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: