By Jessica Sutton and Patrick McTague.
Comedian Russell Brand recently came under fire for “mansplaining feminism” when discussing the music video “WAP” by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion. He posted a video on his YouTube and social media, arguing that the many feminists who celebrated the video as an example of women of colour embracing their sexuality, were wrong. In an (excessively long) 17-minute video, Brand hits back against the music video, claiming that the representation of women is anti-progress, and ultimately anti-feminist. Brand is entitled to his opinion and within his rights to release a video with his opinion. However, his video is a direct response to arguments made by a range of feminists, many of whom are well established in their fields, explaining why they are wrong while he is correct. Welcome to mansplaining in the online era.
Mansplaining is a term that was popularized after a 2008 essay by Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things to Me, went viral for laying bare a phenomenon that many women around the world experience. Mansplaining was coined to describe a man explaining something to a woman in a way that ignores her knowledge and experience, and assumes the superiority of the male perspective. Whether it’s Ms Solnit’s experience of a man explaining her own book to her, Jacinda Ardern, the most powerful woman in our country, being told to stick to her knitting, or one of the stories like this one submitted to us:
I remember once I was organising an event which was on a topic I was particularly passionate about. Discussing with one of the attendees beforehand, (who didn’t know I was the organiser) he tried to tell me my whole conception of the issue was wrong, and that I would “benefit” from listening to his view. You should have seen his face when I went to the lectern to introduce the speaker!
But why should we be worried about mansplaining? Isn’t it just another slightly annoying but not too harmful part of existing as a woman in society? You might think so, but there are deeper concerns associated with this frustrating occurrence. Mansplaining is another method which men use to keep women “in their place”, not allowing them to assert expertise, to be knowledgeable, or to be the authority on an issue. This behaviour by men might be conscious or unconscious, but either way, it has patriarchy written all over it.
There are some who might argue that this isn’t a gendered issue, but rather a tone issue. Some would say that men who talk down to women, talk down to everybody, or that women are just as bad at talking down to men. This makes it a personality issue, not a gendered issue. People just need to be careful of appearing patronising when speaking with others! However, this ignores the gendered dimension, that the primary demographic experiencing and reporting this behaviour are women. This argument also conveniently ignores socio-cultural context and the history of gender imbalance. To follow this argument, we would have to assume that both parties are on equal footing at the beginning, which ignores the history of suppression of women’s voices in society. Men have never been denied a voice in public and private life on the basis of their gender. Whereas mansplaining can be seen as an extension of a culture where women are still excluded from positions of power, still criticised for being “aggressive” when they give opinions, and still harassed and abused at universities and other places of learning. This behaviour should also be interpreted against a history of women openly being treated as subservient, being subsumed into the legal personality of their husband or father, and being kept out of universities because higher learning was a male domain.
While women today are largely able to attend university, enter parliament, and share their opinions in professional settings, mansplaining is still a tool of disrespect used against even women in very prominent positions. Men have always been lauded as rational beings, contrasted with emotional and hysterical women. Mansplaining reasserts this dynamic. Over time, this treatment teaches women to second-guess the value of their own knowledge, the truth of their own life experiences, and their place in their field of interest or area of expertise. And men who argue that they are ignorant to the ramifications of their behaviour need to do better. Being unaware of the history of female oppression (how), not connecting your own behaviour to that history, or simply not caring, are not excuses for subjecting women to treatment which will bore them at best, and at worst cause serious harm to their self-confidence. Men who feel the urge to mansplain need to think critically about how they are upholding existing power structures and listen to women who tell them their behaviour is patronising and toxic.
The supposedly feminist mansplainers like Russell Brand, are taking the position that they support gender equality, but only when it doesn’t reduce their own sense of authority and privilege. Men should still have the final say on what is right, even when it comes to feminism, seems to be the rhetoric. So, when women’s views and actions don’t accord with a mansplainer’s view of what is feminist, the response is all too often to take the role of the ‘rational’ male, and claim superior knowledge and analysis. However, when two women of colour release a piece of work that embraces female sexuality while also satirising the male gaze, it makes a lot more sense to celebrate their achievements rather than quibbling about whether it caters to male preferences.
The take home message is listen to women. Respect women’s authority in areas they know more about. It’s not that hard. Women’s views and expertise deserve to be valued, not put down and minimised. Women are their own arbiters, they decide what is valuable, what is progressive, and above all, what is feminist.