14 December 2013


Since there's a bit of a tendency to use the word sloppily, Karen Healy describes nicely what “mansplaining” does and does not include.

Mansplaining isn't just the act of explaining while male, of course; many men manage to explain things every day without in the least insulting their listeners.

Mansplaining is when a dude tells you, a woman, how to do something you already know how to do, or how you are wrong about something you are actually right about, or miscellaneous and inaccurate “facts” about something you know a hell of a lot more about than he does.

Bonus points if he is explaining how you are wrong about something being sexist!

Think about the men you know. Do any of them display that delightful mixture of privilege and ignorance that leads to condescending, inaccurate explanations, delivered with the rock-solid conviction of rightness and that slimy certainty that of course he is right, because he is the man in this conversation?

That dude is a mansplainer.

To my knowledge, the ur-article on the subject is the wonderful Rebecca Solnit's Men Explain Things To Me.

.... the out-and-out confrontational confidence of the totally ignorant is, in my experience, gendered. Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about. Some men.


I began to speak only of the most recent [of my books] on that summer day in 2003, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, my book on the annihilation of time and space and the industrialization of everyday life.

He cut me off soon after I mentioned Muybridge. “And have you heard about the very important Muybridge book that came out this year?”

So caught up was I in my assigned role as ingénue that I was perfectly willing to entertain the possibility that another book on the same subject had come out simultaneously and I’d somehow missed it. He was already telling me about the very important book—with that smug look I know so well in a man holding forth, eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority.

Here, let me just say that my life is well-sprinkled with lovely men, with a long succession of editors who have, since I was young, listened and encouraged and published me, with my infinitely generous younger brother, with splendid friends of whom it could be said–like the Clerk in The Canterbury Tales I still remember from Mr. Pelen’s class on Chaucer—”gladly would he learn and gladly teach.” Still, there are these other men, too. So, Mr. Very Important was going on smugly about this book I should have known when Sallie interrupted him to say, “That’s her book.” Or tried to interrupt him anyway.

But he just continued on his way. She had to say, “That’s her book” three or four times before he finally took it in. And then, as if in a nineteenth-century novel, he went ashen. That I was indeed the author of the very important book it turned out he hadn’t read, just read about in the New York Times Book Review a few months earlier, so confused the neat categories into which his world was sorted that he was stunned speechless–for a moment, before he began holding forth again.


Usage of ’splain has grown more expansive in both good and bad ways. It's become a more general social justice term of art:

Splaining or ’Splaining is a form of condescension in which a member of a privileged group explains something to a member of a marginalised group — most particularly, explains about their marginalization — as if the privileged person knows more about it. Examples include (but are not limited to) a man explaining sexism to a woman, or a white person explaining racism to a black person.

I can think of countless examples of a White guy being egregiously racist, then telling Black critics that obviously they don't understand racism, oh no, but he does, and there is nothing racist at all about what he has done. It's not hard to recognize the problem there, value having a name for it, and insist on rejecting ’splaining as an illegitimate move that we should reject outright.

But this is slippery. If a man disagrees with a woman about something, and then she calls it out as sexist, and he expresses his skepticism about the sexism involved, then he is “explaining sexism to a woman” and thus ’splaining, yes? Familiar, odious examples of this leap to mind ... but this same turn makes it possible for a woman to frame any disagreement as sexism and then lock out any disagreement as further sexism.

I think we can recognize that dodgy accusations of sexism are a long, long way from being a pressing social problem but also recognize how people in activist culture have been known to shut down discussion with facile versions of this move, which is not the healthiest thing for our ability to discuss and dig into how sexism and racism and other injustices work.

Beyond that, Katy Waldman observes how ’splaining has leaked out of social justice rhetoric into the world at large.

Meanwhile, -splain has ’sploded in its own right. The writer Annabel Crabb coined the term ladysplain to characterize how some women couch their comments in self-deprecation and apology. The site Femsplain appears to want to reclaim -splain. Specific people can -splain—GQ crowned one Republican candidate “The Mittsplainer” in 2012—and so can publications (Voxsplain) and entire industries (techsplain). Bras outfitted with sensors can bras plain your feelings to you. Forbes recruited the feline Mr. Higgs to catsplain the finer points of computer-generated text.

She offers a crisp description of a usage beyond the social justice context that focuses on the spirit of its original meaning.

At its heart, -splain should be about the marriage of two concepts: irony and information asymmetry. In economics, information asymmetry describes transactions “where one party has more or better information than the other”—an imbalance that can lead to market failure. When I Waldsplain to my co-worker, I believe I am correcting an information asymmetry that, in fact, runs in the opposite direction. That’s the irony: My misapprehension of the situation only worsens the skew. Cue conversation failure.

But we no longer just use -splain to highlight ironic information asymmetries in conversation.

I like her proposal. (It even speaks to the one and only usage of “womansplaining” in a social justice context that I think might be defensible.)

But I worry that Waldman is right that the word's usefulness is slipping away.

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