Mansplaining

Rebecca Solnit

Mansplaining is a pejorative term meaning ‘(of a man) to comment on or explain something to a woman in a condescending, overconfident, and often inaccurate or oversimplified manner.’ Lily Rothman, of ‘The Atlantic,’ defines it as “‘explaining without regard to the fact that the explainee knows more than the explainer, often done by a man to a woman.’

In its original use, mansplaining differed from other forms of condescension in that it is rooted in the assumption that a man is likely to be more knowledgeable than a woman. However, it has come to be used more broadly, often applied when a man takes a condescending tone in an explanation to anyone, regardless of the age or gender of the intended recipients: a ‘man ‘splaining’ can be delivered to any audience.

The verb ‘splain’ has been in use for more than 200 years, originally as a colloquial pronunciation of the Late Middle English word explain. It came increasingly to refer to condescending or verbose explanations.

The term mansplaining was inspired by an essay, ‘Men Explain Things to Me: Facts Didn’t Get in Their Way,’ written by Rebecca Solnit and published on TomDispatch.com in 2008. In the essay, Solnit told an anecdote about a man at a party who said he had heard she had written some books. She began to talk about her most recent, on pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge, whereupon the man cut her off and asked if she had ‘heard about the very important Muybridge book that came out this year’—not considering that it might be (as, in fact, it was) Solnit’s book. Solnit did not use the word mansplaining in the essay, but she described the phenomenon as ‘something every woman knows.’

Solnit later published ‘Men Explain Things to Me’ (2014), a collection of seven essays on similar themes. Women, including professionals and experts, are routinely seen or treated as less credible than men, she wrote in the title essay, and their insights or even legal testimony are dismissed unless validated by a man. She argued that this was one symptom of a widespread phenomenon that ‘keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence.’

In 2018, during a lecture at Moe’s Books in Berkeley, California, Solnit said, ‘I’m falsely credited with coining the term ‘mansplaining’. It was a 2010 New York Times word of the year. I did not actually coin it. I was a bit ambivalent about the word because it seems a little bit more condemnatory of the male of the species than I ever wanted it to be.’

Journalists have used the word to describe Mitt Romney, Donald Trump, Rick Perry, Matt Damon, MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell, various characters on the HBO drama series ‘The Newsroom,’ music executive Jimmy Iovine, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, and consumer rights advocate Ralph Nader.

Mansplaining has also engendered parallel constructions such as ‘womansplaining,’ ‘whitesplaining,’ ‘rightsplaining,’ and ‘Damonsplaining.’

The usefulness of the term has been disputed. Given its gender-specific nature and negative connotation, ‘Huffington Post’ writer Lesley Kinzel described it as inherently biased, essentialist, dismissive, and a double standard. In a 2016 ‘Washington Post’ article, Cathy Young wrote that it is just one of a number of terms using ‘man’ as a derogatory prefix, and that this convention is part of a ‘current cycle of misandry.’ In 2014 Solnit herself said she had doubts about it: ‘[I]t seems to me to go a little heavy on the idea that men are inherently flawed this way, rather than that some men explain things they shouldn’t and don’t hear things they should.’ As the word became more popular, several commentators complained that misappropriation had diluted its original meaning.

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