A smirk spread across the department meeting. A full professor had hijacked a discussion about curriculum planning, and started pontificating. About language. The Internet. Gender.
All stuff I’d published on. But which the other professor had only recently started thinking about.
Finally, the professor asked everyone why we weren’t paying more attention to these issues in our research. “In fact, why aren’t we teaching classes on this? We need to get on the cutting edge.”
Someone finally spoke up and pointed at me. “That’s actually why we hired her.” Eyes swiveled my way.
Was it my turn to pontificate?
Instead, I just gave everyone a thumbs up. “I can share my syllabi with anyone who’s interested. And my articles.”
Many of us already know that mansplaining has gone beyond its original inception. Women do it, too. But some men still get worked up, because we use the word “man,” instead of something else.
Why didn’t I grandstand? Because I hate doing that. Introverts like to plan out what they’re going to say — at least a little bit. Plus, people generally like to get out of meetings on time.
Here’s the kicker. That full professor, she was a woman.
Many of us already know that mansplaining has gone beyond its original inception. But some people still get worked up, because we use the word “man,” instead of something else.
Linguists know the fate of words. They travel well beyond their original meanings. They take on new ones.
We can only exert so much influence on definitions. In this case, the word “mansplain” may have lost some of its original power by becoming so widely used. On the other hand, maybe it’s a good thing. Maybe we should acknowledge that mansplainining has layers.
Mansplaining can happen in different situations, between people of the same gender, or people who present their genders differently.
A stereotypically masculine man can, in fact, mansplain to someone he perceives as less so.
An older woman can mansplain to a younger one.
At the same time, we can also remember that the clearest and most overt instances of mansplaining happen when a man — or many men — take it upon themselves to silence a woman with the pretext of educating her about something she already knows.
The evolution of the word doesn’t mean that we can start using it to describe any woman who asserts their authority. There’s a huge difference between a woman who speaks up for herself, and someone who feels so comfortable in their power that they only listen to themselves.
Anyone can mansplain. A man can do it to a man. A woman can do it to a woman. Sometimes, a woman can even do it to a man. Still, we need to remember the original roots and the gender dynamics. Otherwise, we’re guilty of appropriation.
After all, that’s what the word originally meant. It became popular after Rebecca Solnit described an especially egregious example, where a pompous windbag lectured her on her own book, ignoring a friend who made four different statements along the lines of “That’s her book. She wrote that book. Hey! You’re actually talking to the author of the book you’re describing. Like, right now. Hello, it’s not a coincidence.”
“Mansplain” became an important term because it described a familiar sexist trend that, until recently, escaped public discourse. Powerful white men assume that women don’t know anything. They use their privilege, their posture, and their aggressive discourse tactics to trample over women and their ideas when they should be listening.
Of course, gender’s a funny thing.
Not everyone performs it in the same way. Some men never enact that kind of toxic masculinity. Some women do.
So let’s all get on the same page. Anyone can mansplain. Nowadays, it refers to a situation in which someone explains something in a condescending way to someone of marginalized status.
Mansplaining would be funny if it weren’t so infuriating. And it would be infuriating if it weren’t so funny. I’ve had my own ideas spoonfed back to me in the most absurd ways, and everyone knew what was happening except the guy doing the splaining.
People with ego problems commit the biggest offenses. Oddly, the ones in positions of power tend to have the most severe confidence issues, which they overcompensate for by explaining the obvious.
I’ve attended meetings where higher-ups pretended to read my reports or memos, then go on to recommend terrible ideas that I’ve just warned them against. I’ve also had my own ideas spoonfed back to me in the most absurd ways, and everyone knew what was happening.
It would be infuriating, if it weren’t also so funny. Or maybe it is infuriating, and I laugh just to keep my sanity.
Circumstances and personality determine how exactly to respond to the mansplain. Some people really need to get called on their shit. Especially the repeat offenders, who reinforce sexism. If we called out every instance of mansplaining, though, we’d never get anything done. The sensible among us let a lot of stuff slide.
Some people desperately need to get called on their shit. Especially the repeat offenders. If we called out every instance, though, we’ve never get anything done. We let a lot of stuff slide. You’re welcome.
Once, another teacher corrected me on my use of the word “artifact.” We were joking around at lunch about sneaking into a dean’s office. And I said, “Just don’t leave behind any artifacts.”
The teacher (a woman) stopped the conversation. “You know that artifacts refer to historical objects, right? That’s an archeological term.”
Of course, she wasn’t an archeologists.
She’d never studied archeology.
That would be almost forgivable.
Her archeological knowledge amounted to watching Indiana Jones, and going to a handful of museums.
And in fact, she was wrong. I knew she was. Because I’d spent a year on the crime beat for a local newspaper. Forensic investigators use the word “artifact” to describe anything found at a crime scene. Some of what they find becomes admissible as evidence.
This poor woman, though. She had no friends. In fact, half the faculty talked openly about how much they couldn’t stand her. Such is the fate of the truly insufferable.
So I just shrugged and refilled my coffee.
Mansplaining happens everywhere, all the time, between people at different power levels. How we respond depends on a lot of factors. We’re fortunate to have a word now to describe this experience, even as it evolves.
Still, the award for best mansplain still goes a guy. An man in his 50s, who I asked to stop talking on his phone at an art museum.
Instead of complying, or just ignoring me, he took it upon himself to explain etiquette to me. How many museums he’d been to. How nobody had ever asked him to put his phone away.
How rude and uncivil I was being.
Then he looked at me and said, “How many art museums have you been to, young lady?” So I shrugged and said about twelve.
He didn’t believe me, so I started listing them off. After about six, I asked him the same question.
After some stutters, he said, “Well, last year I was here, and nobody made a fuss about my cell phone.” And he walked off.
Someone I met at a bar after defending my dissertation. He tried to explain the difficulty of grad school and the academic job market.
My friends mentioned, “She already has a job.” But the guy was down a path. Some people just can’t stop talking until they unload everything in their head on a topic. It doesn’t matter what you say.
Our lives are filled with mansplaining. I’ve listened to men (and women) tell me what they’ll do if I don’t give their son or daughter “the grade my child deserves.”
Which is especially ironic, given that I teach college.
These people love to grill me on my qualifications. Or tell me what I don’t understand about my own field.
On Twitter, I’ve lost count of the times someone has taken one of my sarcastic comments literally, and then explained why I’m wrong.
Linguists and discourse analysts know more than anyone that habits and practices might start with one group of people, and then hop to another. Women can and have adopted “male” discourse moves, and vice versa. Modes of speaking influence each other.
So, anyone can mansplain. But some men still do it best.
Sometimes, we have to adjust our terminology to avoid overtly racist and sexist undertones. Maybe a hundred years from now, white men will become a marginalized and vulnerable population. Let’s cross that bridge when we get there. For now, “mansplain” does a fine job.