The term mansplaining, unlike gaslighting, has entered mainstream conversation: according to Lily Rothman at The Atlantic, it first appeared online shortly after Rebecca Solnit’s piece in the LA Times, “Men Explain Things to Me.” Ms. Solnit didn’t use the term in her article, but she gave a prime example of mansplaining, in which a man described her own book to her without acknowledging that she’d written it. The term is used so widely that it is misused: sometimes it’s used so broadly that it could apply to any situation in which one person is condescending to another, and sometimes it is completely misdefined, as it is in many of the definitions in the urban dictionary, one of which asserts that man-hating women use the term to spread their man-hating. Despite these misunderstandings, mansplaining is easy to spot, as any woman who has experienced it can tell you.
Merriam-Webster describes mansplaining well: “…when a man talks condescendingly to someone (especially a woman) about something he has incomplete knowledge of, with the mistaken assumption that he knows more about it than the person he’s talking to does.” Although women are usually on the receiving end of mansplaining, it isn’t about us—it’s not about female knowledge or behavior, about the way we perceive the world or the way we express our opinions and expertise, or even how and why we succeed. It’s about traditional (or patriarchal) masculinity, which means it relies on sexist thoughts and beliefs.
Traditional masculinity requires men to prove their manhood in a variety of situations and arenas—to be the strongest, the fastest, the smartest and wittiest means that you are, indeed, the man. And to be the man means, by default, that you aren’t the woman—who is, within the internal jargon of masculinity, understood to be weak, both intellectually and physically. That, of course, is a sexist assumption, and unfortunately it lies at the core of masculinity as our culture defines it. Which sets us all up for some major difficulties in conversation.
A man who is attached to traditional definitions of manhood—including the idea that if he can’t “best” a woman in a conversation or debate, he has failed to establish the necessary dominance of manhood—is going to feel that his masculinity is threatened when a woman knows more about a subject than he does. To deal with what he perceives as a threat, he pretends it doesn’t exist—the woman is so woefully misinformed that she needs his guidance and expertise to understand the basics of the discussion, even if that discussion is about her career or field of knowledge.
Mansplaining, of course, can be frustrating and infuriating. That’s part of the point: if a woman gets angry, she—along with her argument and expertise—can be dismissed as emotional or hysterical. Mansplaining, then, serves as bait, and it’s your best bet not to take it. Like gaslighting, it’s a tactic meant to undermine a woman’s authority. If you are being mansplained to privately, it is helpful to identify the behavior for yourself and then leave the conversation. You aren’t going to convince the mansplainer of your own expertise, and you don’t need to convince yourself, so free yourself of the experience. If the mansplaining is happening in public, you can always do what Elizabeth Warren did—give your audience the real scoop.
Ultimately, mansplaining is something that men who engage in it need to address within themselves, and it requires a fairly major perspective shift. It’s a shift that we’ve been making as a nation for many decades, and will be working on for many more. This perspective requires us to understand that masculinity isn’t something men must prove by demeaning or dismissing women and homosexual men. For if that is truly what it means to be a man, then no man is ever smart enough, strong enough, or good enough until he’s proven that he’s better than everyone else all the time, which of course is impossible. That’ s no way to live, whether you’re a man or a woman. We know this, and that’s one reason we are slowly making the shift to a non-sexist masculinity, despite both cultural and personal resistance. Because we are making this shift, I believe that mansplaining will eventually be obsolete: its days are numbered as a tactic to keep women in their place, and we are beginning to acknowledge culturally that a woman who knows her stuff isn’t a threat to society, but a boon to it.