‘Mansplain (vb. obs.): to explain in a patronising manner assuming total ignorance on the part of those listening. The mansplainer is often shocked and hurt when their mansplanation is not taken as absolute fact.”
I love a sweeping gender-alisation almost as much as I love a neologism. No really, I do. My theory is that if the majority of men are allowed to make sweeping gender-alisations (which they do regularly, about periods, hysteria and not knowing the offside rule), then women are too. Because equal rights is about being able to do the same things as each other. But that’s not to say sweeping gender-alisations, affectionate as many of them may be, are always a good idea.
We’ve had manscara, mantyhose and manbags; now we have the mansplanation. The usual thinking behind this is: if you just shove on a male prefix, you create a whole new concept that can be ruthlessly marketed as yet another pointless piece of lifestyle tat that people don’t need. This is more or less true of all of the above, with the exception of mansplaining. Because the mansplanation is actually more like a rebrand: it’s a new name for age-old patriarchy.
When the writer and comedian Graham Linehan tweeted this week, “I do wish people would stop using the word ‘misogyny’ when they mean ‘sexism’”, he got himself into a fit of mansplaining that ranged far beyond mere dictionary definitions. Perhaps he was momentarily so blinded by the attendant ire of lexical pedantry (I know it well) that he failed to realise how inappropriate that comment was, or how many female hackles might be raised at being told how to describe or codify their experiences of being treated as second-class citizens. By a man.
The fact is, sexism and misogyny – while ostensibly separate and different concepts – are so intertwined that one usually breeds the other, informs and moulds it, then packs it off to start its own independent existence elsewhere. You don’t have one without the other, and the situation that this tweet was a response to – the anti-Page 3 movement – certainly has hefty helpings of each. Linehan’s argument, mansplained with the characteristic ill-grace of a caught-out mansplainer, was that Page Three was not misogynistic because it was clearly for men who liked women. Who liked them so much they wanted to look at them naked, in fact. Who respected them so much that they thought it was fine to be able to do so in a daily newspaper.
I’d say the misogyny here was as clear and as obvious and as staring-you-in-the-face as the newsprint nipples in question. But men don’t like being called misogynists. It makes them feel and sound creepy, another word they hate being called. In that case, don’t involve yourself in anything that perpetuates sexism. Misogyny is an abstract concept that is inherent to patriarchal constructs, so if you go along with them, you become its concrete embodiment: a sexist. And that can apply to men and to women.
Equality is a debate that everyone should be part of – that everyone is part of by sheer dint of existence. We have this conversation simply by living, regardless of whose side we’re on or what we have in our pants. And for that reason, it isn’t helpful to restrict the debate to a one-sided rant by those who perceive themselves to be the wronged party.
I have plenty of time for those rants, but they need counter-argument too – and they need to be heard and processed by the other side in order to validate them.
Otherwise, they’re the equivalent of teary, shouty sessions with your mates in the ladies loo – and those sessions are something that men use as proof that we’re mad, hysterical or strangely tribal in our toilet habits.
So I would mencourage any man who wishes to mengage with the feminism debate and I would mandate women to pay attmention (fair enough, that doesn’t really work) when they do. With that in mind, jokey terms like “mansplaining” can be as daft, reductive and unhelpful as calling women “birds”. But they have arisen from necessity.
I like Graham Linehan. I think he’s a funny guy. But he should have said, “Fair dos, I guess you’re better informed on that subject than I am”, rather than trying stubbornly to bluster on that he was right. Which is another typical trait of a classic mansplanation. And of patriarchy.
It’s part of a subliminal bias in men against women: perhaps it’s because they’re used to being the ones in charge or perhaps because many of them lack the emotional depth to stop speaking before they hurt someone’s feelings. But even when the debate becomes about feminism, men try to tell women how to think and what to know.
Witness all those male politicians who think they’re qualified to make assumptions and decisions about rape or abortion. Witness the arcane but enduring trope that a woman’s body is not her own private business.
Let me mansplain more clearly: even though we like it when you take an interest in women’s issues, sometimes you just have to shut up a bit and admit you’re not always right. Which I understand can be hard when you’re a man.