Updated: Jun 6
Mansplaining - why do we men do it?
And I mean Mansplaining in the broad sense here, to approach its pervasive elements. I will also try to approach Mansplaining at its most innocent appearance. I think this is important in this case. This approach doesn't lack critical power, since this innocence will be made forfeit by the following, losing its claim and pulled to the negotiating table.
It is also the best way of getting inside.
There are horrible, real cases of men whose mansplaining has become monstrous and twisted, something they knowingly use to thwart women's public success (degradation) or sabotage their private happiness (abuse); and they deserve to be heard and, what's more, treated and helped to heal. But they mustn't become representative; not if we wish to offer a bridge over these troubled waters. I'm trying to offer a bridge here.
As a man driven by desire to engage in intimate relationships with women, and as someone who knows a little about gender roles and their respective histories, perhaps I can make sense of this strange phenomenon.
BUT I am indeed constricted to this position and its perspective. I don't know how/why gay men Mansplain (but I imagine they do). I don't know if Mansplaining pops up in Butch-Femme dynamics (if these nodes of lesbian sexuality still exist..?). How does a Trans- woman/man feel about it in their unique position(s)? And let's never forget the position of plain misandry, which, I always felt, should be allowed to speak.
And so, my insights are limited to the cis-masculine affects I could identify (with) throughout my self-narrated life; whether the pleasure of mansplaining itself, or the displeasure of it being used against me as an accusation.
From the outside - maybe only from the outside - it seems a stupidity, and, what's worse, an ignorant stupidity, an immoral stupidity. The stupidity of the shoe that crushes the ant having no care in the world (well at least no ant-related ones).
I think it is pointless to say that the caricature sins against the truth; as pointless as it is to declare metabolism as immoral somehow.
It is more productive, and I believe more hopeful, to probe this caricature for the structures that support it, as well as the pleasure it effects and the life upon which it draws.
Hypothesis I: Mansplaining (under Patriarchy) is a social role, a duty and responsibility needed to give an air of composure and coherence (in certain instances where it seems called-for) to those who are dependent on this man to provide security. At the same this affirms the man's power externally, it functions internally as an affirmation of the man as such, as masculine.* * See Hypothesis II
As a manner of expression I feel the mansplaining "vibe" is also a marker of gender recognition between men, an assurance that this person is committed to the same bullshit that you're committed to, showing the same flag. Men mansplain to men all the time.
feel this thesis has the advantage of explaining:
A. Why mansplaining is often wrong and stupid: because the function was used to address the helpless and insecure, many times mansplaining is wrong about the facts, or glosses over glaring holes in logic, because its function was social-psychological.
And yes, of course, it was built upon and within a patriarchal mindset and power structure.
And so 'mansplaining' becomes an issue when the man is no longer needed to provide this function due to she shifting (/shifty?) power structures in this post World War world.
It is important to note, to acknowledge, that at least some of this function was rooted in caring for the immature and helpless. Women, before being granted political rights/power, would often occupy this position: immature, because she was cloistered and controlled by "the father"; ignorant, because not allowed to, or at least discouraged from, learning about the world (which only comes with the opportunity/freedom to experiment with the world, and of course being taught to read-and-write etc.). Hence,
B. Why, nowadays, its incompatibility with current power currents shines or jars as an imposition, an uncalled-for, unnecessary, and grossly patriarchal imposition. In those places and times where women can own property, vote, have a right to education, to wage-labor, and safe enough (mostly) to engage with the world at large and gain their own knowledge and style (their own 'person' recognized in public) -- in those places and times this care no longer works, is no longer needed.
This explanation also exposes the tragic aspect of this phenomenon (there's tragedy implied in any shift in values). The tragedy here is that what seems to the specific man to be a caring act is immediately seen in the context of patriarchy; the patriarchy that spawned the need for this care in the first place. And so a man "called out for mansplaining" feels indignation (and maybe a tad of social panic) when his gift is thrown back in his face with an insult, even if he is not aware as to exactly why. And the woman that encounters it, so long as she has the above rights and powers, regards it at its zero degree; as moronic, useless. At the very least she no longer needs this "reassurance-function"; but the more she knows about the patriarchy that birthed this behavior, the more she, rightfully, is angry. She wants to be treated like an adult, and finds this "reassurance" condescending, even infantilizing - implicating the man not just in the inertial aspect of his behavior, but in its dynamic, active one: as if meant to revert her back to a little girl, beck to where/when she hadn't these rights.
Hence the tragedy; where both, legitimately, see the other as a perpetrator, and, equally legitimately, cannot -- at least not yet (but this will take a while I'm afraid) -- see beyond their respective victim positions. They only grow more and more angry at each other for occupying theirs, in a "how dare you" style positive-feedback loop: How dare you try to infantilize me. How dare you call my care self-serving and violent.
This infantilizing behavior can be traced to its ethos quite easily. It was an ethos established between men and women, growing like a murdering creeper plant upon the power difference between them; this is what Nietzsche called the 'pathos of distance.' It was this pathos that, as Nietzsche famously shows in a philological insight from the Genealogy of Morals, gives birth to the moral word, the word of value. The 'malus' status that the 'higher' bestow upon the 'lower' still contains within it an ethical excess; it betrays a more caring relation than in dealing with, say, a tool, an animal, or an object. It even communicated the 'lower's' "malheur", their misery.
That is why I do not want to cancel, to completely do away with these words and speech acts, since they harbor something towards which we have an ethical responsibility. And I, personally, do not expect those who have but recently emerged from millennia of oppressive exclusion from the public sphere are going to help us do this, or even have any unambivalent sympathy for this project.
As men, we should take responsibility.
So yes, when you raise human beings to be servants and home-bodies, you educate them in such a way. Dependency is bred into them, which is maybe why we, as men, feel such joy doing things for women we find attractive. This educates the attractive woman to getting things without effort, which is a result of the kind of 'protection' that this masculine attitude communicates. It educates the other, less attractive women as well (hence the "jealousy" men fault women for).
And so she starts "behaving like a child," since what is also communicated in the above dynamic is the contract that expects her dependency. The famous "Why don't you smile more" communicates this well: on the one hand it is -- or could be, or used to be -- an honest attempt at advice, knowing that, in a world where men have all the power, she had better give them an incentive to do so (and yes, this explains why we are suckers for a woman's smiling face - camgirl/twitch watchers, you know who you are).
The kindness is weaved into the oppressive structure, but is not identical with it (that is not to say it is not liable for it of course).
And so "women" get this reputation -- that matched "observation" (until it stopped) -- of being absent minded, greedy and childish. They don't know when to stop asking/wanting (because the power difference is their world, where the real world will have educated limits into them, if only they were allowed out there). They lie, like children lie, out of helplessness in the face of their masters. Their consciousness is "fragmented" with regards to the world of men (this is a man's judgment; in the private sphere women had intricate and rich worlds - something men would come to deride as women's tendency to "gossip," and their "vanity" of concerning themselves with inconsequential things).
Do you see the pattern here?
And so, when talking to a woman, a man was talking to this child-like creature (that she is in his eyes/system), doing what any "adult" would do towards a child: provide reassurance, even where it is unrealistic or ignorant, because for the child's world the reassurance matters more. The child's world is a non- or -pre- political world (but I wonder: is that still true?).
Perhaps if we, as men who mansplain, engage with the caring part of it -- instead of trying to defend the whole thing -- perhaps contemporary women's reactions would not be as hurtful, would not seem so ungrateful and mean in our eyes.
Perhaps we could try to do that another way, satisfy a current need, or negotiate a new dialectic of power. Like this post, this would be long and painful, but inevitable, necessary.
And, speaking of painful and necessary, here is where the real work awaits us, but also where the real hope lies.
Hypothesis II: A man's inner monologue is often a mansplaining monologue, alleviating fear and feelings of insecurity (even where they are warranted). This intimate part of the masculine ethos is also in constant risk of corruption. This internalized social demand was born from a power structure that today is all but crumbling; and without its support, one's own corruption is left defenseless, wanting in legitimacy, exposed.
And what do I mean by corruption? Well, if a man likes to be defined as possessing a strong will/spine, as standing up for himself (including his weaknesses and implications), he cannot rely on a woman to lift any of that load. That is, by the very pleasure that I take -- that warm fuzzy feeling in my ego (that I was trained to seek in women) -- in mansplaining myself to myself must be accounted for so as not to intermix with the pleasure of mansplaining a woman. Why? Because there I can see better where my need comes into play. And to take ownership of it; which means to stop, on a fundamental level, seeing this as an innocent service or gesture.
A woman once told me something I will never forget; that to her men's gaze/attention is like a source of warmth. From a distance and passing is quite fun, but focused, close and/or multiple starts to burn. And if we are being honest with ourselves, then we know this too. We can feel the "disturbance in the force" that lies in the passage between seeing and leering-fixating; between pursuing and stalking. Like the car honk or the catcall they are meant to remind the unachievable woman that she is still a "mark." There's an aggression there, but a reactive, resentful one; to stand behind this act would mean to assert one's own impotence, for it hinges on the "unachievable". And I see the same resentful aggression in the leering stalker (not the voyeur; that's a different animal/pleasure).
I don't know about you, but as a man I want to avoid showing this flag as much as possible. She can no longer be used as an excuse to prop there where your spine failed to act. This is harsh, it hurts. Yes. But this is not her fault any more than it is yours.
That we enjoyed the patriarchy more means in this context that we have worse withdrawal symptoms.
And if we insist on calling ourselves men, we have to take it.
So, if I mansplain myself, if I mansplain myself first, as a way to quiet my anxieties and hold up a false/better image of myself in front of my eyes, then I need to either show that flag, or, as it should be, feel masculine shame and find a different way to engage these anxieties.
I am not saying that women cannot help us do this and cannot have empathy for it, but it is not their universal project, it is ours. They can help contextually, on the basis of a relation of care, but never automatically or randomly.
I imagine a dynamic that does not do away with the old back-and-forth, but complicates it, miniaturizes it, enriches it. If woman has power now it shouldn't mean "going our own way." If this exponentially multiplies the amount of decisions we must now make (and fake the anxiety that each decision carries), then crying about wanting to go back to a time where fewer decisions had to be made (the patriarchy prop). How long do I look before she gets uncomfortable; what does it mean when I ask a girl out who works for me; how do I get her to smile... New problems, to be sure, but our problems.
Men ought to first engage with reality, not first complain about it. No?
New tricks, old dogs... New tricks.