I love this piece. It’s hilarious, wonderfully on point and left me feeling with a teary sense of hope that I find to be just as motivating as a good sense of anger.
I’ve been “mansplained” to so many times (and witnessed it among other females around me) that early in my youth, I just assumed that men must know more than women on any range of topics because why else would someone steamroll over someone else with such veracious entitlement and a sense of urgency to fact check? I didn’t learn this from my father. He’s a mild-mannered man that enjoys telling jokes and conversing with people in an inquisitive way (now I know where I get that from). He never steamrolled over my mother, an immigrant from the Philippines. In fact, my mom possesses quite a bit of protective bite so I dare anyone to make her feel small (oh, that’s probably where I get that too).
So many parts of Solnit’s essay hit home for me and as I’m sure, many other women and non-aggressively masculine conforming men. She described the dynamic of one particular exchange as, “His scorn was so withering, his confidence so aggressive, that arguing with him seemed a scary exercise in futility and an invitation to more insult.” The end result is usually silence or at best, a little joke to ease the tension first. But always silence. I’ve witnessed men tell their significant others to “quiet down, you’re being loud” when it appears she is merely having a comparable amount of fun to others in the room. I’ve seen male professors shut out fellow female classmates ideas on a text or exhibition only to never hear from those females again for the remainder of class. Sometimes, the aggression is performed so quickly that it almost passes without notice. In these situations, it’s usually a scoff, quick change of the subject to signal disinterest or the ever patronizing “oh, that’s interesting” short reaction to a woman’s ideas or work (which is actually a verbal pat on the head).
I’ve found myself in these situations so many times that I’ve learned how best to quickly shut them down. As an example, recently I was at a bar near my house with my roommate. We often end our weekend nights at this bar because it is walking distance from our place and for the most part, we can enjoy cheap drinks and complain freely about the aches and pains of work, friends and family. A couple of weeks ago, we were approached by two men that were clearly more drunk than me but lucky for them, I had taken down enough beers at that point that made conversing with strangers seem not entirely bothersome. One man was nice, I can’t remember his name. He approached me by complimenting my hair and asking me what I do. (Side note: I have a short black bob with bangs which is apparently a conversation starter. On a different occasion a guy told me that I reminded him of the cover of Sonic Youth’s “Goo” which was drawn by Raymond Pettibon. That was the best compliment ever. But I digress.)
Me: “I’m about to start a Ph.D in Art History, Theory and Criticism.” “Oh that’s great,” he replied and turned to his much drunker friend and said, “She’s getting a Ph.D.”
What followed was yet another curious display of male false superiority that, against my better judgement, I sometimes refer to simply as “whenever I talk to random men.” His friend looked at me and said, “Oh really? In what?” “Art History,” I replied. This time keeping it shorter. “Ha. What? Why?” He scoffed back. I couldn’t tell if he was making bitter beer face or if he was really that put off by my scholarly pursuit in a field of which he obviously had little understanding. The worst part is that I also expected this sort of response so in the span of a few seconds, I was pleasantly surprised at nice guy’s apparent interest that quickly spiraled downward to drunk asshole’s searing disapproval. But because I have grown accustomed to these moments of microaggression, I replied, “Oh, I’m sorry. Is there something about art history that bums you out? Maybe you’re uncomfortable with your knowledge of it. I can totally help with that.” Awkward laughter followed, his genuine and mine performed, and then we all took another sip and he said, “Oh, I was just joking. That’s cool though.” Thanks for the approval, bro! Because you know, I’m doing it all for you. Anyhow, my response was sufficient enough to end random asshole’s interest in talking to me. (Only later to be sparked up again to tell me that my roommate and I were “so hot but like… cool.” *swoon!)
So, the thing about it is not that I assume all men embody and perform this type of aggression as a conscious means to make women feel inferior. It’s just that is what happens. I also know that to profess so loudly and often without basis is actually just another way of attempting to feel heard, be understood and credited for knowledge possessed and contributed to a dialogue (or bar talk). I GET THAT. But too often that pursuit, typically lead by a man whom I am conversing with, ends up requiring a type of validation that can only come at the expense of my own need to feel heard, be understood and credited for the knowledge I possess. OR at the very least, my need to sit quietly with a friend at a bar, undisturbed and without insult.