It's certainly cute, the term "mansplain," made popular by writer Rebecca Solnit, and with viral speed now a meme, used by women everywhere to capture that moment when you're condescended to by a man. I get it. There is no shortage of men who like explaining things to women, and they are a fact of life for most of us. Often you can see the mansplainer coming from a long way away, and dodge him. But sometimes the mansplainer shows up unexpectedly, like the one who interrupted me while I was discussing coyotes in a private conversation and who barged in to launch into a long diatribe about how I obviously didn't know there were no coyotes left, they're all coy-wolf hybrids. The effect was like being trapped in a long, airless footnote with no exit.
To be rude or not to be rude? I made a joke about "crypto-hybrids," and eased out, gasping for breath. The man was still talking to himself when I moved away.
Mansplainers are notoriously ponderous and patronizing and annoying as hell, as any woman who's ever been mansplained knows. They are adept at trivializing or brushing over any accomplishments you might have, or anything what you might have to say, even pointing out the flaws and errors of your ways, while instructing you in the right way, often in a chesty manly voice that booms over yours. Even with their individual styles--some bullish, some sickeningly flirtatious as they work to deflate---they are skilled at asserting themselves authoritatively on numerous topics, some of which they may know very little about, which doesn't seem to matter, because they are experts on everything. It's a funny thing about confidence; it can be very convincing.
But more worrisome to me than the mansplainers, who are mostly inconvenient and irritating, and sometimes just over-the-top unwittingly ridiculous, but rarely soul-crushing, are those men who actually "man-(S)age" women. That is, men who not only think they have wisdom to impart (sages), but do so by "managing" outcomes for women. And by this I refer to those who actually hold positions of power in our lives, like teachers or employers, or legal or medical professionals , and who habitually offer professional advice based on their own limited views of what women can do, be, and are.
Reflecting on my own experiences one day, I sat down and began to make just such a list of "man-(S)agers." skipped over events like the creep who tried to kidnap me when I was 9 while I was walking to school, or the fool who put a gun to my head when I was 19, or the crazy adult student I had who stalked me for three days in Hawaii. They are psychos. Man-(S)agers aren't psychos.
Mansplainers and men who "man-(S)age" (and a man could theoretically be both) are both generally ordinary, everyday guys, sometimes even pleasant enough people depending on context, who either secretly believe in their own innate superiority, or are simply oblivious of their own privilege, or both. It's not that women haven't gotten in my way, they have, of course, but much of it, upon closer examination, was the result of internalized self-hatred and anxiety, the sort generated by a male-centered world that gets grafted onto some women's relationships. This could take the form of weird competition, or offering tips and guidance to other women who try to negotiate what it means to survive in a "man's world," the kind of women who will, under the guise of helpfulness, will offer unsolicited professional or personal advice, often on how to dress or how to "behave," or any number of possible intrusions. What a friend of mine calls "matronizing."
From the list of "man-(S)ager" I'd jotted down, I began to recall men who had in one way or another, guided by their own particularly provincial and retrograde perceptions of women, actually changed the course of my life. And this was distressing. It was no longer just funny. "Man-(S)aging" isn't just another clever coinage; for me, it has larger and more serious implications.
When I reached number 12 or so of my list, I stopped because I was overwhelmed and depressed, but mostly embarrassed. I've never thought of myself as easily bullied, but clearly I had been, and I'd internalized the message I maybe wasn't smart enough or good enough. But living through it at the time, it was just another patch in the fabric of my life. So what prevented me from defending myself? Why didn't I say, "No, you're wrong to assume that women can't do science because I just got the top A in your fucking class" in response to the 9th grade biology teacher who suggested I choose teaching as a profession because girls couldn't compete with boys in science, and teaching is a good profession for women, or "But I am experienced in legal terms, and typing and writing and revising and taking dictation, you have my resume in front of you, I was an English major," to the lawyer who interviewed me for a secretarial position, never bothering to glance at the resume I'd laid on his desk. Instead, he leaned back in his chair, studied me with amusement, and then with a little smile said, "Well, you're very cute, and I sure like that little outfit, but I need someone who can type."
The French concept of "l'esprit de l'escalier" has often dominated my afterthoughts, while mentally reviewing after the fact the many clever retorts I could have and should have offered as, in my imagination I shunned their male stupidity and raced to leap over them to the top against all odds. But this is plain silly. First, it would never have entered my mind, because I was and still am also governed by self-doubt and a willingness to admit I may not know what I'm doing, and so I'm shamed to admit that I have allowed myself to be cowed and defeated by some very narrow-minded men who "man-aged." Additionally, "man-(S)agers" have little sense of humor about themselves, and often don't grasp irony as it's applied to them, so calling them out is pointless. They are so invested in a particular notion of their own masculinity and intellectual prowess that they would never pause to reflect--at least not with you. You would simply be an uppity woman or an angry one. (And worse than just any angry woman, of course, is the "angry black woman."
And while mansplaining has a cumulative effect, a kind of wearing down, like being gnawed at, it doesn't have quite the same club over the head effect.
And, unlike being mansplained, getting "man-(S)aged" may reveal a grossly sinister side, like the womanizing 30-something male gynecologist who began phoning me after examining me in a medical appointment when I was 16, and insisting he had to see me again--like for a date--he could do this and that for me, and I was so attractive, and .... Did I report him? No. It was a different era where I likely wouldn't have been believed and it would be assumed I'd done something to make him so hot and crazy for me. I was horrified and humiliated, because he had of course actually seen the most private spaces of my body, and because his interest in me had not been professional. He had removed the veil and revealed himself to be a lecherous older man, not a medical professional I could trust. And yet he was a well-known and well-liked doctor, and if I'd accused him, it seemed easy enough for him to deny why he was calling---he could have explained it away as "medical followups" since he was, after all, the doctor--so I just avoided the phone and to my relief the unnerving calls eventually stopped. Still, it took a long time to get up the nerve to see a gynecologist after that (meaning I risked my health) and when I was in my early twenties, I saw a kind woman Nurse Practitioner at Planned Parenthood in Oakland, California, who made me feel like a thoroughly fabulous, healthy human being. In this case, it wasn't exactly what this "Man-(S)ager was attempting to teach me about my limitations, it was what I had to learn the hard way, by parsing through my confusion, on my own about being a girl.
Years later, even after I had accumulated a fair amount of life experience under my belt, I discovered I was not immune to the worst kind of Man-(S)ager, the male mentor cum opportunist. At the urging of a male professor in film school in San Francisco, a famous visiting Hollywood screenplay writer took a keen interest in my work and told me I was extremely talented, and offered to help my career. At first I was so grateful that he liked my writing I agreed to meet him for lunch while I was in L.A. on business, a restaurant where, if bombed at noon, would have taken out half of the film industry. I was so thrilled to have someone of his stature take my writing so seriously and to believe I could have a successful career. But after I returned to San Francisco, there came the phone calls, and the invites to his beach house where we could "work privately" and he could "help you go over your screenplay," along with tantalizing promises of recommendations into the Young Director's program, which he thought I was perfect for. That's when it hit me. What insane woman would fly to this married man's beach house for the weekend to work on a screenplay? What was most damaging was the dishonesty, the overlaying of his own sexual desires onto my professional dreams, which made this a very skewed vision of quid pro quo known as the "casting couch." The worst part is that I was thrown into an awful self-doubt. Was I talented or not? Had this all been a setup? The self-doubt generated by being "man-(S)aged" was overwhelming. I spent parts of three days in bed sobbing after work, and never took another one of his calls. Adding insult to injury, I realized my professor had set me up. I couldn't confront the screenwriter, who likely would have performed shock that I'd even think such a thing, but I could confront the professor, in his cubbyhole office on campus, and I did, calling him a "pimp," and I remember his telling me there are many ways to get ahead, and he thought I might be interested. Yes, he really said that, and I asked him if I were his daughter if he'd still say that, and he turned red. I was so angry and hurt that I abandoned screenwriting altogether, but the troubling part is that I'm convinced neither man thought he'd done anything wrong. Girls were perks.
In the greater scheme of things---global warming, wars, famine, environmental degradation---the experiences of a woman who has forged ahead through the gendered maze and become reasonably successful in the world ("in spite of," I like to say) may seem relatively inconsequential. There are women in far worse circumstances worldwide, in huge numbers, living in unspeakable conditions under unimaginable pressures.
I am not a victim. I've traveled through Asia and Europe by myself, I've had "close calls," and I've weaseled and talked my way out of a number of dangerous situations. I've learned to make the often sad, but necessary, accommodations for being a woman, always calculating risk against safety, danger against adventure. The math is never clear.
For me, though, the most traumatizing experiences are not the close calls, but those in which a man has stood before me and told me in one way or another, even in an underhanded way, that I can't be treated as negligible, little more than an object, that I can't do something I want to do because I am incapable, or he has shamed me into feeling stupid or unworthy. These men are the men who "man- (S)age" women, knowingly or unknowingly, and it's as if the clock has rolled backwards, and they've stepped out of a time machine. These are the men that tell you that you might not be cut out for a certain line of work, who question your intellectual abilities, or block promotions or salary raises, the men who tell you "you're not quite ready for the next step" when all indications are that you are, the men who turn to women in professional meetings and utter some version of "You're wrong" as a way of devaluing or discounting them in front of everyone. The "man-(S)ager" is also fond of occasionally conferring on others, particularly women, his own patronizing approbation at certain moments, as if he's conceding a point on the rare occasion you have an idea he finds worthy. In that rhetorical blend of hubris and paternalism, you fail to feel confirmed, because he manages to take all the credit. It's as if you've offered someone a peanut, and they grab the whole bag.
I am waiting for the moment when I have the courage to say, "Actually, no, you're the one who's wrong. And you're wrong for two reasons. Not only do you not have the facts, but you are wrong to tell me that I'm wrong."
A quick anecdote: a few years ago, I was invited to an afternoon gathering at the home of another professor. One of the senior male faculty I worked with struck up a conversation at the kitchen counter where I was piling up hummus on a plate, and began to mention he was stepping down from a very prestigious administrative position at the university. A semi-avuncular misogynist, with a mean passive-aggressive streak underneath his kindly veneer, he said he'd been thinking of a successor for his position, someone young and bright who had strong interdisciplinary interests. As he talked, I began to believe I was hearing myself described: I was younger than he, I was reasonably bright, and I had a range of abilities and interests, from writing to law to music, etc. I also taught interdisciplinary courses and considered myself versatile. Likely, he'd also noted my attention to detail and organization in the various work I'd done. So I found myself standing a bit taller and listening as he continued to talk. Yes, he was arrogant, illuminating all the superhuman accomplishments he'd managed to pull off, and I suppose I played along, because I thought he was going to ask me if I was interested. Then, before I could say a word, he dropped the bombshell. "But of course," he mused, as if thinking aloud to himself, "it's going to be very difficult to find someone to follow in my footsteps, and I just can't think of a soul." With that, he gave me a particularly condescending smile and turned to another to another male colleague who had walked up. I left shortly after. It was hard to imagine this hadn't been deliberate. I drove away utterly deflated, angry that I'd allowed myself to be sucked in. The sad thing is that this was the second time he had done something like this,and I should have known better.
I have a lot of very clever and insightful women friends. After events like this, we practice comebacks, and we're funny and sharp-eyed. It's the secret life of women, the "wish I'd saids," the laughter that emanates after sharing such experiences, and the offers of rueful reassurances and good humor. We circle the wagons, rally around. There are friends I can always count on for the perfect zinger, the precisely worded riposte, the barb I didn't say but wish I had. Still, the sting of all the putdowns is there. And it can last, sometimes for decades, reappearing in small, unexpected ways, like a bruise you thought had vanished. It has, in one way or another, entered the narrative in our heads, the one that surfaces during moments of uncertainty, the cumulative effects of years of this nonsense.
I sometimes wonder, if I hadn't been discouraged, would I have become a scientist, as I'd once hoped? Or a veterinarian as I'd also hoped? Did I eventually end up an English professor because some man told a 14 year old girl that teaching was a better profession for women than biology, or was it actually the more natural and organic outcome of a life of reading and writing? And what happened to my 18-year-old's dream of becoming a lawyer when I was a freshman in college and a male statistics professor informed me with something just short of contempt that I would never even make it through pre-law, let alone gain admission to law school, and the sad thing is, I believed him? No, of course these men can't carry all the blame. It's not that simple.
When I consider the roads not taken in my life, and even the roads taken, there are always those men who stand at the crossroads, the men who "man-aged" me, men in positions of power who seemed to know better than I did what was best for me, even if I believed in my heart of hearts they were wrong, and it would actually make me sick to my stomach that I didn't have the language, or the guts, to say, "You're wrong."
It's a funny thing. Even when later years, I did go to law school just after receiving tenure and while I was teaching full-time, it was male administrators of the "man-(S)aging" ilk who actually informed me it was absurd for me to be r thinking I could do both things at once. He actually threatened to "report me," when I explained there was nothing to report, everyone knew. One of my favorite quotes came from the male chair of my department at the time, a "man-(S)ager" through and thruogh, when he looked at me in disbelief and said, "But you know, law school is HARD."
I did have an answer that time. I looked straight at him and replied without missing beat, "It's really not that hard, at least not for me."
Even today women of all stripes are still being "man-(S)aged," that odd habit of knowing better and knowing more, regardless of whether it's true, and maybe even knowing "what's best for you." The attacks on the right to reproductive freedom or the plight of women in poverty or the rates of domestic violence that affect more women than men, or the public humiliations, say, women politicians face, or the downright brutalities for women in the military are the cumulative examples of gender inequality.
Almost every woman I know has had at some point in her life some doufus man literally block her path as she walks down a street, and tell her she can't pass until he gets a smile or, worse, a kiss. Usually, I think of these men as the "powerless men," often homeless or drunk, or troubled in some way. Even though I wish they wouldn't, they usually don't frighten or upset me. You can get around them. You're headed to greater things. You don't really blame them.
What's worrisome are the men who've made it themselves, who have some modicum of power and privilege, who then figuratively stand in the way of a girl or a woman moving forward, and don't even realize it. The guy on the sidewalk does. He knows he's gotten in your face, and he knows you're not really going to smile for him or kiss him. He knows he doesn't stand a chance in hell with you, and that you're someone who's better off than he is and you're likely to flip him off. It's a performance, and even if it's objectionable, it's far less degrading and harmful than the pompous male colleague who announces in his patronizing, diminishing tone, to the whole department that the brilliant female professor who's coming up for promotion "has a nice smile," or "she has done a lot of service."
Women often have a hard time responding to these insults and injuries, in part, because of the way we're socialized. How many times have I heard women say, "But I didn't want to hurt his feelings or embarrass him"? And I am no better. Years ago, when the biology teacher told me what he did, I knew he was horrible (I even joked to a friend that he looked like an amoeba), but I didn't truly understand how wrong he was.
That spring day I stayed after class to chat with the amoeba about my future dreams, I figured he would have some special insights to share. He was sitting on the edge of his desk, the late afternoon sunlight streaming through the window. I stood before him, like a supplicant, heart in hand. After all, I was a high school freshman who'd earned an A in his sophomore class, and he had complimented me throughout the semester. But when push came to shove, and I spilled my guts, telling him I loved science so much I thought I would major in it in college and then go on to vet school, his expression suddenly shifted, and I'll never forget the way his smile morphed into condescension, and his eyes hardened. Was it pity he felt? The way you might treat a child who says she plans to fly to the moon on her rocking horse?
Or was it worse, contempt? Surely, he thought he was doing me a favor when he discouraged me.
I remember walking out of the classroom into the empty hallway deeply disappointed, but also thinking, well, maybe science does get a lot harder, and maybe he's right there's a reason that girls don't go into science, just as there's a reason the school gave me for being required to take home ec and not shop class which I preferred, because girls needed to learn how to cook and sew, not fix cars. (I didn't buy it, but there was no point in pushing it either, so I made a bad pie, a potholder, and a misshapen apron.)
Okay, so I wouldn't become a scientist. Or a screenwriter. Or a film director. Or a legal secretary. I did become other things, even if it meant working against being "man-(S)aged" the whole way through. I had a psychoanalytic theory professor in graduate school at San Francisco State condescendingly tell me my paper on Joyce was too "literary" and not "psychologial enough" for which offense I received a C. He wanted to see more Freud (we all know Freud's little troubles with women"). There was a guy in the class he loved who thought Freud was the bomb, and the two of them would carry on while the women in the class sat silently. We were in the shadow of this scholar who stood grippng the podium with both hands, rocking back and forth on his heels, going on and on about Stephen Dedalus and his women and guilt and other tribulations.
Recently at the end of one of my classes, as I gathered my stuff, a young woman student approached me and said very appreciatively, "Professor, I love the way you're a feminist. You say things in class that make me smile and feel happy. I'm really glad you do that. It's so cool." I wasn't sure what I was doing outside of my normal rants against stupid women's magazines and my tiny references to historical gender imbalances, but I was glad she was glad, because so many of the young women I teach nowadays think feminism is so "old school" and works against them, that women who are raped have brought it on themselves, even as they attend Greek parties with themes like "CEO's and Hoes," where the girls show up dressed like strippers.
I quickly flashed on the (only) three women professors I'd had as an undergrad, one of whom was African-American, and how they'd all changed my life without even knowing it, just by being in front of the class, being so super smart and knowledgeable, speaking with such confidence, and holding our attention. And how important that was to me, to see women in that role.
Okay, so I still get angry. It's a sadder, more muted kind of anger from the days I militantly wore my favorite tee shirt proclaiming "A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle." And different from the days I rejected white feminism because it was too elitist and racist, but still essentially practiced my own tenets of feminism in my life with great vigor. It was a struggle, because you can get in your own way if you're too committed; and today's anger is more about the sad irony that the only way to not get trampled on is to compromise with men who are "man-(S)agers" or "mansplainers." Mansplainers can work your last nerve, but Man(S)agers, it turns out, are far more insidious. Since you can't go through life eternally suspicious (this would make you paranoid), you let your guard down and try to live open-heartedly. You let people in. You invite exchange. But then, suddenly you're assaulted by a ManSager.
Whereas you can tell a Mansplainer to go blow, you have to work more gently around the Man(S)ager since had can make your life miserable. And, even worse, even as he places impediments in your way, even if you secretly suspect he's insufferably insecure, it's hard to directly challenge him since he affects your fate in one way or another. And then comes the grandest wallop of all when you sometimes have to help him save face, even if it's at your own expense, because in the long run it will work out better all the way around. But it doesn't mean you're not clenching your fists and wishing you could just take a swing instead and be done with it.
As an older woman dean here at the university once told me about a decade ago, as we discussed multiple frustrations about the way women were treated, "Sometimes we women in the Academy just have to suck it up. It's still an old boys' club. We all know it, and we can support one another, and you just keep doing what you're doing. It's not fair, but in the long run you'll come out ahead."
I wanted to tell her she was wrong, that the days of tiptoeing around certain men, just because they're men with power, had to be gone. But they're not. In this way she was right, even if the situation is just so wrong. I'm not coming out ahead. Not yet.