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Modern Life: What is Mansplaining?

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By Zoe Williams

Mansplaining is when a man explains something to a woman; any man can make any explanation sound uproariously, shoulder-shakingly patronising, if he has had enough practice. The unfortunate thing about mansplaining is that now there is a word for it, it makes you giggle like a girl. If there are any other women present, soon you are all giggling like a flock of girls, and he will be confirmed in his bias that women are daft. There is a good chance he will never realise that you’re laughing at him. 

Classic mansplaining, though, is when a man explains something to you that he could not feasibly know as much about as you do: breastfeeding; emotions following an abortion; the bond between sisters; the precise sequence of events in Gladiator. There will be men among you thinking, ‘No, who does that? Nobody does that. This woman dreamt those things.’ That’s what we thought, too, until it had a word. A man once explained to me live on radio why you didn’t need extra calories during pregnancy because you didn’t experience any increase in appetite, and afterwards, in A&E with rage-induced pre-eclampsia, I thought I’d imagined it. That’s why the word took off. 

The definitive mansplain example came from Rebecca Solnit, who coined the phrase in an essay in 2008 and, later, expanded on her theme in the book Men Explain Things to Me. Her vignette, nothing to do with biology or sex, is so good it’s almost too good: she meets a man at a party who asks her what she writes about. The answer is, a wide variety of things, but she selects her most recent field of enquiry, ‘the annihilation of time and space and the industrialisation of everyday life’, which she’d quarried in her book River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West. The man cuts her off. Had she heard about the very important book about Muybridge that had come out that very year? It was, naturally, her book. But the man had to be told four or five times, by a third party, before he could take it in. It turned out that the book he was forcefully recommending to its own author was one he had not read, but had only seen reviewed in the New York Times Book Review. Of course it did. 

Solnit points out tirelessly that mansplaining ‘is not a universal flaw of the gender, just the intersection between overconfidence and cluelessness where some portion of that gender gets stuck’. The defining kernel of the mansplain, from the scornful topnote to the hand-wavey generality, is that it simply never comes from a position of expertise, or even passing knowledge. The man who fights with Mary Beard about the real reasons for the decline of the Roman Empire is never another scholar or even a person with a degree; it is Aaron Banks. The man who assumes that Mariana Mazzucato couldn’t possibly understand industrial strategy is never an economist, it’s a man on Twitter with a union flag for an avatar and a name like BritishSteve. It’s a behaviour that preselects for ignorance, which is inevitable: mansplainers have gone through life listening to, at most, only half of what they hear. But it makes them heartbreakingly easy to spot, and more hilarious than they are enraging. 

Spin-off terms are ‘manspreading’, which is where a man on public transport spreads his legs so widely that he effectively occupies three seats, and ‘femsplaining’, a jujutsu move by the men’s rights brigade to appropriate the term for use against women. It doesn’t work, not because it rings no loud bells of recognition (although it doesn’t) but because it lacks precision and sophistication: it is the equivalent of responding to a playground taunt with ‘you are’. 

The thing (some) women do, if they must know, is exaggerate. I did not really get pre-eclampsia. Rebecca Solnit, however, is not one of those women. She really did write that book.

Zoe Williams

This story was from March 2017 issue. Subscribe Now