The Problem with Mansplaining


One of the incredibly useful things about feminism – for me, at least – has been giving me words and vocabulary to understand myself and phenomena in my life that I previously did not know how to explain. One of those that’s become more useful over time is the shorthand term: “mansplaining.” For the uninitiated, “mansplaining,” refers to a particularly gendered type of explanation – a man is mansplaining when he assumes a woman does not understand something and proceeds to explain to her things she already knows. The reason it's called mansplaining is because it is shorthand for a person with privilege - a man - explaining something to someone who does not have that same privilege. There are variations on this for different oppressions - "whitesplaining," for example. It is not necessarily a matter of sexism, per se, but a matter of privilege.

It may be useful to put this into context.

This morning, I was listening to the Church of England’s Synod on whether or not to ordain women bishops (they voted no, sadly). Lots of people spoke, and I was livetweeting it with a few friends, because, you know, this is a matter of some importance to me. In the midst of the debate, a speaker (a man) used an argument from the Trinity as a reason to vote against the ordination of women bishops.

Those of you who have been following me for a while know how wrong this argument is, but in case you don’t, here’s a refresher.

So I tweeted about it, calling the argument heresy. My tweet hit a nerve and got retweeted many times over. Any time that happens – especially if it’s a tweet about theology – I can expect a few people (almost always men) to push back. And, naturally, a couple did.

Now, I should take a minute here to say: I love Trinitarian theology and Christology. I have a bachelor’s degree in theology/philosophy and wrote my master’s thesis on Trinitarian theology, church community, and Christ figures in Harry Potter. I’m by no means an expert on these topics (I’m no Karl Barth), but I know enough to know my way around. What I mean to say is: I’m not ignorant of orthodox Trinitarian theology, the vocabulary used, or the different heresies over the centuries.

But what shows up in my mentions after I tweet that a using the Trinity to impose a gender hierarchy is actually heresy?

Men explaining to me the basics of an orthodox understanding of the Trinity.

But it's not unusual, as many of my fellow women can attest.

I saw it as a teaching assistant at Baylor, when male students would interrupt the class to explain something that I was about to say.

I saw it as a retail employee, when men would explain to me stuff about movies that I already knew.

I saw it as a student, when male classmates spoke up to female professors in ways they didn't to male ones.

And I’ve seen it, most often, on the internet, when men who happen to be married attempted to explain “the female experience” … TO WOMEN (that's my favorite kind of mansplaining: here, let me tell you what you feel because I'm married).

I think a lot of this is cultural. Many women have to go through life living with other people assuming their stupidity or vapidity off the bat. Very often, when we get a woman in a TV show or movie who is intelligent and outspoken, that aspect of her character cripples her in other areas (cough Deb on Dexter cough). If we do get one who is loud and outspoken, she’s usually also incompetent (cough Jess on New Girl cough). If she’s the smartest one in the room, we see her have an inability to handle social interaction – usually providing the man in her life the opportunity to patiently explain things to her (cough Bones cough).

It’s no surprise, then, that many men think explaining stuff in this manner is perfectly okay. Many, I'd venture, don't even realize they're doing it - that's the nature of privilege. And in a culture where we're conditioned that the loudest and most brusque people are the winners of debates (something that affects all genders), it's not necessarily a surprise when the gender that is conditioned to be polite and graceful and demure is also seen as stupid and naive due to the nature of debate in our culture.

So I have a brief tip for defeating that socialization. It’s useful for ALL members of a debate, but especially to the mansplainers: assume the person you’re talking to knows what they’re saying.

That’s it. Treat me like a human being who knows what I’m talking about. That's all any of us ask. And sometimes, it appears, that's too much.

feminismDianna Anderson