Men Explain Things to Me…and I Hardly Care – a review

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Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things to Me. Chicago: Haymarket Press, 2014. 130pp.

The word “mansplaining” refers to the condescending tendency of men to lecture women, despite the man’s lack of knowledge—or even despite the woman’s own expertise—on the subject at hand. It entered into the popular feminist lexicon sometime around 2009, and although Rebecca Solnit didn’t coin it, her essay, “Men Explain Things to Me,” is largely cited as the inspiration.

Since then, “Men Explain Things to Me” has been turned into a short, digestible book of the same title, the titular treatise buttressed by six additional feminist essays. While Men Explain Things to Me has been a runaway success, a socialist feminist critique finds that Solnit very much puts the cart before the horse—presuming that male ego or male entitlement is foundational to women’s oppression, rather than the result of the gendered material, economic, and political reality we shorthand as “the patriarchy.”

Solnit's book includes some cringe-inducing attempts to apply her theory to actual history and politics, including casting France as a “he” and Africa as a “she” in a sweeping metaphor for colonialism (must we gender nations and peoples to understand their sovereignty?). She theorizes that the Bush administration’s disregard of pre-9/11 al-Qaeda warnings could be gendered, noting the FBI agent who issued them was a woman (forgoing the title of “agent,” Solnit curiously refers to her as “the FBI woman”).

Other essays throughout the book meander tangentially, from rape to gay marriage to the wisdom of Virginia Woolf, all under a vague, interpersonal feminist curriculum. To wit, Solnit talks at great length on the importance of women being heard, being seen, being listened to, etc. Socialists tend to operate under the premise that it’s the economically and politically liberated whose voices are most valued, but Solnit takes a consciousness-raising approach, as if women’s social or cultural capital is the key to a more feminist future.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the book is Solnit’s conjecture on the universality of a specific gendered social relation. In her very first essay, she begins a meditation on mansplaining with:

"Every woman knows what I'm talking about. It's the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way street harassment does, that this is not their world."

There is a certain hypocrisy in this position. Solnit’s book is premised on the presumptuousness of men, but she begins this statement with “every woman.” While I’ve never met a woman who hasn’t experienced a patronizing and gendered lecture from a man, I’ve only met a very privileged few who feel the undue confidence of masculinity is their biggest bone to pick with sexism.

And when she gets to those bigger bones, Solnit outright disdains any materialist analysis:

“Instead, we hear that American men commit murder-suicides—at the rate of about twelve a week—because the economy is bad, though they also do it when the economy is good; or that those men in India murdered the bus-rider because the poor resent the rich, while other rapes are explained by how the rich exploit the poor.”

There is a wealth (a surfeit, really) of sociological data that shows that sexual predators of all classes, nationalities, ethnic groups, etc., target marginal victims, and very, very often that means poor women (though sometimes it’s a college student who would violate an “honor-code” by admitting she drank at a frat party, the predator’s wife or girlfriend who hasn’t the resources to leave, and the like). It's either thoughtless or disingenuous that Solnit chose to flatten this information into “because the economy is bad.” In actively dismissing the legitimate economic factors that put women at risk, she portrays class-based explanations of sexual or gendered violence as akin to sympathy for predators who can't find a job.

The female homicides of Ciudad Juárez—usually referred to as “feminicidios” or “feminicides,” due to the significance of the phenomenon—have been studied extensively by academic feminists. In the brilliant 2010 collection of essays, Making a Killing: Femicide, Free Trade, and La Frontera, the case is made over and over again for an economic foundation to the mass murders of women. For example, in her article “Accountability for Murder in the Maquiladoras: Linking Corporate Indifference to Gender Violence at the U.S.-Mexico Border,” feminist legal theorist Elvia Arriola says,

“…the Juárez murder phenomenon is a story about systematic abuse and violence against working-class employees; that abuse includes exposure to toxicity in the workplace, sexual harassment, and arbitrary disciplinary methods. This systematic abuse is the result of investor privileges guaranteed under NAFTA and repeated in the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), which virtually immunize the transnational investor from accountability for harm to the worker, anticipated or not, when conducting business in Mexico.”

Given the extensive scholarship connecting the economic welfare and labor rights of women to the violence committed against them, one has to wonder; would Rebecca Solnit accuse Arriola of reducing femicide to 'because the economy is bad'?

It’s worth noting that my review of Solnit's book was originally slotted for another publication, but was killed when a male editor sent an email to the rest of the board that started with “My serious problem is Frost’s review which IMHO radically misreads Solnit”—yes, he took time to bold and color the text for effect (oh how I long for the freedom to emote so emphatically without fear of being branded “hysterical”!). He included a string of select quotes by Solnit, and attached a separate Solnit article intended to edify my review, though nothing he included was in the book, and my review steered clear of assessing Solnit's career, activist credentials or character.

The man in question ended his email with “IMHO Frost should read the attached Solnit piece and some of her other writings, adjust her attitude, and start again from scratch.” I’m not entirely sure if he has a solid grasp of what the “H” in “IMHO” (an acronym for “in my humble opinion”) stands for, or why an impersonal, collegial review of a book requires me to “adjust my attitude,” but this is the logic of the very real phenomenon of mansplaining. Did I mention that this particular man had not read the book I was reviewing?

And herein lies the kernel of truth to Solnit’s work. At this point, the mansplain is such a cliché that stories like this are very nearly redundant in internet-culture-literate circles. The only reason I am recounting this particular incident is to isolate mansplaining from its most predictable context; the irony of his mansplaining feminism to me was apparently lost on him.

Luckily I have another venue for my writing, one where women are not expected to form a united ideological front, and dissent is not conflated with a bad attitude. I happen to believe women’s intellectual work is deserving of the same robust debate as work by their male counterparts, and Solnit’s widely acclaimed massive hit of a book could stand one little critique.

My own position as a socialist feminist is not that we should be looking to “convert” men, but that we should be looking to liberate women—the first step toward which is seeing the economic factors that leave women vulnerable to abuse and assault.

While I find Solnit all too ready to invoke class as an indicator of her progressivism, she collapses the material and the cultural, deriding, misconstruing or outright ignoring the very real work done that argues women are safest when they are financially secure—a position in which they are more likely to have access to the legal system, as well as community resources and emergency services.

As Solnit attempts to render her argument of ego-oriented consciousness feminism into a political theory that simply holds no water, she acknowledges that only “some men” engage in mansplaining. Yet she seems incapable of considering that other women don’t relate to it as she does.

I have never once felt “crushed into silence” by something as laughable and ubiquitous as masculine bloviating. In fact, my reactions to sexism (social, economic or otherwise) are quite the opposite of silence; this is hardly rare. Some women just walk away from mansplainers in frustration or boredom, a sort of social walkout strike that denies them your audience. There are also some who gladly debate the mansplainers, relishing an easy win. Many of us have no problem pointing out the sexism of mansplaining as it occurs, sometimes only to stand up for ourselves, but sometimes warmly, in the sincere belief that perhaps this particular man could be sympathetic. There are those of us who simply laugh (whether in their faces or behind their backs), some who tell them to shut the hell up and many—like myself—who simply sashay away to more feminist pastures.

*Amber A'Lee Frost is a writer and musician in Brooklyn. She is on the National Political Committee of Democratic Socialists of America and a contributor to Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Legacy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

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12 comments on “Men Explain Things to Me…and I Hardly Care – a review
  1. Will Shetterly says:

    I think mansplaining is as I think mansplaining is as useful as femsplaining, which is to say, not particularly useful at all unless you’re in the mood to argue. The people who indulge in mansplaining and the people who complain about mansplaining tend to be engaged in bourgiesplaining. Now, I may be less aware of the problem than I should be because I’m almost 60 years old and, beginning with my mother and then my sister, have always had women in my life who were not about to be silenced just because some guy’s a pompous jerk.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Mansplaining??? Is “Mansplaining” something that only happens to women? I thought was just part of dealing with assholes. As a guy I get talked down by know-it-all jerks trying to discredit me all the time. What’s that called?

    • B says:

      neutralizing

      Since the word has already become so commonplace and appears to be going nowhere, I think the best thing to do is to neutralize it (literally, make it a gender-neutral word). I call out women for ‘mansplaining’ as much as possible. The idea that, no matter what, you know best of anyone in the room, is something that comes with privilege, not with gender, but it does so happen that the loudest are men. So mansplaining is a fitting word for it, even if it’s often women who are doing it.

    • David says:

      It's called "being a blowhard"

      Good gender-neutral term for it.

  3. Jennifer says:

    Fantastic Critique! Amber, I am reminded when reading this of its parallels in political debates of the sort that happen in comments sections or waiting rooms–the ones where racial, socioeconomic and gendered forms of oppression are reduced to each participant’s abnegation of responsibility: “I’m a man and I cook” (so there’s no patriarchy) or “my parents immigrated from europe and they were EXCITED to learn English and become Americans” (so white imperialist racism is just patriotic). This is the problem with narratives of personal responsibility, which is exactly the sort of narrative that the above Solnit excerpt supports; I can imagine a legion of “feminist” male readers patting themselves on the back ever time they abstain from mansplaining. “Not all men,” they’ll cry–or “it happens to us, too!” (two comments above as case in point). It makes it easy to locate responsbility as always somewhere else, and the strucutral problems get tabled and denied in favor of a million little celebrations of self. This misses the inequal power between the participants and the socioeconomics that support/reify that inequality–really folks, it’s not the same thing.

    • B says:

      incredibly relevant now

      This is all incredibly relevant now with Hillary Clinton’s way of answering questions about her donors… There’s nothing wrong with a system where several big Wall Street firms control the economy, it’s all about the personal responsibility of the employees, oh and by the way most of my big money donors are women!

  4. Josh Broyles says:

    the term "mansplaining" is misandrist gender reification

    Let me just mainsplain something for a minute here…

    We’ve probably all be condescended to by persons of both genders, regardless of our own genders. Maybe something “seems different” about the way men do it, or how much they do it, at least to women. But plenty of women do exactly the same thing, and plenty of men do not. Moreover, everyone has a choice to do it or not do it, and there’s no clear sign (to me) that it is harder for women to get away with. If anything, when confronted with it, women can usually just play the gender card and claim that the challenge to their authority, supported by incontrovertible evidence as it may be, is not valid because it is ultimately motivated by gender. Have you ever seen a man resort to this? I KNOW you have seen women do it.

    So, really, the idea of “mansplaining” seems to boil down to just one more thing to add to the list of things that are supposed to prove that men are basically jerks, because, one way or another, this must ultimately be done. WHY this is “necessary” is a slightly different question*.

    That the “man-” prefix, as used by feminists. is a simple pejorative male epithet is easy to demonstrate simply by means of the contexts in which it is used and in which it is not used. It is used ONLY for things that are BAD in which gender is considered to be an important statistically correlating variable; “mansplaining”, “manspreading”, etc. It is NEVER used for anything GOOD in which men are assumed to be or rightly considered to be the primary statistical participants. Feminists never talk about “mandiscovery” or “maninvention”. There is no “manarchitecture” or “manengineering”. Why is this? If not because merely BEING a man is implictly bad, what, then? (Yes, seriously… somebody answer this question, please).

    * HYPOTHESIS: feminists have decided that men need to be kept on the moral defensive by any means possible, so that they won’t effectively demand the criminalization of paternity fraud before feminists can get paternity testing banned elsewhere, as they already have done in France. FACT: Criminalization of paternity fraud threatens feminism by exposing something close to 1 in 15 women in westen nations to felony criminal sentencing and probable entry to at least some part of penal systems. A likely consequence of this would be a significant shift in political power toward men, away from women. This hypothesis is somewhat supported by online feminist commentaries by Melanie McDonagh and others, objecting to paternity testing on other supposed grounds. Evidence against this hypothesis so far consists of … (crickets).

  5. Anonymous says:

    women are oppressed

    As a feminist, I learn from, and depend on, the feminists who have done a lot of work before me, work that’s shown that humanity both does and does not divide itself by gender. This is not the case for any other division of the human species. In the sense that it does – the performative argument, the continuum – much of what passes these days for feminism is pointless prima facie, as differential gender roles must by definition affect, empower, and oppress both sexes. And in the sense that it doesn’t – we reproduce sexually, the binary – we have to admit that equality between the sexes is a fallacy on a very fundamental, even ontological level. We bear the decision to bear children unfairly. The counter that childbirth isn’t the sole responsibility of the female in the relationship is already a logical advance, that requires a defense; to breach logic is female exceptionalism; and endgame.

    The urge to react against these truths as deterministic should not be understood as a feminine privilege, but as human weakness; and the human is not identical to nor greater than the woman.

    In other words, if RS’s feelings were hurt by the type of rich white douchebags she meets in fancy houses in Jackson Hole or somewhere like that, fine. That makes sense. She’s a celebrated writer, and God knows her niche is full of insufferable jackasses.

    And if she thinks Esquire, a men’s magazine, shouldn’t have written a list of books by men for men, then say that. There’s nothing wrong with complaining that Esquire readers should read books that aren’t written by men. I think (but then I’m a writer) everybody should read as much by everyone as possible.

    She’s at her best when she writes in the poetic mode, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. And yes, many have remarked on whether that mode, whether or not it’s understood as a social construct (and everything, including privacy, subjectivity, super-subjectivity, ontology, taxonomy, is by definition a social construct, except things that are not observed, since observation, required for knowledge, is affective and thus is social) is “feminine.” In Woolf it’s a cliche. It’s Irigaray’s ecriture feminine. Joyce said the male artist was half female. Proust was gay. Hemingway’s persona is a mask. We’ve been over this a billion times.

    If you just spout out a bunch of random stuff in the name of girl power, that’s fine – you can do whatever you want in the States and Europe – if by “fine” you mean “winding up with a bunch of random stuff in the name of girl power,” which would fuel the limited imaginations of the douchebags I personally detest.

    However, it could get you a lot of clicks and upvotes and all that crap. Solnit’s trying to make a living without teaching, so maybe she’s figured that out.

    I’m just trying to figure out how a woman of such intelligence would write crap like this. Obviously, it’s for the attention. Her readers love it, her editors love it, her publisher loves it, etc. And she can’t say that, because that lays the system bare. OK.

    But I’m at the beginning of my career, I’m not middle-aged, and as a survivor of sexual assault I do not have to capitulate to this kind of horseshit. I won’t write it. Maybe I’ll end up writing it when I need the money. I’m not writing from the right, but I’m not going to insult my fellow females, my fellow disenfranchised, by writing that “Star Wars” creates serial rapists. Women can think.

  6. Cameronthought says:

    Mansplaining/Femsplaining? Racesplaining?

    I prefer the term ‘Downsplaining’ which, like ‘punching down’ in comedy is a result of privilege.

    If you are more privileged than the person you are attempting to explain something to, recognize that and don’t assume you know more or are more intelligent simply because you have been afforded a better starting place. E.g. Explaining the history of feminism to a woman, explaining race relations to a black man, explaining trans acceptance to someone who’s trans… etc.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Some of the comments here to

    Some of the comments here to prove the daftness with which socialists tend to deal with gender. Waving it away and simply asking for Jendral neutral terms like asshole hide the reality of the power differential between male and female.

  8. DD says:

    Pleased with this article

    I enjoy the way you write and your opinions. I discovered you today in a roundabout way. Only thing that I would like to share is that I learned the most about men from giving birth to a male and raising him. It was a joy and also confusing lol.

  9. Ron Skurat, New Haven, CT says:

    Other Publication?

    I would be VERY interested in knowing the name of the ‘other publication’ with the idiot editor. Last time I checked, publications courted controversy & a variety of opinions to drive reader comments. It’s also odd that the board didn’t notice or comment on the irony of a man mansplaining about mansplaining.

    I’ve read Solnit, and she strikes me as someone who is out to make a name for herself & sell some books – not someone who is interested in a comprehensive multi-layered look at a phenomnenon.

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