I first encountered mansplaining in an undergraduate politics tutorial, which, let me tell you, is the place to do it. Who knew I could define and explain Agamben’s state of exception with such blistering clarity? Well, no one, in the end, because halfway through my presentation a fellow student interjected and began regurgitating exactly what I’d been saying. He spoke directly to me, as if he were the tutor and I were his lowly student who hadn’t quite managed the readings that week. It was infuriating, and oddly humiliating – I started to wonder if I had misunderstood the theory, since he was delineating it with such gusto.
Last year, ‘mansplain’ made it into the Macquarie Dictionary. In fact, it was chosen as the Mac’s Word of the Year, defined as follows:
mansplain: (verb) Colloquial (humorous) (of a man) to explain (something) to a woman, in a way that is patronising because it assumes that a woman will be ignorant of the subject matter.
Since its usage started to spread on the internet six or seven years ago, it’s also given rise to similar portmanteaus such as ‘whitesplaining’, ‘hetsplaining’ (or ‘straightsplaining’) and ‘cissplaining’, whose meanings are similarly derived.
At best, it involves an assumption on the part of the ’splainer that their knowledge on a given topic is superior. At worst, it’s a method – conscious or accidental – of silencing the other party. If you’re being spoken at or over during a conversation, particularly on a topic in which you’re well versed, it’s tough to stay engaged. After (at most) a few polite attempts at interjecting, you start to glaze over from frustration or boredom. Mansplaining often culminates in the abject silence of the ’splainee, resigned to waiting for the lecture to end. Thus the effect is twofold: the ’splainer’s status is elevated as they maintain their social dominance, and the ’splainee is further disenfranchised. It’s one of many ways that unequal power structures are reinforced in everyday communication.
Here’s an example: a friend, a folk musician and classically trained singer, is busking with her guitar in the underpass of a train station. She’s been at it for hours, sans amplifier, and her voice is tiring. In fact, her speaking voice is almost completely hoarse. (The fact that she is still able to sing is indicative of her vocal training and control.) A man approaches her between songs. ‘I’m not a singer,’ he begins, ‘but I am a musician.’ He then launches into an elaborate explanation of diaphragmatic breathing. She politely tells him that she studied music and is very familiar with the technique he’s explaining, but he pushes on, undeterred, with a level of bombast faintly heroic coming from a person whose opening line was I’m not a singer.
This isn’t an isolated event. Setting up onstage before gigs, she frequently receives unsolicited advice on how to plug in her guitar, something a dextrous Labrador could probably accomplish. (The competence of her male bandmate and guitarist has, to date, never been questioned.)
Perhaps because it was chosen as the Word of the Year, ‘mansplaining’ did not slip into the Macquarie unnoticed. In fact, a number of blokes were downright unhappy.
Here are some reasons why some men object to the word:
Women can be patronising, too.
Correct! The act of condescension is certainly not gendered. Mansplaining, however, as well as whitesplaining and cissplaining, is different because the person on the receiving end of the condescension – i.e. the person being explained to – also happens to be on the lower end of an institutionally lopsided power structure. Actually, this is the nuance I think the Macquarie definition lacks. It also answers the question ‘Why do we need a special word for men [white people/ cisgender people etc]? What about womansplaining?’
Words like ‘mansplaining’ only create a further perceived divide between men and non-men.
Here’s the thing: we need to identify and call out this stuff, because otherwise, it keeps happening. Plenty of blokes are oblivious to it – and, I’d wager, plenty of women, too, because we’re so accustomed to it. In order to redress that power imbalance in discourse, we need to tackle it one problem at a time.
Why do we need a word? Why don’t women just speak up and say ‘Hey, stop patronising me?’
In a perfect world, we would. All the time. But it’s not as easy as it sounds, mostly because of that same structural imbalance. Also, the worst mansplainers happen to be really good at getting louder and more forceful when their dominance is threatened. Remember that video of Lebanese journalist Rima Karaki shutting down the interview with scholar Hani Al Seba? She literally had to cut his microphone to stop him interrupting her and telling her to shut up.
I resent and/or feel attacked by the implication that I may have once been guilty of mansplaining.
I actually can’t help you with this one, fellas. Maybe you have mansplained before. It’s okay. We don’t really keep tallies unless you’re an unusually huge jerk and/or it’s an established communicative trait of yours. Sometimes it’s even well intentioned. But that doesn’t make it any less irritating.
It also doesn’t make it any less real. Numerous studies have shown that women are more likely to be interrupted than men. In fact, 1998 study at the University of California Santa Cruz showed that men are more likely to interrupt women in order to establish dominance in conversation – that is, they interrupt with intent.
It’s just a buzzword and it’ll die out in a few years anyway.
If you’ve never felt the urge to purge the dictionary of ‘share plate’, ‘cowabunga’ or ‘bitcoin’, chances are your disdain of mansplaining is informed by latent sexism. And the phrase has been around for some time. Its genesis was around 2008, when an excerpt of Rebecca Solnit’s essay ‘Men Explain Things To Me’ appeared in the Los Angeles Times. While she didn’t coin the neologism herself, she described the phenomenon, citing a time a man explained her own book to her, completely unaware she was its author. ‘Mansplaining’ quickly gained currency online, and by 2010, it was the New York Times’ Word of the Year. Last year it was also inducted into the Oxford Dictionary’s online database.
Macquarie’s Word of the Year Committee described ‘mansplain’ as ‘a much needed word […] which neatly captured the concept of the patronising explanation offered only too frequently by some men to women.’
I’d be happy to see it expunged from the dictionary – when it becomes obsolete. But as long as ’splainers are ’splaining, that word has earned its place.
Image: Jason Devaun / Flickr