Modernity can be hard work: On Mansplaining

This was first published in the May edition of Popular Science UK. Register on their Facebook page to get 3 issues free.

Last summer, bits of the internet found a new word: Mansplained. You know when someone explains something to you, but you already know about it, and you feel a bit patronised? Maybe because you are even wearing a giant flashing badge with “I KNOW LOADS ABOUT THIS I HAVE SIX ZILLION NOBEL PRIZES IN IT” which they somehow manage not to see, too caught up in their own knowledge. That’s mansplaining. The word is a mix of the words explaining and man because it’s seen as something men are especially guilty of when it comes to their interactions with women’s expertise.

(If at this point you are feeling a bit patronised by me explaining mansplaining or just slightly annoyed by the idea that it’s a gender thing, I hear you, hope to get to that in a minute. Sorry. But it really is worth repeating this stuff, even if it makes you itch a bit)

As Lily Rothman put in her “cultural history of mansplaining” the word might have only really been thrown up since the summer, but the issue’s been around for a while. Its precise origins are hazy, but the term seems to have grown slowly on feminist blogosphere following a piece by Rebecca Solnit in 2008. Here Solnit describes a man telling her repeatedly about a “very important Muybridge book” even after people had (repeatedly) told him that she was the author. He just couldn’t believe that this woman in front of him was the author. A similar problem can be found again and again (and again and again…) when women suggest something to a group but are ignored with little more than polite nods, then a man says the exact same thing and suddenly it’s a great new idea. If you don’t recognise these examples – and the immense feeling of frustration that goes with them – you are either very lucky or haven’t been paying attention. You are also probably (and only probably) a white man.

The spectre of the mansplainer was quickly applied to political discourse, especially around the US presidential campaign, but it has on-going relevance to how we talk about science and technology. Tellingly, one of the ways the word grew to prominence was through a Tumblr called “academic men explain things to me”. I think both the advantages and disadvantages of the word reflect larger tensions surrounding how we relate to science and scientists, which is why I want to talk about it here.

In many ways, I like the word mansplain. It does what good words do: Names something. Naming lets you identify a phenomenon, talk about and discuss it. You can call it out and feel emboldened seeing others to do so. This is part of its attraction, but also part of its problem because the calling out can feel overly judgmental. The naming process also lets you focus on a particular issue. Again, this is part of the attraction, but again it’s problem, because it’s a bit reductive. The world is messier than simple words we put to it.

The Tumblr might be called “academic men explain things to me” but the truth is a lot of academic women do this too. Including me, all the time. I know. I try not to and it makes me cringe. But I do. And people outside academia do it too. Often it’s people of either gender doing it to people of colour. Or to those with a disability. Or to those a particular social class, age, or intellectual background. Prejudice is a multi-layered and complex thing. The focus on the man in mansplaining reflects a way in which diversity issues in science and technology are perhaps too often reduced to gender.

The tensions around mansplaining also reflect hang-ups we have dealing with expertise in this world of specialisms we’ve made for ourselves. I think one of the reasons it’s sparked recently, especially around social media, is because we increasingly bump into expertise without much context, and as a result see our prejudices laid out quite clearly. We can be shocked to see someone we didn’t know holding a confident opinion in 140 characters or a simple independent blog. WHAT DO THEY KNOW ANYWAY? Oh, quite a lot actually. I didn’t realise that. Whoops. Or, more often maybe, we discover that this new person knows about the world in a slightly different way from us, one we might disagree with but can still learn from.

Even before the emergence of the web the various silos of expertise were causing cultural tensions. We have a society increasingly fractured by specialists. This is often a good thing. Someone can spend time concentrating on knowing loads about, for example, biodiversity and bees thus freeing up someone else to be an expert in sewage management, brain surgery, 15th century art, Russian cartoons of the 1970s, whatever bit of the world we want to dig into. But then how can the bee expert talk to the rest of us? Or the polar bear geneticist learn from the poet? How do we know how or if to trust the brain surgeon? Modernity can be hard work.

The comedian Robin Ince wrote an eloquent blogpost recently on what he called “the fascism of knowing stuff”. He wanted to respond to the “gaggle that seems to consider that expertise is an unfair advantage, that all opinions are equal”, taking up a stand for expertise: “Though I have my own opinions on driving, I have decided to let others do it, as I have never taken a lesson. I do not consider myself oppressed by the driving majority.” I think he’s roughly three-quarters right. Or that he’s only right with the same reservation he includes himself near the end of the post; that we should not trust people simply because they look like experts.

I agree with Ince that we shouldn’t take expertise as oppression. Indeed, applying expertise can be very liberating. But we should still be able to ask questions about it. Complacently applied expertise isn’t going to help anyone. But there’s a difference between listening to someone and asking questions and blithely assuming you already know best. I also think that experts should put work into earning public trust, not assuming it, even if the odd “mansplainer” could be a bit more receptive to such expertise when offered too.

If the emergence of the word mansplain offers us anything, I think it’s that we could all do with listening to each other a bit more.

38 thoughts on “Modernity can be hard work: On Mansplaining

  1. Penny Walker

    I love the example of Robin Ince’s expertise (or lack of it) on driving. As we consider the role of experts and expertise, and whether ‘all opinions are equal’, this example can show us how different people hold different kinds of expertise.

    A non-driving pedestrian (a child, for example) might still have legitimate opinions and even expertise to bring to a discussion about driving. For example, they could have expertise about what it’s like for them to walk to school along a pavement next to a road that drivers use. Even if you don’t accept that this is expertise (everyone is an expert in their own experience), at the very least it is a legitimate opinion.

    This doesn’t necessarily imply that all opinions are equal, but it does help us to see that people without one kind of expertise may have other expertise, perspectives and questions which add real value to discussions.

    There’s more on this over at the Sciencewise

  2. Pingback: Let me explain “mansplaining” to you » Pharyngula

  3. Hunt

    “And people outside academia do it too. Often it’s people of either gender doing it to people of colour. Or to those with a disability. Or to those a particular social class, age, or intellectual background. Prejudice is a multi-layered and complex thing.”

    In other words, it’s an inaccurate term, but you like it anyway because it’s got the word “man” in it, and well, it’s fun and trendy to dump on men. Wonderful.

    1. fatherdaddy

      I think we need a new term for those who complain about the use of “man” in combination with other words. I propose “manwhiner”. If it’s not new, it needs to be used more.

    2. Sam Peacock

      I think rather than invent a reason why the author of this piece likes the term, you should re-read the article. The author clearly states that they like the term *despite* the fact it’s not 100% ‘accurate’ because a). it identifies and allows discussion of the phenomenon and b). it’s seen as something men are particularly guilty of. Nothing to do with ‘fun’ or ‘trendiness’ – which, incidentally, are not the reason practically anyone ‘dumps on men’.

    3. Artor

      Aww, you poor, persecuted man. It must be terribly hurtful to have generalizations made about your gender. I wonder if anyone else has ever had to deal with that?

      1. Gavin Greenwalt

        That’s like saying that because white people generally are less oppressed we should be allowed to hit them with a stick whenever we see them on the street. How about we all strive to not be hypocrites and create a world free of discrimination not use past discrimination to perpetuate further discrimination?

    4. rumblestiltsken

      The generic, non-man version often used is “‘splaining”, which it appears this author does not use. It can be prefixed with anything – mansplaining for men telling women about sexism, ablesplaining for the able-bodied explaining disability to the disabled, heterosplaining for straight people telling LGBT folk what gay people are like … and so on.

      1. inquisitiveraven

        I actually prefer “straightsplaining” for straight people talking down to gay/bi folks. “Heterosplaining” just feels awkward, possibly because of the number of syllables. Trans folks get their own version: “cisplaining.”

  4. Ty Gardner

    In my department it is primarily the result of age differences with the mansplainer being male but the person receiving the mansplination being either male or female. We’ve even had a couple of the older males refer to themselves as silverbacks which I accept as a synonym for douchebag.

    1. IslandBrewer

      It was actually kind of interesting for me, while reading this, to start categorizing or pigeon holing the different demographics disposed to mansplaining. Sometimes I find graduate students among lay people are often more prone than professors (sometimes). The Dunning-Krueger-ish no nothings who mansplain are definitely their own special niche.

      It’s interesting also, when women mansplain, I see it eliciting a bigger reaction, simply because it’s a behavior we’ve become accustomed to seeing in men.

      But yeah, anyone who calls themselves a “silverback” may as well write douchebag on their forehead.

  5. Ixu

    Mansplaining may be considered to be a specific type, or perhaps the achetypal form of a larger catagory of annoying speech which could be called downsplaining.

      1. Nichodeemous

        You either forgot an “s” in there or you are thought you were on a thread about anatomical woodworking techniques for the socially inappropriate.

    1. blorf

      Did you actually read? “it’s seen as something men are especially guilty of” ring a bell? If the OP had meant “only men do this” she wouldn’t have included ” the truth is a lot of academic women do this too. Including me, all the time” would she?

      1. sambarge

        Come on now. You can’t expect Eric to maintain his outrage while actually reading things people say and understanding them.

      2. Gavin Greenwalt

        That’s like saying “it’s not all blacks, it’s just something blacks are especially guilty of”. Let’s not advance equality by abandoning our principles.

        It’s entertaining though to see how quickly people will become exactly what they hate when it’s socially acceptable for them to do so. I

        1. blorf

          But she explicitly does not say only, all, or most men do it, she says it is perceived as something men are more prone to do. We can certainly build from that to find ways to alter that perception, but we have to start that with determining why it exists. When any attempt to question it is met with cries of “help help I’m being oppressed” we’ll get nowhere.

  6. Bronze Dog

    Interesting read. I’ve seen it on occasion, so now I know a term for it. I’ve probably seen the racial equivalent, too. Being both white and male, I might have fallen into it myself, accidentally, since I loved explaining things with my knowledge of science as I was growing up, and intention isn’t magic.

    I have, however, picked up a different version of “mansplaining” from context in other threads: Attempting to rationalize or reinterpret another person’s misogynist statements or actions to dismiss the harm, offense, or change the apparent intent, often by inventing speculative circumstances around it.

  7. brucej

    Mansplaining isn’t always done just to women…my brother mansplains computer stuff to me (me: 20 year IT professional, him: maintenance guy) with great earnestness all the time.

  8. James

    Good article. Not 100% sure how I feel about the term itself.

    I think it’s pretty funny, and couldn’t care less about any man getting hurt feelings about being called on their shit. Also I couldn’t care less that it ‘generalizes’ men as Artor says – the ‘scoreboard’ is pretty damn lopsided in that area.

    My main issue is a general one I have with using controversy or provocation to advance any issue. It’s ok for calling attention to things but I just can’t shake the feeling that it’s ineffective in the long run in creating real change. What you gain in publicity you lose in the amount of opposition and rancor it generates.

    It’s just too easy to pull the “practice what you preach” card despite how bullshit that is. When it comes to convincing Jane & Joe Public, if your argument can be shot down by a simple appeal to the moral high ground by the time you’ve finished explaining the irony of how unfair that is you’ve already lost.

    At least that’s my feeling anyway. Maybe I’m mansplaining now. I’m sure more than a few of you are already saying “We’ve tried being nice for too long what the hell do you know?”

  9. Sir Real

    Personally I prefer the word ‘asshole’. You don’t to be an expert in intersectionalism to understand it.

    Yes us guys can sometimes be assholes and say stupid things to women, it comes with the territory. And women can be assholes as well. Though not as often.

    And knowing I’m more dominant as a male can be quite reassuring and lead to complacency. So I have to moniter my behaviour towards women from time to time, particularly when they get upset or annoyed, for what seems to me, no apparent reason. Then listen to them more carefully, so that I can understand what it is I’m doing or saying to upset or annoy them, and so change my behaviour in a more constructive way.

    At least that’s what my parents taught me, and after a few years in the wilderness of adolescence, I finally concurred.

    And yes I realise, amongst other things, that the personal is the political and the political is the personal, and of course it goes without saying that money makes the world go round.

    And yes, it would be a fine thing if more men took their responsibilities towards women more seriously, and even those who do could occasionally benefit from being told that from time to time.

    But I don’t need to be an expert in intersectionalism to understand that or see it through.

    And neither do you.

  10. Rrhain

    I’ve always heard it called, “Being a pompous ass.” Now, if we want to point out the underlying motivations as being rooted in sexism based upon an attitude of male superiority, then “mansplaining” makes sense.

    But as noted in the article, women do it, too. And sometimes the reason why is rooted in sexism based on an attitude of female superiority. Being a pompous ass knows no gender and is related to a feeling of being the best compared to all others. It’s not surprising that men behave this way around women given the pervasiveness of sexism, but all it takes is an attitude that you know better than everyone else to lead you down the path of obnoxiousness.

    Pompously yours….

  11. MarinaS (@marstrina)

    I must say, if putting “man” and “explain” together to highlight the fact that someone is explaining something to me that I already know is “overly judgmental”, then we have a bigger problem than inappropriate allocation of epistemic authority in the sciences.

    Which, you know, we do. Patriarchy, white supremacy* and all that.

    *”Whitesplaining” is a coinage that also exists.

    1. Sir Real

      If the person whose attitudes and behaviour you’re trying to change does not understand that he is being “overly judgemental”, then please explain to me how you think telling him he is “mansplaining” is going to do that job more effectively.

      The terms from which this derives (e.g privilege) apply to aggregates, and are meant as tools to analyse power structures in society. They are not meant as tools to improve an individual’s behaviour, or change their attitudes and values.

      The term ‘mansplaining’ automatically casts that person into a role in relation to a group, but in a way that gives that person no agency whatsoever.

      If a salesperson uses say high pressure sales methods on a customer, then they are in a clear cut role, using specific techniques towards a specific goal and representing a specific organisation. You can address that directly, either to the salesperson or the organisation and they can do something about it.

      In addition you can address sexist behaviour by explaining why it is sexist, and by defining specifically what is sexist behaviour and why. Hence the value of, for example, diversity training in the workplace, in which people get to understand exactly what they should or should not do or say in a workplace, and how that might affect work collegues and the company.

      But when I say talk to a woman at a party, I am not acting as an appointed representative for all men, and if I act in a sexist way without realising it the ‘vectors of oppression’ could come from virtually anywhere. Trying to trace that oppression back to some aggregate property such as privilege, then calling that person out on it, is a wholly ineffective way of dealing with people as individuals and it ends up just becoming another kind of objectification and othering. Its no different to telling a man to ‘man up’ or that a woman’s behaviour is ‘unladylike’.

      Trying to pursuade someone that they are oppressing you based on cultural trends of that group rather than explaining how their specific behaviour does this, is a fail. And doing it in a way that is deliberately designed to shame them simply for being a member of that group is guaranteed to put up more barriers and create hostility and pushback. Upping the ante further as a strategy reinforces the perception that you are engaging in some kind of gender battle.

      Sorry for the long spiel but its not exactly an easy topic to figure out or explain.

  12. sonofrojblake

    Leaving aside whether “pompousness” needs a gendered synonym…

    In “The Fast Show”, a British comedy of the mid-1990s, one of the performers, Arabella Weir, was frustrated by the apparent intermittent inability of the mainly male writing and performing team to even hear things she said sometimes, only to have them then repeat what she’d said and agree it was a good idea. She took the obvious revenge by writing the situation as one of the show’s running gag sketches, “Girl Men Can’t Hear”. Probably should have called it “Women Men Can’t Hear”, but small steps, eh?

  13. dracon

    As to the general point, the fact that there were ideas so stupid that only intellectuals could hold them was something first said by Orwell, who would have laughed this ridiculous term out of court.

    As to the rest of this – if you have facts to counter a supposed “expert” opinion, you won’t need to use this ridiculous term. If you do use this ridiculous term, chances are you don’t have the facts.

  14. Pingback: Morsels for the mind – 28/6/2013 › Six Incredible Things Before Breakfast

  15. pissoff

    It’s a hurtful term and a dismissive term and an inaccurate term.

    But you like it because it puts a name on something.


    Fuck off, cunt.

    Oh, I mean,

    Fuck off, Dr. Cunt, Ph.D

  16. Pingback: Post mid-winter linkspam – the summer is coming (July 2013)

  17. Sanna

    Prejudice is a very bad thing among peoples .Often it’s people of either gender doing it to people of color. Or to those with a disability. Or to those a particular social class, age, or intellectual background. God created this beautiful world but in this world people makes many prejudice . Which is very bad for humans lives. keep posting


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