I still remember the first time I realised I was being mansplained at. Back then I was but a child and it was a long time until I learned the word ‘mansplain’ for what was happening to me (I eventually learned the term from Jezebel.com a couple of years ago). I was eighteen, and it was my first term at Oxford. My bike had got a flat tire for the second time that term, and I had it out in the quad on a chilly early November day upside down and – my sleeve rolled up and my toolkit out – I was sorting myself out and proud of it. No one had ever doubted my ability to do things before. I’d been raised by a father who expected me to be practical and had taught me things like this patiently and carefully, and then left me to practice. I wasn’t used to men assuming I was incompetent. But I did know, if someone offers to help you then they are being nice. And I did know to be polite, and at all times to be accommodating and respectful. So there I was, feeling pleased with myself for fixing my bike on my own and along came one of the groundskeepers of the college and seeing me — young lass that I am — knelt before my bike and working hard he came along, took the tools out of my hand and proceeded to tell me everything I already knew about fixing my bike while doing it for me without any invitation from me. Not even a look.
Now, I do not doubt that this was kindly meant. I do not for one moment think that this man decided he was going to undermine my sense of self or “put me in my place.” He thought he was being chivalrous, but as Emma Watson so wisely put it, ‘chivalry should be consensual.’
As an undergraduate trying to teach myself to survive on my own, it was an indignity and an irritation, but no harm. The worst bit was, though, I thanked hm profusely afterwards because I knew I should. I didn’t assert myself. I didn’t say “no thank you” when he came to help. I had just wanted to be left to it, but someone who thought they knew better shoved in and I had to silence my irritation, smile and play nice.
I realised recently after a spate of mansplaining and patronising, paternalistic comments (some of them just plain old insults thinly veiled as ‘advice’) on my various social media feeds that this is what I have been doing all my life. You may know me from here as outspoken and assertive, but it’s harder in real life. It’s harder in interaction than online. (Just take a look at the online contretemps I got myself into with Scott Aaronson and the ensuing wrath of the Internet MRAs that rained down on me). Someone shoves in, demands I take their advice, often in a condescending or outright offensive manner and I say, “thank you very much.” Because I know I should.
One of my good friends recently did it to me on facebook. I made some comment about thinking that there was a self-destruct in some of my electronics because they kept breaking and he made sure to comment, “actually, there is. It’s called planned obsolescence.” Now what I felt like doing was writing “yeah thanks I actually know what planned obsolescence is, you mansplaining git”, but instead I wrote “ahhh! I see.” Appease appease appease. But the thing is, he and the othes I’ve had clogging up my feeds recently, aren’t doing it to help me. They’re doing it so everyone else knows how clever they are. Or to put me down publicly under the seemly veil of advice.
For the mansplainers, it’s about publicly appearing superior in knowledge and its invariably directed against women. So I looked at the latest in this spate of mansplainers and I showed them to my current squeeze (yes, miraculously the same one from the most awkward date opener) because I thought I was being paranoid and touchy thinking they were offensive. The offers of ‘help’ I thought I should politely thank and move on. You know what they said? Block ’em. And I did, and it felt so good.
I witnessed my second instance of mansplaining just a few weeks after the first. I was on a date, and there was another date going on on th table next to ours. On the other date, a man was explaining to a woman about Marxism. She looked about twenty, so she probably knew what Marxism was, but he was explaining it nicely and slowly so that she could understand. He was so annoying that my eyes kept wandering in their direction, until I caught her eye and she rolled her eyes. I don’t think he got a second date. But you know what? We shouldn’t have to sit through it, or feel like we should or say thank you. We should be able to – politely – tell these rude people no thanks, I know what I am doing. I don’t require your unsolicited help. Why is that considered rude, but not the mansplaining in the first place?