What Exactly Is Mansplaining And How Do I Know If I’m Doing It?

The ides of March are here! I’m just thankful I don’t have to give exams any more. Let’s get started.

 E asked: 

What exactly is mansplaining and how do I know if I’m doing it?

Dear E,

I can do no better than to point you towards Rebecca Solnit’s excellent essay “Men Explain Things To Me”. To quote from the essay (which you should really read in full): “Every woman knows what I’m talking about. It’s the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; 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.”

Closer home, my favourite recent example is the whole Karan Johar-Kangana Ranaut spat. Ranaut was invited as a guest on his show. She implied that she had been waiting for this invitation for some time, and only now, as an acclaimed actress, was Johar paying attention to her. She also went on to make several very valid points about nepotism in Bollywood, and how it’s a bit of an old boys club—someone’s son or daughter or niece is instantly picked up and made a darling of, someone from “nowhere important” is made to feel like an upstart, an intruder, an outsider, no matter how many times they prove themselves. Ranaut said she was done pandering to this, and many people applauded her honesty.

Confession: I’ve read Johar’s memoir “An Unsuitable Boy”, mostly out of curiosity (he seems such a secretive, fascinating man), but also the way we all read celeb autobiographies, to rubberneck at the wild incidents that happened in their lives, to feel like we’re a part of it too, that we somehow know this person through their perfectly curated anecdotes. I admired Johar for being open-ish about his sexuality, even though he never came out and said it, and I even had some sympathy for him when people tried to force him to come out. All this to say how startled I was to find it so lacking in self-awareness, mostly a collection of whines. It began wonderfully, Johar talking about his relationship with himself as a chubby young boy, his relationship with his beloved father, but then suddenly derailed into a laundry list of people he took against. Like Kareena Kapoor for daring to ask for as much money as Shah Rukh Khan for a movie. Or Kajol for some fight he had with her husband and how she took her husband’s side. When I finished it, I wondered why a man with as many privileges as Johar has had would still feel like the whole world was out to get him.

It’s that attitude that brought him to mansplain away Ranaut’s statements on his show as “I don’t know if she knows what nepotism means.” This is classic: mansplaining takes a subject you — as a woman — have said something about and then very gently but very firmly explains to you why you’re wrong. Mansplainers don’t wait for reasoning or even entertain the thought that they might be wrong and you might be wrong. In the opening of Solnit’s essay, she tells a man about a book she’s just written and he says, “Oh but have you heard about this other very famous book on the subject?” The book he’s referring to turns out to be the one she wrote.

It also reminds me of a friend’s description of her toddler: Oh, she’s at that stage where she thinks she knows everything! Yes. These mansplaining men have never left that stage, and therefore their world is narrow. No room for other voices, if the other voices are women. Many men don’t do this, but enough do that you’re wary at a party when you explain your area of expertise and they fix you with a piercing eye and say, “Well, actually…” Beware the “well, actuallys”.

How do you know you’re doing it? Watch out for your next conversation, whether online or offline, with a woman who is telling you what she does. Do you jump in to tell her she’s wrong? That’s mansplaining. Do you tell a woman it’s impossible for the thing they’ve experienced to have happened because of the random statistics you’ve read in an old Economist article on the subject? That’s mansplaining.

Now you know what to watch out for, your response should change to “Tell me more.” Who knows? You might learn something.

Love,
Aunty Feminist

Aunty Feminist loves to hear from her readers! If you’d like her to answer a burning question you might have, send it to us at [email protected] or tweet your questions to @reddymadhavan.

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