To start, I want to note that I recognize the irony which is to follow. As a man, who, in part, is about to explain man-splaining, I am, of course, falling victim to what many claim as man-splaining.
And, that, my friends, is part of the issue I wish to discuss today.
But for the uninitiated, allow me to take a moment to man-splain man-splaining for you.
It’s a trendy term used to describe a man condescendingly explaining something, generally to a woman. As in, “I’m reading a blog post from Adam Oster man-splaining man-splaining.” It actually, in its most concise definition, includes the idea that the man has incomplete knowledge about what they are mansplaining, while assuming he knows more about it than his audience.
While it’s certainly not my intention to be condescending here, I can admit that my knowledge of the term’s usage and needs has its holes. But I’m not exactly here to tell you to stop using the word (even if I bristle with every new trendy portmanteau we start using today). I simply want us to lock the definition down a bit.
As an expression of a specific type of sexism, it does have its place. Although I may have joked above about how to use mansplaining in a sentence, the reality is that there are men out there who think their knowledge of any subject is superior to a woman’s simply because of what’s between their legs.
And it’s a real problem. Those who are still surprised that women could be responsible for the calculations which took people to the moon still exist today. The old riddle about a man and his son being in a car accident and the doctor saying they can’t operate on the kid because, “That’s my son!” can still throw people off who don’t recognize that women can be doctors as well.
And it doesn’t even need to be that big of a misunderstanding of the capabilities of women to allow a man to become a man-splainer.
But here’s my issue. Today, the word man-splainer can often be attached to any explanation a man might perform.
To use an easy example, here’s a clip from a recent episode of Modern Family:
Now, Manny’s ‘mansplanation’ of man-splaining is when a man explains something to a woman something which she already knows, which, is a bit more open-ended of a definition. For this definition, a man would have be to fully aware of the entire knowledge of a woman. Considering how few men even know how to approach a woman for a conversation, well…mansplaining would then just become a discussion about how dumb men are, instead of a label of a sexism.
But the important takeaway from the clip is that Manny, a person who consistently treats women with respect and regularly notes their achievements, is labeled a mansplainer because he misunderstood what subject Danielle’s pronoun was referring to. And to be fair to Manny, she could have been a lot more clear on what she was looking for clarification on.
Now, obviously the clip was just the set up for the joke, “Are you mansplaining mansplaining?”, but the usage of the term sometimes doesn’t stray too far from what went on here. And here’s where I see the danger in a label like mansplaining. In the above clip, Manny, who was simply attempting to have a discussion, is labeled sexist because he misread the situation. He wasn’t being condescending. He wasn’t acting superior. He simply answered a question he thought was being asked.
And she replies with a hurtful term which suggests he is treating her as less than an equal.
I’ve seen this a lot lately, where this term, which should be considered a hurtful term, is used in the manner with which Manny defines it above. Where the man is unnecessarily explaining something because the woman already knew the answer. Whereas the man himself may simply be attempting to be helpful, the woman is labeling him a misogynist.
Which, at the heart of it, means Manny is being labeled a sexist simply because he is a man. Had Manny done anything else to suggest he thinks women are inferior to men?
Sexism is a sensitive subject. I’m more than fully aware of that. And it’s rampant. You don’t have to look very far to find compelling statistics to showcase the inequalities between men and women in the world today. You can search even less to find examples of a man treating a woman as inferior.
And as I stated earlier, man-splaining is certainly an actual occurrence. It can be difficult to call out, however. In the above example from Modern Family, they were at a feminist rally. If there’s one place where a term like man-splaining should be common knowledge, it would be there. Therefore, Danielle could be right in feeling that this was a man talking down to her, as if he was saying, “I understand feminism more than you”.
At the same time, Danielle could have recognized how she hadn’t been clear in what she was looking for clarification on. Instead, she instantly judged the boy based on his gender.
Additionally, Manny’s definition was far from accurate, meaning he has an incomplete knowledge of the subject…but I still don’t see that he answers due to thinking he knows more about the subject than the female in the conversation.
And this is where I get down to the meat of my point here. I’m not here to tell anyone what to do. If you want to label every man as a mansplainer, go right ahead. But there is an important message behind the term. One which gets lost when you label every man as such, instead of calling out a very specific form of sexism.
Of course, there is another side to this coin. Our current environment has led us to a place where its easy to feel every man is sexist. There’s some good reason for that. But oversimplifying such things can be dangerous, as it causes the true message to be lost. It can actually impede progress. Let’s say Manny were to continue his life, attempting to side with women, and to have them constantly label him a sexist. Considering the type of kid he is, I’m sure he would do plenty of self-evaluation, and even come up with ways in which he could treat women even further as an equal, although, with him, I have a hard time believing he has much more he could do. But if he were to continue, after all of his efforts, to be labeled a sexist, how hard would it be for him to begin considering women as the enemy? If no matter what he does, he’s still being called the enemy, wouldn’t it be easy for him to fall into that same trap?
Mansplaining, as it is often used today, quickly becomes a hurtful stereotype. It becomes a sexist label. Do men have the right to get mad about being treated as an inferior, considering their history of doing such to women? Not really. I mean, everyone technically has the right to get mad about mistreatment, but the male gender certainly has it coming to them from years of doing it to women. But the real question here is, is it helping or is it hurting?
I believe that when mansplaining is being used correctly, such as with the person who is often attributed as coining the term talked about how a man “mansplained” her own book to her. It’s highlighting an act which needs to be highlighted so people realize it’s there and can work to be better about it and, ultimately, can bring the two genders closer together…in theory.
Here’s a good example of mansplaining (which I think highlights the dangers of this article I’m writing right now quite well):
In case you can’t read it, here’s the text of the mansplaining part of the exchange:
“Dear Amy: You used the word “mansplaining” in your reply to “Perplexed.” I don’t think it means what you think it means.
Mansplaining is a sexist word used by feminists to shut down any debate with a man if they think they can’t win their argument.
Your use of it in your column is offensive to anyone who is capable of a logical discussion.
If you read the reply, you’ll find another different definition given for mansplaining. Amy’s definition is much more specific than the one I suggest as the standard (simply because it’s what I got from Mirriam-Webster…who were both men, so maybe I should find a better source?) and takes it to be about men explaining ideas and concepts to women which were initiated by women.
So, the definition is currently difficult to pin down. Everyone seems to have their own version. This certainly can aid in the overuse of the term. It can also cause a great deal of confusion for the man who is being labeled as such.
I’ve had the label used against me. A few times. And each time I’ve had to consider whether it is a label I deserve or if it is, as I feel it is, just because I have a tendency to awkwardly overexplain myself due to my inability to believe anyone actually understands me, not that anyone is incapable of understanding the subjects I’m referring to.
But then again, I am a man. And perhaps I’m still blinded to how society has brought me up. Perhaps I don’t even realize that I talk to women differently.
And those questions above are why I fully believe it is important to use care when applying the term mansplaining to the acts of someone. Yes, I think all of us could use the opportunity to review our actions through the eyes of another. Being called a mansplainer should, for all men, give them an opportunity to search themselves to see what they are doing. But at the same time, it can cause a man to feel like the enemy. And although there is a certain image presented of feminism attempting to make man the enemy, feminism is truly about equality. I suppose I’m treading a fine road there by attempting to define feminism, but isn’t that the case? To help men see women as the equals they are? To change the way the world works to ensure that women are actually treated and immediately presumed to be equal to men?
In conclusion, I know I’m a man and that simply because I’m a man, I’m in danger of mansplaining at any moment…like during the previous 1700+ words. But I think for the term to hold the power it should hold, there may need to be more specifics applied to the application of it.
And men, treat women with respect. I know sometimes things like this may feel like you’re coming under fire simply for attempting to be helpful, but reflect on your own actions, even if you’ve never been labeled with a term of misogyny. This isn’t saying you can’t hold a door open for a woman or offer to pay for a date. It’s simply saying that should you choose to do such things, it shouldn’t be because you think the woman is less capable of holding a door open than yourself. It’s saying that previous gender roles shouldn’t be the rule anymore and if a woman wants to open her own door, just let her.
Or, more to the point, men, you don’t always have to be the smartest person in the room. If a woman is an expert in a given field, a field that you have maybe an amateur interest in, let her be the expert. Learn from her. Don’t push down her knowledge simply because she’s a woman.