On Tuesday night, over the course of three hours, two different men asked me if I could defend the term ‘mansplain.’ Why was it, they both (yes, separately) wanted to know, so different from just being a regular old condescending asshole? So I launched into my usual spiel about the patriarchy, and how men explain things with the assumption that women are stupid, and the privilege that underlies every interaction in which a man expects a woman to know nothing.
Then Wednesday morning, another man asked me the same question.
If the goal of feminism (and, particularly, young feminists on the internet) is to create an inclusive conversation where we can get to the root of systematic behavior that suppresses the ability of women to succeed, then inventing our own terminology — or at least the word ‘mansplain’ — has failed. I’ve spent more time defending and defining the term than using it. And even as it serves to define a certain type of assholeishness, it undermines our understanding of the other forms of privilege.
The concept of mansplaining most likely originated in a 2008 LA Times article titled, “Men Who Explain Things To Me,” in which the author, Rebecca Solnit, recounted the story of a man encouraging her to read a seminal work in Solnit’s field. It turned out to be a book that Solnit herself had written. From there, the portmanteau of “mansplaining” became a sensation among feminists on the internet. It came to define, broadly, when a man speaks to a woman with the assumption that the she knows less than he does about a given topic, even when it’s painfully obvious that she knows more.
As intuitive as that definition might seem, the term is still used wrongly all the time. I’ve heard someone say one man is “mansplaining” to another. I’ve heard someone say that they would “mansplain” something manly — jock itch, beard hair — to me.
Even the New York Times, when it decided that “mansplaining” was in the running for the “word of the year” in 2010, defined the term incorrectly by leaving out the fact that a mansplainer is assuming that a woman knows less than he:
mansplainer: A man compelled to explain or give an opinion about everything — especially to a woman. He speaks, often condescendingly, even if he doesn’t know what he’s talking about or even if it’s none of his business. Old term: a boor.
See how long it takes just to get a handle on what the word actually means? And I could keep going.
But even if there were a six-word answer for what a ‘mansplainer’ is, or how one can ‘mansplain,’ there are still a variety of issues with the term.
For one, the word is a portmanteau. And as we all know, those are usually hilarious. But if we’re trying to tackle a serious power dynamic rooted in institutional sexism, we might not want to use something so lighthearted. Because the word sounds fun, it sticks in the brain and, as the New York Times shows us, people use it without understanding what it means.
Hugo Schwyzer over at Jezebel pinned down Summer 2012 as the season when ‘mansplaining’ left the feminist blogosphere and made its way into the mainstream. It wasn’t long after that when I began hearing ‘womansplaining.’
Falling right in line with the anti-feminist idea that “reverse sexism” is rampant in our society, I’ve heard men throw around the word ‘womansplain’ to point to the fact that if a man can explain something condescendingly, then a woman can as well. And that’s true. But that argument totally ignores the fact that mansplaining was invented to uncover privilege -– specifically, the privilege men have to assume that they are right, that women are wrong, and that their responsibility is to explain something to the poor woman who just can’t understand it.
Ultimately, that’s the core of the term: Privilege. But by calling out men in the term mansplaining, feminists bring up a gender divide when condescension actually plays an integral role in privilege more broadly.
When we draw the divide between gender-based privilege and other privilege, we actually agree that it is somehow different for a man to use his privilege to condescend to a woman than it is for him to condescend to someone else. When we talk about condescension, we should be inherently addressing privilege, whether that is gender-based or racial or socio-economic. Jessica Valenti puts it this way:
The successes that dominate the mainstream narrative on feminism largely center on the most privileged of American women, even when the consequences affect the most marginalized. And while symbolic successes… are important, it’s more crucial that feminist actions make a difference in real women’s lives.
With ‘mansplain,’ feminist blogs have invented a term, one that’s leaked out into the mainstream, that’s exclusionary. It doesn’t address other types of systematic repression, narrowing concern over the dynamics of condescension to male-female interactions. A white woman can’t ‘mansplain’ to a black woman what it means to be discriminated against, but she can certainly be patronizing about the experience that black woman endures, approaching that interaction with all of the privilege of a mansplainer.
Undeniably, there is something unique about the gendered dynamic in a mansplain-y interaction that doesn’t translate to other types of condescension, no matter how despicable. But there’s already a word for that — sexism. The first step in putting an end to bad behavior is to label sexist behavior for what it is. The specialized term we’ve created for calling out certain type of sexism, mansplaining, has in practice obscured the sexism that’s actually at stake in male condescension.
Moreover, it distracts from the fact of racial or socio-economic privilege, or the fact that either or both can and often do operate in tandem with gender privilege. In discontinuing “mansplaining,” there’s an opportunity for feminists to point out the intersectional privilege that rich, white men can bring to interactions with women, people of color, or low-income people. Broadening the terminology we use allows us to identify privilege and condescension of all stripes, call it out, and work to change it.
Inclusivity is, or at least should be, the goal of any group that is trying to achieve equality. That means making sure that everyone is speaking the same language, and that that language doesn’t preclude anyone from being a part of, or understanding, its use. The term ‘mansplain’ has helped us women who endure sexism in all its forms to find a singular, easy, even fun way of naming that thing. But unfortunately, what we’re experiencing can’t be wrapped up in a little one-word bow for the outside world. We’ve tried it, and if our goal is to change things, not just name them, then ‘mansplaining’ has failed.