Men Explain Things to Me

I’m out walking with a friend. We check the map to be sure where we turn off the path. ‘Are you lost?’ a passing man asks. And he proceeds to take the map from us and to tell us where we are (we knew) and which road to take (ditto). Is that a familiar scenario? It’s the kind of thing Rebecca Solnit would recognise, and she wrote about it in her essay Men Explain Things to Me. Originally published on the TomDispatch blog in April 2008, the essay led to the coining of the word ‘mansplaining’, although not by Rebecca Solnit herself, who avoids the implication that ‘men are inherently flawed in this way’ (see dedication below).

175 Men exp coverReading about walking and how walking and writing and story telling are interconnected I came across the wonderful and multi-talented and multi-knowledgeable Rebecca Solnit. I referred to The Faraway Nearby in my previous post (here), and how it distracted me from other reading while on my walking holiday. I had been waiting for the publication in book form of her essay Men Explain Things to Me since I came across references to it and to her writing. It’s available now.

Men Explain Things to Me

‘Every woman knows what I am talking about,’ says Rebecca Solnit, as she gave her hilarious account of a man explaining. She told him she had been writing about Muybridge, and he informed her that she should read this important book that had just been published. He resisted three or four attempts by a friend to let him know that this was Rebecca Solnit’s book before he finally took it in. ‘He went ashen.’

Giving explanations of this kind involves not listening, and denies a voice to, woman, suggests they don’t know about things and implies women’s ignorance and their need for the authoritative material to be delivered by a man.

But Rebecca Solnit’s essay is about much more than the annoying experience of being mansplained, silenced, assumed ignorant. In a postscript reflecting on responses to this essay (including being told by some men that she didn’t know what she was writing about) she included these paragraphs, leading us into the other essays in this collection:

I surprised myself when I wrote this essay, which began with an amusing incident and ended with rape and murder. That made clear to me the continuum that stretches from minor social misery to violent silencing and violent death (and I think we would understand misogyny and violence against women even better if we looked at the abuse of power as a whole rather than treating domestic violence separately from rape and murder and harassment and intimidation, online and at home and in the workplace and in the streets; seen together, the pattern is clear).

Having the right to show up and speak are basic to survival, to dignity and to liberty. I’m grateful that, after an early life of being silenced, sometimes violently, I grew up to have a voice, circumstances that will always bind me to the rights of the voiceless. (16)

The Big Picture

The dedication to this collection of essays begins

For the grandmothers, the levellers, the men who get it, the young women who keep going, the older ones who opened the way …

I especially admire Rebecca Solnit’s ability to draw the bigger picture, to link the minor social misery to more extreme and brutal forms of silencing. In a more recent essay (2011) she draws a very clear parallel between the IMF’s exploitation of third world countries and the assault by Strauss-Kahn, the ex-head of the IMF, and other men of power of women, who often come from the same exploited areas of the world (Worlds Collide in a Luxury Suite: some thoughts on the IMF, global injustice and a stranger on a train).

Dominique Strauss-Kahn graffiti in the "Abode of Chaos" museum of contemporary art, in Saint-Romain-au-Mont-d'Or, Rhône-Alpes region, France. Picture by Tierry Ehrmann via Wikicommons

Dominique Strauss-Kahn graffiti in the “Abode of Chaos” museum of contemporary art, in Saint-Romain-au-Mont-d’Or, Rhône-Alpes region, France. Picture by Tierry Ehrmann via Wikicommons

Rape, and the fight back by the women of Delhi, the ‘disappeared’ of South America and the mothers and grandmothers who would not be silenced about their loved ones, gropers on trains who are pelted with grapefruits, the struggle for marriage equality and how gay marriage has challenged the traditional institution of marriage, the removal of women from history through male genealogies, and mansplaining; they are all connected, reproduce inequality, demean us all and silence so many.

175 Womenppower symbolShe pays too frequent tribute to ‘the men who get it’ for me, but I guess that in this collection of previously published essay each one has to reassure readers that some men do get it, and that’s a good thing. Actually it is an important message that men are not inherently flawed. If they were change would be impossible and there would be no hope for the world.

There may not be anyway, but that’s another aspect of this story.

The writing

Beautiful prose. Such a knowledgeable writer. Again, you should read Rebecca Solnit.

 

Rebecca Solnit (2014) Men Explain Things to Me and other essays Granta Books 130pp

For a blogger’s take on Mansplaining in detective fiction see Miss Marple vs the Mansplainers: Agatha Christie’s Feminist Detective Hero by Alice Bolin on the Electric Lit blog.

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14 Comments

Filed under Books, Essays, Feminism, Reading, Writing

14 Responses to Men Explain Things to Me

  1. I’m currently reading The Faraway Nearby, by second Solnit, and I’m completely captivated. Such an amazing writer. I’d love to read Men Explain Things To Me. I think it’s an important point she’s making, and most men don’t realise they’re mansplaining (some really do though), they’re just trying to be helpful whilst ignoring your actual needs entirely. Interesting how this connects to more extreme forms of silencing and violence against women. I will have to bump this up my priority list. Great review Caroline.

  2. Should say ‘my second Solnit’! First was Geography for the Lost. I’m enjoying The Faraway Nearby more, but Geography is also an excellent book.

    • Caroline

      What amazes me about Rebecca Solnit’s writing is her range. Fancy writing so well about all the things in The Farway Nearby and then the essays in Men Explain Things To Me as well as about Muybridge.
      Thanks for you comments Belinda. Please come back and comment again soon. And thanks for the information about Geography for the Lost.
      Caroline.

  3. Eileen

    Caroline – may I just echo your words – this is beautiful prose. You are such a knowledgeable writer. Excellent post. Thanks a lot. I’ll get the book.
    I rarely come across men but I had a man explain to me an aspect of the election result. I disagreed with him (kindly) and he didn’t speak to me again. I find that method works. E x

  4. Marianne Coleman

    Thanks Caroline. I will definitely put this on my list.
    Somehow the initial story about the map reading rang a bell!
    I loved her anecdote about her book on Muybridge and the man going ashen when he finally realised.

    • Caroline

      Ah yes Marianne. The man and the map. And you were so tactful. And I was livid. It’s not the only time it has happened to me, however. Do read her essays. I would love to discuss them with you.
      Caroline

  5. thanks for another thought-provoking blog Caroline. As a (gay) man who’s trying to ‘get it’ (slightly unfortunate phrase I think!), it can be helpful to have such an issue highlighted. I feel that other men can equally be ‘victims’ within this misuse and abuse of power. The main challenge, I think, is evolving new ways of communicating – I have a little experience of Non Violent Communication, for example – that serve all people equally. This is an educative programme in which we all need to work together. Men may appear to have the ‘upper hand’ in these matters – but there is also (and I am not seeking to make excuses here) an element of them being trapped within their role and cultural stereotyping. Now I shall stop trying to explain!!

    • Caroline

      Rebecca Solnit is very sure that plenty of men ‘get it’. And yes, I agree that the things that Rebecca Solnit describes do not just silence women but do men no favours as well. And yes men are also trapped by cultural stereotyping, and gay men suffer more from this than straight men.
      I like your conclusion, that we have to learn together to do this communicating stuff better.
      Thanks Jon.
      Are you still in Spain??
      Caroline

      • no – been back a while now, though my heart (and writing) is still in Seville. Enjoyed library session on self-publishing this week. Hope to catch up with you soon…

  6. Lynda Haddock

    Thanks for an insightful review Caroline. I’ve been meaning to read this essay and now de finitely will!
    Standing in the lift once at Kennington tube station I heard the announcement ‘Press button to operate lift’. As I was the closest person to the button I reached out to press it, but was pushed aside by a man who leapt from the opposite wall, stood in front of me —and pressed the wrong button! As the lift’s passengers silently watched the doors open again I looked at him with raised eyebrows. He showed little remorse. Maybe he’d told himself it was my fault!

  7. You make a strong argument here, Caroline. Many women who have a secure place in the world pass off these minor incidents of mansplaining as amusing anecdotes but, as you say, there is a continuum from there to more extreme physical and economic violence against women. I started reading your piece nodding and smiling and ended up feeling somewhat chastened – a positive result, I’d say, and testament to how well you put this post together.

    • Caroline

      Not my purpose to chasten readers, especially women readers. But I am fired up by these essays. And I keep being told stories that illustrate “mansplaining”, some of them here in the comments! So much to do.
      Thanks for your compliment.
      Caroline

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