In her brilliant 2008 essay “Men Who Explain Things: Every Woman Knows What It’s Like To Be Patronized By A Guy Who Won’t Let Facts Get In The Way,” Rebecca Solnit writes:
“Men explain things to me, and to other women, whether or not they know what they're talking about. Some men. Every woman knows what I mean.”
In the essay (which you can find here: http://articles.latimes.com/2008/apr/13/opinion/op-solnit13), Solnit relates the story of how an overly-entitled man tried to lecture her on a vitally important book that he told her she absolutely should have known about. He decided to totally school her on this seminal tome. Until, that is, it was made clear to him that Solnit herself had actually written the very book that the man was going on and on about in such a superior fashion. And, furthermore, it turned out that the man hadn’t actually read the damn thing himself! Just a review of it. But he wasn’t about to let his limited knowledge hold him back from expressing his expertise!
This phenomenon of men explaining things to women under the assumption that women simply do not already know the information has since become known as “mansplaining.” (“Man” + “Explaining”) It is offensive, it is arrogant, and it is all too common.
And, as Solnit suggests, pretty much every woman is familiar with the phenomenon.
Mansplaining feminism. As bad as this male mode of “interacting” is, where it seems even more problematic to me is when it comes to mansplaining issues of feminism and gender oppression to women. And this is unfortunately a phenomenon I have seen over and over and over again through the years – wherein a man gets an idea about feminism – about women’s liberation – in his head and then he tries to mansplain it to women.
Several years ago, sitting in a university women’s resource center on the west coast, I witnessed the following exchange:
A mansplainer who had just “discovered” the magical writings of feminism said: “You know, because all women menstruate, all women share a sense of sisterhood that we men lack! You women all have this one thing that bonds you!”
A feminist woman seated at the same table then replied: “Um, I have never really felt that sense of sisterhood with all other women.”
Mansplainer: “But, [Feminist Woman], the literature clearly shows that all women have this sense of sisterhood!”
Feminist Woman gets up from the table and walks away.
Here was a man who had read something about feminism… a lot of things, actually… and had decided that he was now an expert on the entire topic, and an expert on women’s lives.
And, like most mansplainers, he was full of shit.
The chivalry debate. I was reminded of having witnessed this scene as I listened just the other day to a man and a woman debate on the radio whether “chivalry” (defined here as the courtly way that men in the past have been expected to treat women) is a good and decent thing, or just a form of “benevolent sexism,” a regressive relic that masks underlying sexist attitudes that infantilize and harm women.
The person advocating for chivalry in this discussion was a woman named Emily Esfahani Smith, who in December wrote an article in The Atlantic entitled “Let’s Give Chivalry Another Chance.” Her argument is essentially that as chivalry has waned as a code of expected male behavior in modern society, it has been replaced by an unbounded boorishness that is utterly lacking in social limits when it comes to just how rude men are allowed to be toward women. Now, she argues, men can act like beasts and still not violate any social conventions, since those social conventions are largely gone. She argues that we need to dust them off and bring them back.
Chivalry is about respect. It is about not harming or hurting others, especially those who are more vulnerable than you. It is about putting other people first and serving others often in a heroic or courageous manner. It is about being polite and courteous...
The case against chivalry. I think Smith makes an interesting argument. But what reminded me of the “menstruation = sisterhood” episode of mansplanation mentioned above was the behavior of the person on the other side of this debate, Peter Glick, a professor of psychology who studies this stuff. He argues that “chivalry” – with its accompanying ideology that women are a weaker sex in need of male protection – is merely a form of “benevolent sexism,” which is a social evil. In his work (which is cited on the website www.understandingprejucide.org), “benevolent sexism” is characterized by the attitude that women are meeker creatures than we men are. That they are to be protected and provided for by men. That women are more pure, and so they should be placed up on a pedestal. All of this amounts, Glick argues, to a sort of benevolent dictatorship over women by men.
An example of “benevolent sexism” might be the man who makes an obnoxiously grand, sweeping gesture out of opening the door for a woman – and clearly demonstrates that in this case he is not performing an act of common courtesy but rather an overt expression of male supremacy and female weakness.
Not only is “benevolent sexism” problematic in itself, Glick asserts, but it is also directly correlated with what he and his fellow researchers refer to as “hostile sexism” – a way of thinking that tends to see women as manipulative, as power hungry, as controlling, and as generally inferior beings. Cultures and individuals that exhibit this “hostile sexism” are also extremely hostile to women’s rights.
When being “right” is wrong. Okay, so Glick has a good point that chivalry is a problematic concept. He argues instead that we should all work to develop and promote a general sense of “civility.” A sort of gender-neutral pro-social way of being. Which sounds great. To me it sounds like it is probably preferable to chivalry, actually.
But I have a problem with the stance Glick was taking, even though I likely agree with him in a theoretical sense. For it seemed to me that he kept failing to hear just what Emily Smith was trying to say. That what she was saying was that right here, right now, the choice we have is this: we either promote the old values of chivalry, or we continue to have to put up with men’s uncontained and outrageously rude behavior toward women.
As a man, Glick simply does not experience the world as a woman does. So in my opinion he has no business telling Smith – or any woman – just how to try to negotiate a day-to-day lived experience in a patriarchal world that is all too often marked by men’s rude, narcissistic, and sexually aggressive behavior. Glick, like me, doesn’t have to deal with men’s catcalls from cars as he walks down the street. He doesn’t have to deal with men staring at his breasts instead of looking into his eyes. He probably doesn’t have to deal with unwanted gropes from men on the dance floor in the club, and he most likely does not often encounter men who become extremely pushy – and who don’t take no for an answer – when they want sex.
So, as correct as Glick may be theoretically, in practice Smith is someone who is urgently looking for a concrete answer to men’s boorish behavior. Some way to guide us men so that we might come to understand that our unchivalrous behavior toward women is unacceptable. And she is trying to use a language that we already understand. The language of chivalry.
And as for men like Glick, and as for men like me, men who actively support a feminist agenda, our role is not to correct or chide women. No, our efforts should be focused on dealing with the root of the problem, which is men’s bad behavior, and not on how women are responding to that problem. Rather than assessing women’s choices, we male allies of feminism should instead be taking on the boorish men directly. And if we are successful in getting them to cease their inappropriate behavior, then Smith’s question about the relative value of promoting chivalry truly does become an academic one.
But she needs something to change right now. And her solution is chivalry.
There is an old joke about just what you should say to the Pope whenever he tries to dispense advice about birth control. And that is: “If you don’t play the game, you shouldn’t make the rules!” And as men who do not have to negotiate the world of patriarchy in the same way that women do, we guys should stop trying to make up the rules for women.
So what is the right answer? In my own life, this notion of “chivalry” versus “benevolent sexism” has come up in conversations about whether a woman should let a man change a flat tire on her car.
I have two very strong feminist women friends who take totally opposite stances on this issue.
One friend says hell no. She would not let a man change her tire. Because she can do it herself. And to let a man do it, she feels, sends out the disempowering message that women are not capable. That they are frail waifs who need a big strong man to bail them out when they get into a jam. And that is a message that she finds offensive.
But my other friend says heck yes! By all means, go for it! She herself knows how to change a tire. And she knows that she could do it if she had to. But if some guy wants to get all dirty and filthy changing her tire in an act of chivalry, then she has no problem with that.
Who is right? Who is wrong? Which woman’s answer is more acceptable? That’s up to them to settle. (Or not. Maybe the issue doesn’t need settling.) It’s all kind of murky.
But one thing that is crystal clear is that it is not for me – a man – to say which woman is right and which woman is wrong. It is not up to me to judge how women negotiate our male supremacist world and its enduring and rampant sexism… this society built by men, of men, and for men.