Even before I had read Rebecca Solnit’s book, I had heard of the term “mansplaining” being tossed around quite a few times in conversations with women and even some men. The word had apparently taken the culturesphere by storm at one point and had also been named as one of the New York Times’ “words of the year”. Intrigued by all the fanfare, I picked up this collection of essays by the prolific author, historian, and activist, Rebecca Solnit who is largely credited with inspiring the creation of this word. Expecting it to be just another feminist babble, I was in for quite a shock. The short digestible book may have its roots in feminism and features an important issue that tends to get ignored but what drew me to it was the way Rebecca has written it. The essays are sharp, elegant and the style of writing is so witty that it kept me hooked to the book non-stop for about two hours.
As the name suggests the book, Men Explain Things to Me, published in 2008, deals with silencing of women in a society that still assumes that a man’s voice and opinion is more important. One of the important factors that go wrong between the conversations of men and women is that most men just assume that they know things which they believe women would be clueless about. This leads to a sort of casual condescension that ultimately steers women towards silencing and oppression. The book reflects the irritation and concerns of the author when she found men silencing women during a conversation and just starting off a thread which they “believe” was more important. She starts off with the narration of an incident during a skiing weekend. Their host, an affluent man, casually asks her what she does for a living and when she replies that she is a writer, he proceeds to self-importantly tell her about a book on the bestseller list that he hasn’t read. The book incidentally happens to be written by Rebecca herself.
“He was already telling me about the very important book – with the smug look I know so well in a man holding forth, eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority”.
This anecdote highlights an important gender-related problem. Even when they have taken great strides towards equality in every field, women are still regarded as having substandard, inferior knowledge. While this may not be true for every relationship but this book got me thinking about how often have we had instances where we have been silenced and had men “telling” us about things that they think we have no clue about such as gadgets or sports which they assume is a ‘man’s domain’.
Although the book may start off with this, it quickly delves into more serious issues, all centered around women’s rights and feminism. In the nine essays, Rebecca masterfully deconstructs and dismantles patriarchy and touches on myriad topics such as rape culture and the epidemic of violence against women, gay marriage, the disappearance of women from history and how they have been erased from the family trees and the power of language used to shame women.
To demonstrate the impact of language, she says, “Language is power. When you turn “torture” into “enhanced interrogation,” or murdered children into “collateral damage,” you break the power of language to convey meaning, to make us see, feel, and care. But it works both ways. You can use the power of words to bury meaning or to excavate it. If you lack words for a phenomenon, and emotion, a situation, you can’t talk about it, which means that you can’t come together to address it, let alone change it.”
The book also contains some powerful paintings by Ana Teresa Fernandez such as a woman hanging laundry completely enveloped by the sheet demonstrating how a woman exists and is yet obliterated.
The subjects like sexual violence, domestic violence, and motherhood may not be novel but the way Rebecca articulates things is what is brilliant and makes this book a must-read for women and men as well.
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