A few months ago, I went to record a television show about politics. One of my fellow guests was a male political writer, past the first flush of youth, and for half an hour we gave the somnambulant viewers of daytime telly the benefit of our dubious wisdom. Afterwards, I asked him what he was off to do next. “Oh, lunch with a spad. You know, we talk off the record and they give me stuff for the paper.” He continued in this vein for several minutes, during which my eyebrows crept ever closer to my hairline. Was this guy explaining the concept of the lobby system to me? It appeared that he was. He must have thought I’d won the opportunity to appear on a politics TV show in a raffle.
Thanks to the lead essay in this collection by Rebecca Solnit, I knew that I wasn’t alone in being patronized in this intriguingly gendered way. Men Explain Things to Me begins with the writer in Aspen at the home of an “imposing man who’d made a lot of money.” Hearing that she is an author, the man asks, “in the way you encourage your friend’s seven-year-old to describe flute practice,” what her books are about. She begins to tell him about her latest work, on Eadweard Muybridge, but he cuts her off: “And have you heard about the very important Muybridge book that came out this year?” She and her friend try in vain to tell him that it’s her book he’s talking about. But he carries on, “with that smug look I know so well in a man holding forth, eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority.” When her friend finally communicates the idea that a woman could have written the book the Very Important Man liked so much, it transpires he has not even read it, just read about it in the New York Review of Books. He turns ashen.
Solnit’s essay became a viral sensation because so many women recognized an experience they had never been able to vocalize before: having their expertise instantly dismissed because of the lady-shaped package it came in. The subsequent discussion led to the coinage of the word “mansplaining” (although Solnit’s not a fan of it and neither am I: You don’t fight being patronised by patronising others in return. I’ve met at least, ooh, two or three men, maybe four, who were perfectly tolerable human beings).
The internet being what it is, the essay was strip-mined for that one idea and very little attention was paid to where Solnit takes it next. She weaves a global story of women’s voices and their testimony being downgraded or dismissed: the female FBI agent whose warnings about al-Qaeda were ignored; the women who need a male witness to corroborate their rape; the writers and politicians whose anger is read as “shrill” and “hysterical,” who are told to “make me a sandwich” by 17-year-old neckbeards on Reddit. We saw it again when William Hague’s recent attendance at a summit on rape in war zones was deemed a trivial distraction from Proper Foreign Policy, which involves bombs and flags and men firing AK-47s into the air. (The Bosnian war: 50,000 rapes. Eastern Congo: 22 percent of men and 30 percent of women report conflict-related sexual violence. Iraq: who knows?) That self-important guy in Aspen is the thin end of a thick wedge.
Solnit was the perfect writer to tackle the subject: Her prose style is so clear and cool that surely no one can have caricatured her as a shrieking harpy? (My mouse hand strays to Google to disprove myself.) There are only seven essays in this book, but the subjects range from the metaphors of Virginia Woolf to the sexual harassment suffered by female protesters in the Arab spring; perhaps the most disturbing is a piece mirroring Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s approach to his hotel maids with the IMF’s treatment of developing countries. I finished this book and immediately wanted to buy all the author’s other works. In future, I would like Rebecca Solnit to Explain Things to Me.