In the Blog
Challenging Mansplaining and Shame
Recently, I’ve been experiencing mansplaining. A lot of mansplaining. This phenomenon is one I define as explaining the world and all of its nuances in a supremely confident, woefully simplistic manner. Mansplanations rely on privilege—derived from whiteness, maleness, ability and/or straightness—not accuracy. It doesn’t matter if the mansplainer is misinformed, grossly inept, or just plain wrong.
Worth pointing out as well is that mansplaining as a phenomenon doesn’t mean only self-identified cis men are guilty; whenever privilege is used as the foundation of purported omniscience, or as a tool to silence, or as a means to induce shame in someone for their perceived lack of “real” knowledge … yep, that’s some mansplaining at work.
Mansplainers just know. They know it all. It’s equal parts network news anchor and folksy wisdom, with a dash of “father knows best.” The world, thanks to selfless mansplainers, has been categorized and defined, whether it’s through tried and true logical fallacies like circular logic or poisoning the well. Mansplaining is nothing if not versatile.
Patriarchy is prevalent because it reduces non-conforming subjects into singular entities. It simplistic and it’s violent on literal and symbolic levels. You’re stripped of your you-ness and put into a category. Whatever non-conforming category you’re subjected to, one thing is certain, at least when it comes to mansplaining: in brief, you need to be told how things are and why you are wrong. You need to change.
But patriarchy also functions because of shame. In this blog post, Dr. Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work writes, “shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”
Shame, Brown continues, is “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” I would add to this that shame relies on the notion that at our core, we are broken. Which brings me to a core aspect of my own practice of anti-oppressive, intersectional feminism(s): none of us are broken. We are all whole.
It sounds simple, but beginning with this radical foundation provides me with a toolkit to combat mansplaining, which I experience as rooted in, and emanating from, shame. So, in the interest of storytelling as healing and humour as resistance, I’m going to share my recent (mis)adventures with mansplainers and the lessons I took from these situations.
Scenario 1: So, I’m tabling for Shameless at the Indie Media Fair in London, Ontario, my hometown. It’s a great event—there’s a lively crowd; people are engaged and asking questions; and of course, the public library venue was perfect. A middle-aged, self-identified man approaches the table and asks what Shameless is about. I share our mandate. His response? An exaggerated step back, so as not to be plagued by the scourge of intersectional feminism, followed by the quip, “Oh well, I’m a man, so I guess I better leave.”
“Really?” I asked. “Why do you think that? What does feminism mean to you?”
In all honesty, dialogue was the goal here. Did it happen? No, not so much, but an early, wonderful lesson in my own life was that feminism, as a political practice, is for everybody. Every. Body.
Was I annoyed? Absolutely! That said, I can only hope that this attempt at dialogue and Shameless’ inspiring mandate plant a seed that leads this person to more inclusive deeds and words in the future.
Was I ashamed? No. There is no shame in working to build communities that dismantle systemic oppression. Ever.
Scenario 2: “I don’t believe in feminism.” This is another response I’ve heard quite a bit. And you know what? I used to get pissed, but a strategy I’ve starting deploying in these particular situations—situations where the speaker attempts to deny mine and my colleagues’ labour and politics—is to breathe deeply into my core, reflect this answer in my own words, and provide my own straightforward rebuttal.
e.g. [Breathes] “When you say that you don’t believe in feminism, I feel a more appropriate statement is that you, personally, don’t identify as a feminist.”
The above response is, I find, a most useful way to use Ye Olde Logic—a favourite “tool” of mansplaining. It’s inaccurate to say you don’t believe in feminism. To believe in an entity implies veracity, or existence. Feminism is real. It exists. I’m writing about it right now! Shucks, now that I think about it … I’m practicing it right now, too! So yes, feminism is “a thing.” It’s not a matter of belief, but how a person chooses to identify.
If respectful dialogue ensues, that’s a great starting point. If not, then an unwillingness to be open to alternative politics and an outright denial of their existence are not my failing. An unwillingness to learn is not reflective of a personal inadequacy on my part. No shame, no internalizing.
Scenario 3: One stormy afternoon I was eating lunch at work, reading a book, and generally enjoying my break. A co-worker sat next to me and somehow the tide turned from my happy place filled with food and books, to an escalating conversation about The Pill.
I was mansplained that it was good that I was not taking oral contraceptives because said contraceptives, and I quote, “devastate your insides.” I’ll let that terminology sink in. Let’s note, no opinion was solicited when it came to my decisions surrounding my body. When asked for an explanation, this was offered: “it’s just the worst thing women can do to themselves.”
Hmmm. Not the direction I’d hoped for. I STRONGLY disagreed. Is the Pill for everyone? Certainly not. Do I think that evidence based, person-centred healthcare for women and trans folks should be the rule, rather than the exception it currently is? A resounding yes. My own feminism has come to a place where practicing informed consent is a necessity for collaboration, for building relationships, and for how we practice healthcare and social services. Informed consent means transparency and dialogue, and informed consent opens the door to informed refusal and ownership over one’s body and experiences.
Was this blanket statement regarding the perceived evils of the Pill rooted in any sort of research or discussion with someone who had actually taken this medication? Nay. Was it offered with supreme, unshakable confidence, in a manner that strips persons—namely, women exercising options when it comes to their sexual and reproductive health—of agency over their bodies? Why yes, it was. In other words, it was mansplained.
Scenario 4: “When you’re liberated as a worker, only then can you be liberated as a woman.”
This was mansplained to me IN GRADUATE SCHOOL. Hearing this did not feel awesome. At all.
Years on, and it’s now clear that scenarios like this speak to how radical intersectionality is. We are constantly informed by the interplay that is race, gender, and class—one does not have primacy over another. And ever since there’s been a women’s movement, there has been a worker’s movement, and there have been anti-racist activists like Sojourner Truth and bell hooks and Emma Goldman and Vandana Shiva and Selma James.
But this class-trumps-gender (and implicitly, race) argument does demonstrate that patriarchy is insidious; it’s ingrained in thought and speech patterns and can bubble to the surface in ostensibly progressive crowds.
Finding your voice is a non-linear process. Some days, it’s daunting. Other days, it’s a welcome adventure. But along the way, there’s hope, there’s humour, and there’s community. And never is there shame.