Mod­ern Life Zoe Wil­liams

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - Zoe Wil­liams

Mansplain­ing is when a man ex­plains some­thing to a woman; any man can make any ex­pla­na­tion sound up­roar­i­ously, shoul­der-shak­ingly pa­tro­n­is­ing, if he has had enough prac­tice. The un­for­tu­nate thing about mansplain­ing is that now there is a word for it, it makes you gig­gle like a girl. If there are any other women present, soon you are all gig­gling like a flock of girls, and he will be con­firmed in his bias that women are daft. There is a good chance he will never re­alise that you’re laugh­ing at him.

Clas­sic mansplain­ing, though, is when a man ex­plains some­thing to you that he could not fea­si­bly know as much about as you do: breast­feed­ing; emo­tions fol­low­ing an abor­tion; the bond be­tween sis­ters; the pre­cise se­quence of events in

Glad­i­a­tor. There will be men among you think­ing, ‘No, who does that? No­body does that. This woman dreamt those things.’ That’s what we thought, too, un­til it had a word. A man once ex­plained to me live on ra­dio why you didn’t need ex­tra calo­ries dur­ing preg­nancy be­cause you didn’t ex­pe­ri­ence any in­crease in ap­petite, and af­ter­wards, in A&E with rage-in­duced pre-eclamp­sia, I thought I’d imag­ined it. That’s why the word took off.

The de­fin­i­tive mansplain ex­am­ple came from Re­becca Sol­nit, who coined the phrase in an es­say in 2008 and, later, ex­panded on her theme in the book Men

Ex­plain Things to Me. Her vi­gnette, noth­ing to do with bi­ol­ogy or sex, is so good it’s al­most too good: she meets a man at a party who asks her what she writes about. The an­swer is, a wide va­ri­ety of things, but she se­lects her most re­cent field of en­quiry, ‘the an­ni­hi­la­tion of time and space and the

in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion of ev­ery­day life’, which she’d quar­ried in her book River of Shad­ows: Ead­weard Muy­bridge and

the Tech­no­log­i­cal Wild West. The man cuts her off. Had she heard about the very im­por­tant book about Muy­bridge that had come out that very year? It was, nat­u­rally, her book. But the man had to be told four or five times, by a third party, be­fore he could take it in. It turned out that the book he was force­fully rec­om­mend­ing to its own au­thor was one he had not read, but had only seen re­viewed in the New York Times Book

Re­view. Of course it did. Sol­nit points out tire­lessly that mansplain­ing ‘is not a uni­ver­sal flaw of the gen­der, just the in­ter­sec­tion be­tween over­con­fi­dence and clue­less­ness where some por­tion of that gen­der gets stuck’. The defin­ing ker­nel of the mansplain, from the scorn­ful top­note to the hand­wavey gen­er­al­ity, is that it sim­ply never comes from a po­si­tion of ex­per­tise, or even pass­ing knowl­edge. The man who fights with Mary Beard about the real rea­sons for the de­cline of the Ro­man Em­pire is never an­other scholar or even a per­son with a de­gree; it is Aaron Banks. The man who as­sumes that Mar­i­ana Maz­zu­cato couldn’t pos­si­bly un­der­stand in­dus­trial strat­egy is never an econ­o­mist, it’s a man on Twit­ter with a union flag for an avatar and a name like Bri­tish­steve. It’s a be­hav­iour that pre­s­e­lects for ig­no­rance, which is in­evitable: mansplain­ers have gone through life lis­ten­ing to, at most, only half of what they hear. But it makes them heart­break­ingly easy to spot, and more hi­lar­i­ous than they are en­rag­ing.

Spin-off terms are ‘manspread­ing’, which is where a man on pub­lic trans­port spreads his legs so widely that he ef­fec­tively oc­cu­pies three seats, and ‘fem­splain­ing’, a ju­jutsu move by the men’s rights bri­gade to ap­pro­pri­ate the term for use against women. It doesn’t work, not be­cause it rings no loud bells of recog­ni­tion (al­though it doesn’t) but be­cause it lacks pre­ci­sion and so­phis­ti­ca­tion: it is the equiv­a­lent of re­spond­ing to a play­ground taunt with ‘you are’.

The thing (some) women do, if they must know, is ex­ag­ger­ate. I did not re­ally get pre-eclamp­sia. Re­becca Sol­nit, how­ever, is not one of those women. She re­ally did write that book.

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