Four years ago, during the presidential election of 2012, a powerful idea took hold of America. Or some of us, anyway. It was simple, it was effective, and it was absolutely revolutionary: Maybe dudes shouldn’t be such bossy know-it-alls all the time! This was a shocking reversal of like 95 percent of human history, which is mostly built on insanely self-regarding men writing down their ideas and then making everyone do whatever they say (see: Bible, Koran, U.S. Constitution, board game rulebooks). This especially applies to when men talk to women, especially online. It’s called mansplaining.
Given how much time has gone by since we first learned this lesson, and how generally crazy this election has been, and that this year's debates are sure to feature insane amounts of mansplaining, we thought you could use a refresher.
What is it?
This is actually a really good question! It’s simple on one level, but actually pretty complicated on another.
It’s generally agreed that the idea of mansplaining actually goes back one more election cycle, to 2008. That year, Rebecca Solnit wrote a piece for the Los Angeles Times titled “Men Who Explain Things.” It is largely a story about a man at a cocktail party fatuously explaining a book to Solnit that she really ought to be familiar with — it turned out to be her own book, and it further turned out that he hadn’t actually read it. Though in that piece she never actually uses the word mansplaining, she encapsulates the idea well: “Men explain things to me, and to other women, whether or not they know what they're talking about… It's the presumption… that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world.”
Over at The Atlantic, Lily Rothman defines it as, “explaining without regard to the fact that the explainee knows more than the explainer, often done by a man to a woman.”
Marin Cogan, writing at GQ, calls the mansplainer “the supremely self-impressed dude who feels the need to explain to you — with the overly simplistic, patient tone of an elementary school teacher — really obvious shit you already knew.”
On Twitter, it’s even easier to spot. If you @ someone, and you start your sentence with “actually,” you’re mansplaining. You lose! Go home.
This might start to sound like it’s basically impossible for men and women to disagree politely, but that’s not the case, points out Laia Garcia, an editor at Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter.
“If it’s a mistake, you can correct a mistake,” she said. “But that’s not what mansplaining is. It’s mostly assuming people don’t know what they are talking about — and providing extra information that shows the man does — whether or not its relevant.”
If you’re talking with a woman, or engaging over social media, it’s fine to correct someone if they’re wrong, even if you’re a man and the other person is a woman.
Mansplaining is bigger: It’s about treating someone as less than you, and needing of your guidance, for no reason other than their age or gender. “Don’t assume you know better,” said Garcia. “Don’t speak for the sake of speaking.”
Okay, but really though, is this only about women?
Well, yes and no. There’s certainly something inherent in the ongoing power imbalance between men and women, and lingering sexism, that means this is something that tends to be a man-on-woman problem. Men often assume that women don’t know what they’re talking about, based on… well, I don't know what.
But, no, look: As a man, I know that the nugget of being a man is finding some tiny area in which you feel like a master and expert, and then spending the rest of your life loudly telling everyone else about it to stave of almost overwhelming feelings of anxiety, hopelessness, and the cosmic joke of your own existence. I get that! This music is always playing, and it’s not only women who have to listen. I’ve certainly been mansplained to by plenty of men, especially when I was younger. Even women do this, and have done it, to me. But you know what? I didn’t enjoy it either! Let’s all stop mansplaining!
Okay but who cares?
At the most basic level, this is rude and makes you look stupid. Can you imagine standing at a party, talking about a book you hadn’t read, and it turned out that you were speaking to its author? Lord, I would die. Surely, a more cautious, more empathetic, more human approach to our various interactions is better.
More specifically, rhetorical tools like this do real damage to other people. A lifetime of this makes a woman feel like maybe she really doesn’t know what she’s talking about, even if she does. It might lead her to give up on things on which she should keep working: science, math, writing, learning the ingredients of cocktails, which movie directors are gross, whatever!
So, given that we understand what this is and agree that it’s bad, these are some questions you should ask yourself to make sure you're never guilty of it:
1) Does the person you’re talking to seem like they’re looking for feedback or interested in hearing from you?
Is this a “don’t @ me” situation, even if the person didn’t explicitly say “don’t @ me”? If so, just, like, don’t get into it.
2) Do you even know this person, bro?
If you don’t, then it might be okay to just let it go.
3) Are they paying you to instruct them in something, like kayaking or ballroom dancing?
That’s probably fine to give them direction and speak from a place of authority, but it’s still good to be polite and respect her or his intelligence.
4) Is this your own blood relation?
Proceed, but cautiously.
5) Was the thing they said actually incorrect in some demonstrable way that actually impacts the thrust of what they were saying, or do you just have some kind of pedantic correction you want to make to prove you’re smart?
I think this one explains itself.
6) Do you just want someone you think is cool or smart to notice you?
If so, why don’t you say something nice instead of somehow being a weird dick?
7) Before this person even started talking, were you pretty sure they didn’t know what they were talking about and you’d have to step in?
If so, you’re sexist! Please watch some Lisa-centric episodes of The Simpsons and follow that up with the four-hour Canadian adaptation of Anne of Green Gables from 1985 to properly comprehend how capable, intelligent, and indomitable women are.
8) Okay are you still sure that you need to correct this person or explain something to them?
Well, okay, go ahead, but be cool.