender issues become more accepted, but I have to agree, especially in the context of mansplaining, that it's certainly a problem.

Jessica S. said...

My female friends and my mom certainly have noticed this. I experience this too. There's a study that analyzed male-to-female conversation and noted that a male-as-lecturer and female-as-pupil roleplay was going on in many conversations. Classroom dynamics need to change for kids to unlearn these roles. Studies obviously point out problems, but many educators have no plan for noticing or correcting them.
As for sexism conversations, I've met men who are willing to listen and learn about women's lives, but then I've met plenty of mansplainers too. At least the media is talking about gender issues more. It would be hard to talk about racism if it weren't out there, so I hope sexism gets to finally have serious coverage. Then perhaps some excuses or defensiveness would be seen as silly in light of the fact that we all should discuss this.

Sara said...
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Sara said...

I definitely think mansplaining is prevalent because as you state, female speech is granted less credibility than male speech. The media plays a big role in discrediting female speech and perpetuating stereotypes about female speech (as the Damon Young quote points out). Arguably, female political figures are some of the most powerful women in the United States. To this day, these women cannot become passionate or angry about an issue without being discredited by males as "crazy", "hysterical" or "on her period." Men then feel the need to chime in and provide an explanation. I think these types of male reactions are prevalent throughout society.