On re-explaining Mansplaining

Paola studies Liberal Arts with a major in Political Science

It was a rainy October day in grey-sky London. I was walking to my friend’s house, looking like a drowned rat, the raincoat not helping, wondering about Zoe’s ambition to throw a barbecue party. We were back from summer vacation and looking for the spirit to live on, and even though it was more a hopeful dream than an ambition, I got on board with the idea. As I arrived amongst the girls in the house, the men were dismissive of the idea, but Zoe powered through and insisted that if a five-minute window were to miraculously happen, we should go on with the project. After being taken for fools, the five-minute window happened, thankfully lasting a good 30 minutes, which was enough time for the girls and the men to grill. Our girls’ night, our barbecue, our awful idea had been invaded and taken control of by the very same people who had found it ridiculous. While they had settled that Zoe was not able to grill meat, the guys stood outside in the awful weather, beer in hand, accomplishing their manly duty, their contribution to human teleology, BARBECUING.

Now, this is a prime case of what I would later be confronted to during my family’s Christmas dinner: mansplaining. The term mansplaining is the clever portmanteau word mixing man and explaining together in a neologism that became the New York Times word of the year in 2010. The term became widely popular due to the journalist Rebecca Solnit who exemplified the notion in her article Men Explain Things to Me, published in 2008, in which she refers to the experience as ‘something every woman knows’. What struck a chord in Solnit’s essay was indeed the universality of the experience, having men interrupt and explain things back to us in a condescending tone even though we are more qualified than them in that topic. My otherwise beloved uncle had indeed interrupted and questioned the topic I had the misfortune to tell my grandmother about to then map it out to me. He was quoting mundane dinner parties and I was quoting my professor from Berkeley.

What Solnit never did in fact was use the word mansplaining. She stuck to drawing the picture of an event that had happened to her and that she had found funny, making a generalisation without inflating it with a derogatory incline. The coinage of ‘mansplaining’ comes within a wider misandrist rhetoric, gendering practices as a relief for finally having the linguistic tools to express what had been repressed for too long. Men spread, and men interrupt, and men explain.

Is it doing feminism a disservice? The problem with such gendering is that it brings continuity rather than change in gender enforcement and stereotypes: every man expressing an opinion becomes a mansplainer in the same way that every woman whose head is a bit in the cloud is ditsy. Splaining is not restricted to men: I splain my friends about brunch, and food, my sister splains about health and diet, my grandmother on how to raise children (I only have a cat), and Manon on football (that is how she will raise her child). We are not considered womensplainer and yet I am very condescending about which type of bread should be eaten to a fellow French. I have even had women explain to me what is feminist and what is not, providing so many rules, that even André Breton who made artists flee away from Surrealism due to the strictness of his code could declare himself jealous.

The contrary is valid too: the barista telling you about the three different roasts is doing his job, not mansplaining you, while the news anchor who blames the woman for being raped is a sexist and a violence enforcer but still not a mansplainer. While those two cases are extreme, they do exemplify the range in which the term has been used, both mistakenly and extensively.

There certainly is mansplaining, and it certainly contributes to a structural system of misogyny which misandry does not bring about. Still, we should lower our defence: not everything a man says is mansplaining, it shows more a gap in our knowledge and confidence than a mistake on the counterpart. And in a real case of mansplaining the frustration arises from the lack of appropriate response: if you answer back with too much passion, you’ve lost the argument, and if you let yourself be stepped on, you’ve also lost the battle. But like in front of every splainer, man or woman, (any gym person offering you unrequested advice on your training), I can only advice a healthy dose of confidence and a cherry of cynicism on top of being the bigger person, but then again, I don’t want to splain it to you.


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