I can remember ten years ago when a male colleague took me into his office to showcase his newly gained knowledge about a piece of equipment. Assuming I knew nothing of it, he beamed with pride at being able to “improve” my skillset about a camera I had in fact been using regularly for over five years. To my shame, I did what is known in gender theory as “performed my gender”, and feigned ignorance, in order not to hurt his feelings.
Today, I think back on this experience as a gender academic and I can see why I remain annoyed about it; there are two types of sexist behavior involved. Firstly, my colleague expressed a clear example of contempt for my abilities in his underestimation of them that he would be highly unlikely to exhibit to a male colleague and secondly, the fact that my anger is focused on my own behavior rather than his, is a sure sign of the internalization of society’s prejudice against women. In short both he and I think I should know better.
We now thankfully have a name for my colleague’s behavior: “mansplaining”, the act of a man explaining something to a woman that he assumes he has a greater grasp on, without due reason. I was at first pleased to hear this term added to our lexicon used to express the everyday micro-aggressions women face but now I see the term has been hijacked to mean something altogether less useful and arguably, damaging to the future of gender equality.
The common usage of the word, “mansplaining” now means the act of a man unreasonably interjecting on a woman’s speech about sexual inequality with a claim for understanding of the male perspective. This is seen as a means for men to reframe the debate in favour of continued privilege over women, to shut the conversation down.
Much as I agree historically women have had to learn their own perspective, feminism, in order to add to the “human” perspective men spoke of, which in reality was a male one, I believe we now need to start seeing gender as a construct that exists between men and women. We should look at how a gendered system encourages both men and women (both cis and trans) to behave in certain ways to both impress and upset those of the opposite sex, as well as those of our own. In order to do this we need to start a conversation between the sexes. Regardless what women are led to think, we can’t actually assume we know how it feels to be a man these days, especially as I have learned, when we are fed a lot of untruths about them; men are not the well known cameras we may assume them to be.
If you think about it, how are we meant to find the answer to something by only looking at half of the available information? Does that approach yield the best answers in other subjects?
When I started my research into men’s experiences of female power in dating relationships in 2010, I did so out of frustration with feminism’s focus on female victimhood. I could not (and still can’t) understand why women would choose to minimize women’s power, especially as experienced by men. Surely having power was the aim of feminism and therefore isn’t it great to hear things are working, albeit not completely?
I, like the female director of the film The Red Pill, then had a change of heart. Not only did I learn that men actually have a really hard time living up to the masculine ideals that both men and women project onto them (and yes as women, we need to admit to our part in that), which increased my empathy but that the more I learned about men, the more confident I became. To learn that many men aren’t the power-hungry, sex-craved and autonomous beings that both popular culture and feminism paints them to be, is to see more similarities with ourselves as women and therefore to see them as less powerful over us.
Much as I would be the first to point out the holes in the logic of a men’s rights activist troll, I would also argue that we desperately need the average man to become involved in debating gender roles. Shouting “Mansplainer!” at them is more than just inappropriate (as we don’t in fact, know their experience); it actually debilitates the development of gender equality.
Our gendered problems as men and women are linked and so therefore are the answers. To give one example, the problem of African wives contracting AIDS from husbands who have slept with sex workers whilst working in far off mining camps cannot, in my opinion be dealt with by looking only at the female perspective. One has to understand how men are socialized to lack empathy and intimacy with each other – especially in macho, all male work environments – to see why they need the momentary release through engaging with sex workers, who are often the only women there. Some empathy with these men will lead us to making out the link back to their wives, to see them both (and the sex workers) as stuck in a gendered system that causes mutual pain.
I think it’s time to opt out of the game of Cowboys and Indians…