Mansplaining



I recently had the pleasure of learning yet again from one of my favorite teachers, seventeen-year-old Grady, my oldest grandson. Grady has an intuitive and nuanced sense of humor, with refined timing and tempo. We were at his mother, my daughter’s home, nearing dinner time, standing around in the kitchen, chatting. Quietly, Grady, in a serious (and condescending voice) began “mansplaining” the term “mansplaining” to his younger sister, then turned and included me in his supercilious lesson plan. I was startled at first, later laughing as he eventually pointed out what a great joke this was…a man mansplaining the concept of mansplaining to women, using impeccably patronizing mansplaining skills and style. He then told me that many people didn’t get the joke.


My first reaction to Grady’s mansplaining was shock. I couldn’t believe he was actually explaining this concept to me, and had a spontaneous impulse to explain “right back at him”. I realized I have an intense visceral response to mansplaining. It seemed to me the first third of my career was one endless and repetitious cycle of exactly that: incessant mansplaining. It gradually diminished, never fully disappeared. Hence, I was taken aback because I didn’t want Grady acting this way. And his delivery was excellent: purposeful, focused, and effective. I was totally engaged in my emotional response to his charade. I could see why others might not see it was a joke. They too may have mansplaining PTSD.


According to Wikipedia, the term mansplaining emerged on April 13, 2008 in an essay by Rebecca Solnit in TomDispatch.com. She was writing about her experiences of men explaining things to her. She must have struck a chord: by 2010 it was named by the New York Times as one of its “Words of the Year” and two years later the American Dialect Society nominated it as the “most creative” new word of 2012.


Now ensconced in dictionaries, the least charged definition of mansplaining I could find was “to explain something to a woman in a condescending way that assumes she has no knowledge about the topic.” Some definitions indicate that the man himself has limited information about what he is explaining, others that the woman has substantially more information than the man doing the explaining, and most emphasize the condescension with colorful language.


Eventually, as the concept seeped into our cultural discourse, discussions emerged about the “derogatory” tone of the term, and its capacity to potentially do harm to mansplaining men. Concern pointed to the perception that the term was dismissive of men, and exemplified the emergence of “misandry” (“dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against men”). Really!!!


I am always fascinated with the emergence of these kinds of concerns. I agree. It is derogatory. So is the behavior it describes. It seems to me the impact of this derogatory behavior is far more damaging than the impact of having it called out with an obviously irreverent (but somewhat amusing) descriptor. Somehow the often-public diminishment of women that can do real harm to these women is itself diminished as we attend to the discomfort that calling out behaviors such as “mansplaining” can create. I have sat through long and painful mansplaining meetings and conferences. At some point, accommodating men acting this way is actually harmful to them. Really!!!


There are a myriad of practices and beliefs in our culture that harm men, many in deeply destructive ways. They have harmed men I care deeply about, and I find them reprehensible. Among other things, I don’t want them to be part of the templates presented to Grady as he crafts his “early-times” story of what it means to be a man. I think we need to identify these harmful practices and beliefs publicly, challenge them, and change them. I do not support prejudice against men; I also do not support protecting men from the consequences of their actions. Really!!!


The only time I experience mansplaining these days is in brief exchanges I have with men who are generationally my “peers”: either members of the “traditional” or the “boomer” generations. They appear to be unaware that they are mansplaining and it looks strangely tragic. It appears to be a largely unconscious habit that inflates the mansplainer’s sense of self.


Which takes me back to Grady. When I asked his permission to tell this story, he wanted me to make sure that I indicated that this was not his original joke but he had gotten it from someone else. Grady has virtually memorized the scripts of all seasons of the TV comedy series “The Office”. He has a lot of respect for avoiding plagiarism, especially when it comes to humor. That this was his primary concern says something about him and his generation.


I am an unapologetic fan of Gen Z, Grady’s generation. I am fascinated with how they see the world, how they express that belief, and how they clearly will not replicate the patterns of the significant “adults” in their lives. They find the world they are inheriting disturbing at best. I believe this story about Grady serves as a great example of how they experience and respond to the stuff that shapes their encounters with the “adults” in their lives.


They learned about mansplaining. They knew it was essentially bizarre. They didn’t get sucked into soul searching explorations of derogatory possibilities. They also didn’t get mean-spirited or cruel and attack mansplainers or those who critiqued them. No, they knew the whole thing was hilarious, and opted for humor. It was even funny enough to try it on your grandmother. And yes, I consider it a compliment that he tried it on me.


Hard to keep mansplaining when everyone around you is laughing. Gen Z for me is both hope and possibility! They seem to intuitively realize that laughter is far more healing and catalytic than attack and violence. Time to recall a prior OWLcourage posting (Humor 1.0): “You laugh at what you no longer fear.”


“Manspread, mansplaining, manterrupting – all of it, whether conscious or not, diminishes women’s voices, minds and bodies.”


- Faith Salie -


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