Mansplaining

I am very proud to be friends with Karen Healey, who popularised the term “mansplaining,” which is now out and living a merry life of its own on the intramanets. Bless you, Karen!

Mansplaining according to Karen is

[w]hen 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!

Many have objected to this formulation as sexist claiming that women do it too. Nuh uh. SKM from Shakesville explains:

[M]en’s opinions and ideas are privileged over women’s, and men often receive positive feedback for holding forth, while women tend to be punished for doing the same. Anyone who has been chastised by a supervisor for being “too aggressive” while male coworkers were praised as “go-getters” for similar behavior knows what I’m talking about.

I saw this happen at a library conference at the bar, with only six men present (authors, not librarians), three of whom managed to ignore everything said by the women present. Including stuff that was then repeated by one of the men present and then applauded. I had to get up and leave I was so annoyed. So did several of the other women. But did we say anything at the time? No, because we’ve been so carefully trained not to call men on their sexism. It would have been rude and killjoy and just the kind of thing those no-fun feminists do. So, none of us did. Oh, and one of those men later noted to me that he couldn’t believe how much one of the women authors present (who had barely managed to get a word in) had talked. No, his head did not explode.

More from SKM:

Gender-neutral words for “mansplanation”-type behavior include great terms like “rule-crapping” and “info-dumping.” As much as I like these concepts, though, they remove reference to the male privilege that makes mansplaining what it is. Mansplaining is not just holding forth; it’s holding forth by someone who has the force of society behind him. A girl or woman can be a tiresome know-it-all, but she won’t be praised and supported in her efforts while those around her are discouraged from showing her up.

Seen and experienced this too many times to recount.

There is, of course, one situation where some women do engage in a similar behaviour. It’s called whitesplaining and often involves a white person explaining to a person of colour how they are wrong about something being racist. Often the whitesplainer will twist things around so much in the process of their whitesplaining that they wind up “demonstrating” to the person of colour how they are in fact racist for having brought up the subject of racism.

No, their heads don’t explode.

Side note: Just as a general rule if you ever find yourself in a position where you are explaining to someone who has lived experience on the subject at hand when you don’t, then perhaps you might want to, you know, shut up. Also listen. Examples run the gamut from telling someone whose name is Linda that their name means “beautiful” cause you just learned that in Spanish (you know, typically, people know what their own names mean)1 through to explaining Judaism to someone who is actually Jewish2.

In conclusion: Mansplaining and whitesplaining? Don’t do it.

Before someone says so in the comments:

No one is saying that all men mansplain. Many of my best friends are men who don’t. Hell, I even married a non-mansplaining man. Nor do all white people whitesplain. I sure as hell hope I never have. But my apologies if I ever have. I know better now.

  1. Um, yes, I did this. []
  2. Might have done this one too. Why am I alive? In my defence I was young. REALLY young. Also possibly drunk. I hope I was, anyways. This was before I became a YA writer and stopped drinking because YA writers don’t drink. []

46 comments

  1. JojoLindsey on #

    Cool cool cool. Justine you are such an inspiration to me when i’m writing. I just LOVE your books. The are AMAZING!!! I am an aspiring writer and you and Scott are both great inspirations.

  2. Megan on #

    THANK YOU. What a great term! I have actually gotten into arguments with some male friends of mine whom I love dearly but do not seem to understand when I tell them that sometimes they do, in fact, say sexist things. Generally they’re more respectful of women than most guys, but they do slip up sometimes.

    Also re: whitesplaining, a (white) female friend of mine used the “they were casting for talent” excuse when I tried to persuade her what was so wrong with the Airbender movie casting. Uh huh. I’m sorry for being offended when my culture is whitewashed and the movie makers think that someone who looks like me wouldn’t sell tickets. (She’s still going to see it, apparently.)

  3. Kay on #

    I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me and other female TV writer friends. Most egregiously, (male) showrunners have the tendency to ignore a female writer’s idea until one of the male writers comes up with it. This showrunner then criticizes the female writer for being too quiet in the room.

    Apparently, irony deserts them as well…

  4. Lori S. on #

    Ha! I just posted in praise of mansplaining myself!

  5. Jude on #

    My friend Justin annoys the heck out of me because every time I take care of his dog he emails me about the right way to take care of his dog even though I took care of his dog for 2 and a half months before he was able to find a place to live in which allowed pets. I called him on it just yesterday because tomorrow I’m taking care of his dog.

  6. Jen on #

    I go to a university that is prominently known for it’s engineering program, so their are a lot of engineering students and well over 60% of them are male (this percentage varies with the type of engineering). Anyway, these guys are pretty cool, but every once in awhile I’ll point out a better way of doing something… something practical like, “maybe scissors would work better than your pocket knife” and they’ll say,”oh, now you’re thinking like an engineer”. And I always want to shout, “NO, I’m thinking like a normal person! You just need to go to school to learn how to do that!” Anyway… the term mansplaining reminded me of those situations. Like these guys feel their area of study gives them a monopoly on intelligent thinkng. The term mansplaining is brillant!

  7. Tim on #

    I’m curious, because I’ve had this discussion with friends before but I’m wondering what you think on this.

    I’m an English major, so I have to do a lot of text interpretation and the like, and one of the big things that’s come up is when I disagree with people about whether a text is racist/sexist/homophobic because I disagree with certain readings of the text. I have, however, had people say to me that because I’m not black/female/LGBT that I can’t possibly understand. Which, honestly, I think is a little bit unfair.

    So I guess I’m asking (and this is out of genuine curiosity, not out of RAR I AM WHITE MALE-rage) is: because I’m not black/female/LGBT does that mean that I can’t have a valid opinion on whether something is or isn’t racist/sexist/homophobic?

  8. Aiden on #

    I’d like to suggest a second term, manslation, which happened in a client meeting I was in just now. My female boss explained something to the client, and her male employee immediately said “I think what [boss's name] is trying to say is…” as if he needed to translate her crazy woman-talk for the men around the table. This happened about four times throughout the meeting.

  9. scott on #

    Tim- If you’re listening to what other people are saying in these classrooms, then obviously you’re not doing any mansplaining. And, of course, anyone can have a valid point of view about racism, sexism, and homophobia. I think it’s pretty clear that Justine thinks white people can talk about racism.

    But you’re bringing it up here and now, which redirects this particular conversation onto the subject of how straight white males are silenced, which is a vanishingly rare situation in our society (even in English classrooms). And there is something problematic about that.

  10. Justine on #

    Megan: Absolutely. Do not get me started on the casting of Last Airbender. Grrrr.

    Kay: A dear friend of mine has been (and is) a TV writer in Australia and the UK and says exactly the same thing. It drives her nuts. I kill them with my mind for you.

    Lori S.: Is a truly needful word.

    Jude: My commiserations.

    Jen: Aaargh. I have known a few female engineers and they had endless tales of mansplaining engineers. Also mansplaining clients who couldn’t wrap their heads around there being female engineers in the world.

    Aiden: Oh my Elvis! Yes! I have seen that! I have had that happen to me! Drives me nuts! Aargh!

  11. Tim on #

    Thanks Scott for taking the time to answer. My post was mainly based around the paragraph of Justine’s about Whitesplaining and the point about white people telling someone of colour that something isn’t racist.

    Though in my case it’s happened in (predominantly female) classrooms about sexism where my opinion been cast aside simply because I’m a man and I “just wouldn’t understand” (quote taken verbatim). Which, on one hand, is true because I’ve never had to experience that kind of discrimination, but I also think I’m entitled to discuss it on an intellectual level without having my opinions cast aside simply because I’m not a woman.

    I apologise, the link to Justine’s post seems extremely tangential when reading my original post, but made sense in my head. I suppose this is why I should take time to plan out my comments a bit better for clarity.

  12. Amy on #

    Um, I think I’m a mansplainer!

    OK, _technically_ I can’t be, because I’m a woman, but I definitely get into that mode at times. Much more often when I was younger than now – I think it was a learned behavior, copied from those around me ;)

  13. AliceB on #

    Thank you so much for the word! It drives me crazy when this happens. When I was younger, I thought it was because I was, well, young, and that it’d happen less often as I got older. Now I realize age has nothing to do with it. In fact I think it only gets worse: I can still remember times when my mother-in-law (then in her 70s) made sensible suggestions that were ignored until one of her sons or her husband suggested it, too.

  14. E. Lockhart on #

    Well, Justine, you are just awesome as usual. Good morning!

  15. Tim on #

    Also, I do feel the need to point out that the phenomenon described in Aiden’s post is not a gender-exclusive phenomenon. I see it happen all the time with women trying to explain for men. That said, I can agree that it’s as annoying as all hell.

    I think the biggest thing to remember is that regardless of the gender of the offending person, this kind of behaviour is just downright rude and pretentious. I’ve been on the receiving end of whatever the female version of ‘mansplaining’ is and it’s not nice. I imagine this frustration is only amplified when women are raised in a society that tries to force them to sit back and look pretty for the big, strong, smart men. Men need to work harder to create an environment in which women are listened to as much as men are, and where women are encouraged to speak up and give their valuable input too.

  16. Shveta Thakrar on #

    *applauds*

    Scott, wonderful reply, too.

  17. Mal on #

    I’m female and I’ve seen women do what Aiden calls manslation (brilliant word!) too: “I think what so-and-so meant was….” It’s obnoxious, to be sure. What’s interesting to me is the gendered difference in the reactions. Justine describes men in a bar applauding each other for repeating what someone else has just said (or only *hearing* it when a man says it); when a woman does it, it is often met with resentment and a smackdown–women being arrogant get seen as arrogant; men being arrogant get seen as knowledgeable. Something like that.

    Deborah Tannen writes about gendered communication styles in You Just Don’t Understand in some interesting ways.

  18. Linda on #

    Being named Linda, and also being Jewish, I can relate to a lot of this. If I had a nickel for everytime someone tells me that I’m supposedly practiciing my religion incorrectly, or comes up all excitedly saying that they can tell me what my name means, I’d be freaking RICH.

  19. Melinda on #

    Um, YA writers don’t drink? Does this mean I can’t write YA??

    Love this post.

  20. Justine on #

    Amy: No, you can’t be a mansplainer. There’s nothing “technical” about it. Yes, women can be rude and obnoxious. We can whitesplain too, but we cannot mansplain.

    We’re talking about systems of oppression. The world we live in privileges what men say over what women say. So even when women are saying the same things and being rude in the same way it does not carry the same weight.

  21. Cynthia Leitich Smith on #

    “often involves a white person explaining to a person of colour how they are wrong about something being racist.”

    This is occasionally augmented by folks further explaining that they are really *honoring* you and then congratulating themselves on their sensitivity.

    Not that this has ever happened to me. Cough. ;) But if it did, I would be hyper reasonable about the whole thing because my other choice is…?

  22. KatG on #

    Karen Healey also just did a really great blog post on the cover issues: http://karenhealey.livejournal.com/852193.html. Her book sounds great, so now I’ll have to get that one too.

    Tim: The problem isn’t with you forming a view of whether something is racist/homophobic/sexist; it’s if you assert that your view is the correct one for all. If you say that you are seeing a text or thing this way, and aren’t, say, getting the sexism, but then you’re a guy, and are willing to listen to why women feel it is sexist — to the other perspective — then that’s usually a way to have a dialogue. But if you assert that it isn’t sexist and the women shouldn’t see it in that interpretation, then you are calling the opinion of those who have the most experience with assessing the issue — who live with it daily – invalid, that their opinion doesn’t count as much as yours — the guy who belongs to the group that has long said their group doesn’t count. And you’re reacting to things that don’t effect you — and thus don’t seem so problematic — but very much effect them, and then saying that they shouldn’t be effected.

    Essentially, if you are white, you don’t get to decide what non-whites see as racist. If you’re male, you don’t get to decide what women see as sexist. And if you’re straight, you don’t get to decide what gays see as homophobic. And it’s very hard to do because I honestly think that most people don’t want there to be prejudices and so often don’t see it. But when something is not aimed at you, you have to be willing to listen to those whom it is aimed at, listen and not correct.

  23. Daniel Abraham on #

    Well, speaking as a straight white guy, the insight *I* can bring to this discussion which (of course) puts it all in perspective for the rest of you people is . . . um . . . (adjusts tie, looks nervous)

    Yeah, it’s a fair cop. I’ve done it. I’m not proud.

    In fairness, I’ve also had what it means to be a straight white guy explained to me by people whose opinions didn’t match my own, but a bunch of those were also straight white guys. FWIW.

  24. Annalee Flower Horne on #

    I joined a pick-up Hunter: The Reckoning game at a convention once. “Ever played before?” The GM asked me. “I run a Hunter campaign at school,” I said, and plopped my set of hunter-branded D10s on the table.

    For the next half hour, the gentleman sitting next to me proceeded to lean over and “explain” everything the GM said. Everytime he did it, I replied with some variation of “Thanks, I know the rules.” (well, at the top of the hour. Towards the six, it sounded more like “dude, I KNOW THE RULES.”). Eventually, I got sick of it, picked up my dice and wandered off to the con suite. Throughout the course of the rest of the con, every person who’d been at the table other than Mansplainer came up to me to apologize for him.

    Sadly, I mean “apologize” in the classic sense of explaining why I should have been ok with his behavior, not in the sense of “yeah, he was being a sexist tool and we were wrong to let him keep at it until it ruined the game for you.”

    I don’t game at cons anymore.

  25. Debbie Cowens on #

    I wish I had known about the term mansplaining when I was pregnant. Few things attract the mansplanations as much as a pregnancy. All of a sudden guys you don’t even know that well, and sometimes complete strangers, come up and tell you ‘helpfully’ tell you everything you should and should not be doing. It’s like for 9 months people think they have the right to tell you what to eat (as well as what you definitely MUST NOT eat), how much you should be eating, how much sleep to have, how you should be swimming/doing yoga/ playing Mozart directly to your belly every night, how you definitely shouldn’t be lifting anything/working so late/standing in the staff kitchen whilst a microwave is being used just because they read an article on listeria in the newspaper or know about what someone else did when they were pregnant.

    I think lots of people see the pregnancy as the foremost importance, and the woman herself is secondary. It’s a weird form of discrimation and because it’s only a temporary state, a lot women put up with interference that they normally wouldn’t. Plus if the woman doesn’t follow, or at least appear to appreciate, the dictatorial advice, she’s obviously selfish and doesn’t care enough about the well being of her unborn foetus.

  26. Rachel Wilson on #

    Ahhh, thank you, thank you, thank you for leading me to so many interesting places with this post and the following one.

  27. Nin Harris on #

    Thank you so much for writing this, I have been EXTREMELY grumpy about this for quite some time in my life. Not just “mansplaining”, but “whitesplaining” which happens to me quite often.

  28. Holly Black on #

    That is a wonderful coinage. I have no doubt I’ll be using “mansplaining” a lot. I remember a guy I used to know who would explain how to write novels. He was a writer and unpublished and no matter where I was with my career, he had no compuctions about setting me straight regarding the “right way” to plot and outline.

  29. barry on #

    worth noting that this is a huge problem with class as well.

    If you’re explaining why you’re not classist to someone who’s working class, shut up.

    Even if you’re an academic.

    ESPECIALLY if you’re an academic.

  30. KatG on #

    I got to use mansplaining today. It’s actually an incredibly useful term. Thank you Karen, and thanks Justine for bringing it to our attention.

  31. serehfa on #

    This is well put; naming gives you some power over something; thankyou.

    The situations above exemplify my engineering career experience. This has resonated so strongly with me its nearly opened up the cracks again!

    Hearing your own words repeated in a meeting by a male colleague who is listened to? Yes. For a while I used this as a tool to get what I wanted, but got to see my puppets getting the rewards.

    After 20 years of the above, and watching far less capable male friends and relatives get pushed into leadership roles, I have given up and changed career into the more female dominated area. Oh, for changed career, read, started again at the bottom instead of getting recognition for 20 years of experience I have. Oh and wait again, did I say female dominated? Wrong. The key players are still male and still think they run the joint.

    I’m beginning to understand why disenfranchised people retaliate with (socially inappropriate behaviour); its just I have been socialised into silence and submission and cannot lift a hand.

    I can lift a finger, though! Salute!

    PS There was an article in the APESMA journal about abusive behaviour towards female engineering students at Universities in Australia; just as I was realising, thank goodness it wasn’t just me, I realised – it wasn’t just me.

  32. ClareSnow on #

    Thank you for these two posts. I read them backwards, but I have to comment on something totally off topic, which you said not to in the second post, but I’m doing it anyway to see if you don’t mind.

    I never knew YA authors didn’t drink. But now I know why YA novels can never, ever have kids drinking in them :P (I’m only a YA author in my notebook and computer, but my story involves lotsa drinking, which may derail any hopes I have of publication. I am in Australia, so perhaps I have a slight chance.)

  33. Jon Arntson on #

    As a gay man, I’m just curious about where I’m supposed to fit into this.

    I know it’s not about me, I get that, but I’m just wondering.

    I think I choose INDIVIDUAL.

  34. Jodie on #

    Umm wow I think this may be the reason why when I’m at work I get called ‘quiet’ (learned to be because you guys don’t want to hear me talk) but around my female friends they just don’t get that characterisation of me at all. I think it applies to banter as well, a bunch of blokes can be as jokily insulting to men as they like, try to join in and you get shot down and you know people are calling you a bitch behind your back.

  35. Diane Silver on #

    Brilliant, absolutely brilliant. Thank you, Justine.

  36. Ray Davis on #

    Mansplaining never dies, it just gets old. From The Female Man, thirty-five years ago:

    EIGHTEEN-YEAR-OLD MALE COLLEGE FRESHMAN (laying down the law at a party): If Marlowe had lived, he would have written very much better plays than Shakespeare’s.

    ME, A THIRTY-FIVE-YEAR-OLD PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH (dazed with boredom): Gee, how clever you are to know about things that never happened.

    THE FRESHMAN (bewildered): Huh?

    One year after Russ’s novel came Delany’s Trouble on Triton, which is kinda about the way science fiction (as a genre of explanation) and mansplaining go together: we listen to this guy from the fascinating future tell us everything about everything until he’s contradicted and undermined himself so many times that even he can’t ignore it anymore. And he had to become a woman to finally get to that point.

  37. Leah Raeder on #

    #31, your story gave me a chill. I worked (past tense) in new media as a designer, in a company full of programmers and hardware techs. I was the only woman in the company who didn’t work at the front desk.

    To their credit, my colleagues were all intelligent guys who, for the most part, had made apparent efforts to be fair to women. And I did eventually rise to the role of de facto creative director.

    The thing was, the mansplaining never stopped. It was mostly in the form of manslation, with male colleagues taking my words and simply rephrasing them, then enjoying the credit for my ideas, suggestions, criticism, etc.

    A few instances still stick sorely in my mind. “[Blank] isn’t the right word for it. It’s [blankity-blank].” (Synonyms.) “I can explain what she’s saying more clearly.” (Repeated what I said in equally clear terms.) “Why don’t you just let me handle those [design] decisions.” (Said by someone who had no authority over me and wasn’t even a part of the design process.)

    It wasn’t the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) misogyny that drove me to leave, but that attitude is definitely part of why I’m not going back to the field. It isn’t worth the endless bombardment of tiny bee sting misogynies. This male superiority complex is especially entrenched, unfortunately, with nerdy/geeky men, as they’ve had to endure years of ridicule at the hands of the brawn-over-brain types.

    Well, forget that. I’ll be my own boss in a field where I should be a natural, since we women never shut up, right?

  38. Joe Iriarte on #

    I certainly don’t dispute the existence of privilege, but I think it’s inaccurate to conclude that one group is privileged over others in all situations. (Just most of them. *grin*)

    When my wife and I adopted our kids, I was the one who took leave from work and did the baby thing. I changed the diapers. I went to speech and physical therapy. I went on the playdates and to the parties at Build-A-Bear and what have you. Neither my wife nor I have ever felt comfortable with society’s proscribed gender roles for us, and having me be the stay-at-home while she was the breadwinner felt more natural to us.

    But let me tell you that in a group of mothers at Gymboree, my observations and experiences were worth less than nothing. Let me tell you that in settings where I was not a “regular,” the mothers that were present tended to assume I would not be comfortable changing a diaper and offered to do it for me–an offer that was not made for other mothers. I had women give me information that was either obvious or sometimes wrong about nutrition, fashion, bath rituals, you name it.

    Society reinforces this. There is a local parenting website with some name like iMom. Commercials tell us what products are Mother Approved, what medicine is tested by Doctor Mom, what peanut butter chosen by Choosy Moms, and so on and so on and so on.

    And the thing is, this is sexism against women*. Because if we buy into the notion that only women are equipped to parent, then it naturally follows that men’s skills leave them better equipped in some other realm, doesn’t it? It reinforces that whole phony dichotomy where women are the nurturers and men are the go-getters.

    Anyway, I don’t want to take anything away from your point, because I think it’s spot on. But you suggested in a couple of places that women were capable of rudeness, but not of rudeness springing from privilege because they don’t have any privilege by virtue of being women. I felt like I needed to throw my two cents in. As your whitesplaining example shows, this is typical behavior whenever one outlook is privileged, and privilege comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes.

    *Actually, that’s not quite what I believe. I think sexism, more blatantly than other -isms even, cuts two ways. It tells my wife that she’s not a proper woman if she’s not all jumper dresses and bake sales, and it tells me that I’m not a proper man if I like romantic stories, raising kids, cooking, and talking about my feelings.

  39. Kamy Wicoff on #

    Wow, love the term, love this thread. Justine, really glad to have found your blog! Got here by way of a comment from Julie Polk, a member of my site (She Writes), who was responding to a post I did about the fact that every single editor Houghton Mifflin Harcourt chose to edit its 2010 “Best American” anthologies is a white man. Which of course is not sexist.

  40. Erastes on #

    I particularly love the one where you’ve just explained something, and then a man has to translate and says exactly the same thing. *beats head on desk*

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