Mansplaining: the Grad School Edition

A few weeks ago, while waiting in line at CVS, a man behind me tried to get me to help him make the pharmacist smile. He didn’t appreciate my insistence that there was no need for her to smile, and he spouted some cliché about the number of muscles associated with different facial expressions. After talking to my best friend about it, I decided I needed something to hand to such well-meaning assholes in instances like this. I created this tiny zine, and shared pictures of it on Facebook, as I’d been sharing blog posts and comics about the same issue. There was a lot of positive feedback from women who’ve received such comments, and a few questions from men who didn’t understand why telling someone to smile wasn’t nice. Men that I’m glad I got to have that conversation with.

Not long after that, I posted a picture of a sign (that I may or may not have painted) addressing the root of street harassment. People largely understand that yelling insults or sexual requests at women on the street is behavior we generally do not like but there is a whole other subset of folks, men, who think that it’s a good thing to tell a woman she has “nice legs.” I was told this, earlier this summer, by an old man maintaining the bottle return machines at a grocery store. I don’t recall if I said “yep” or “thanks?” but I do recall wishing I had said “Yes! They’re really fantastic! Without them, it would be so difficult to walk anywhere!” In response to my clear lack of gratitude toward his “appreciation” of my legs, he responded “That’s a compliment, baby!” and proceeded to tell me I could be a model. This is probably the ultimate “compliment” when your value is directly associated with your looks. I’ve held very still for photographers and artists. I’ve “modeled.” I don’t count it among my achievements.

Anyhow, I posted this picture on Facebook:

and a large conversation erupted. Friends took issue with the word “harassment,” insisting it was a mere annoyance. Friends also took issue with the idea that they shouldn’t comment on the appearance of others. I’m not saying it’s never appropriate to comment on the appearance of a stranger. There have been times when I’ve welcomed such comments, but they’ve always quickly moved away from my body or face to a neutral territory such as crafting or old movies. And the person giving the comment did a stellar job of not  making me feel like they were trying to have sex with me. And it had been a light day for street harassment. Those times are the exceptions. Generally, I really don’t like it when people I don’t know comment on my appearance. Be it the dude walking by on the street who loudly declares in crude language how enticing he finds my outfit, or the guy passing me in the shoe store who tells me he thinks I’m beautiful. Both interactions make me feel weird and self conscious, in a bad way. I asked both men to not comment on my appearance (the first guy told me he can say whatever he wants, the second guy seemed surprised but receptive). These things kill community. I no longer want to have any conversation with a stranger who has started out by commenting on my looks. 

So after debating this very personal and widespread issue on Facebook all day long, getting exasperated and calling in some feminist backup, and reaching a point of understanding with the parties who had expressed confusion, I receive a very long Facebook message from a dude I went to undergrad with.  A dude whose writing I usually enjoy, and whose opinions I usually respect. This was not the case. 

I think the fact that he messaged me privately about this was really shitty. He’s brought up a lot of things we’d addressed in the conversation under my sign photo. He’s talking about issues of sexism like it’s not an area I’m familiar with, and he’s making it clear he can’t identify his privilege. He’s telling me that the problems I’m addressing aren’t really problems at all and that I’m fighting sexism wrong. You know, because there’s only one right way to fight the patriarchy. After some sentences of introduction, indicating that he’s been following along with the discussion, that he doesn’t want to change my mind and totally respects me, he began:

I think I want to say that I believe you are off mark in regard to your recent posts on street harassment.

Street harassment and (non-consensual) objectification are very much real, serious issues, but while I am at least as much an advocate for both feminism and equal rights for all as the next informed, enlightened, sensitive, considerate equal right’s activist, this (albeit presently small) movement toward vilifying the celebration of (potentially unknown) others in public is alarming even to me.”

Vilifying the celebration of (potentially unknown) others in public. If that isn’t the most flowery defense of street harassment from someone who doesn’t understand what it’s like to be a woman walking by groups of men at bus stops on hot summer days, I don’t even want to know what is.

Next comes a paragraph of about 200 words explaining why the structure of my argument is “troubling.” Finding opportunity, somehow, to remind me that he’s a supporter of feminism. It’s difficult to read. I can’t even read it straight through now, and it’s been over a week.

Then, he moves on to another paragraph of about 200 words that really cements his denial of his male privilege.

“…Claims such as, ‘telling someone to smile subverts the validity of their feelings to a position inferior to the validity of the speaker’s viewing pleasure,’ or ‘commenting on a stranger’s appearance is street harassment’ universalize an unlikelihood. The claims are true in plenty of instances — and the high frequency with which those instances occur is indicative of a serious socio-cultural problem — but it remains the case that the exception to the commonplace is, in this context, harassment, not non-harassment. That is to say, what is normally occurring when one person comments on another’s appearance (to that person) would not be perceived as offensive to anyone involved, nor to a vast majority of onlookers polled (I’m far from believing the public is always right, but it is a sort of democracy we live in).” (Emphasis mine.)

That he so confidently asserts that my lived experience and the lived experience of all other women who echo my concerns, are the “exception” is so weighted with condescension, and, for the millionth time, a clear denial of privilege, is cringe-worthy. Third 200-word paragraph:

The problem with true street harassment is not that one person feels at liberty to attempt to compliment another, it is that performing the action of commenting on someone’s appearance, especially if is a male doing so to a female, reiterates the culture of objectification that often treats women as sex objects (more so than it does men). To take issue with the words spoken instead of the structure in place that allows some men to feel comfortable acting in inappropriate ways is to treat a symptom of the problem instead of the problem itself. Harassment itself seems to be the troubling issue that needs to be addressed, and if it were solved it would by extension resolve many concerns raised by the anti-street-harassment movement. Similarly, if sexism as a whole were somehow abolished, harassment would be much less of an issue. The specificity of the movement seems to be attacking a hangnail on the hand that is, to put it verbosely, the power structure enabling men to be jerks.”

Oh, did I miss Western Medicine’s discovery of a sexism antidote? Because of course it’d be great to “somehow abolish … sexism as a whole,” but thus far, we can only do what we can do. We do treat cold symptoms despite a lack of a cure for the cold itself because we want to stop the cold from spreading.

Fourth, currently this cause actually does harm. By focusing its aim primarily on men, the anti-street-harassment movement (in current practice) implies that so-called complimentary actions from unknown males are of a harassing nature more often than they are not. … But by simultaneously focusing almost exclusively on this admitted majority of instances while also universalizing the claim that instances of this sort are always (or almost always) of a harassing nature, this cause incriminates the actions of even those public complimenters — men and women alike — who everyone would judge not to have performed harassment. The message might disincline the occasional iffy male perpetrator, but it equally inhibits everyone else (dare I say a greater number of people) from performing actions which realistically have the potential to genuinely improve another person’s day.

To think that abolishing all comments about a stranger’s appearance would somehow make the world a worse place is, at this point in such a message, to make a bronze cast of your denial of privilege and donate it to the Smithsonian. Sheesh. With all his insistence on harassing being the exception to the rule with regards to street comments, you think he’d be able to translate such logic to believing that men who are the aggressors of street harassment are the exception to the “men who exist” rule.

Every time I read an article online written by a woman concerning her experiences with sexism, I can tell how much traffic the article has received by the amount of “mansplaining” in the comments. I love Megan Milanese’s description of mansplaining in her article on “fauxminism”: “A feminist man should be able to understand the difference between mansplaining and simply explaining something while simultaneously being a man. The difference is the invalidation of the marginalized person’s expertise and experience as well as the general patronizing or condescending tone.”

I’m not making things to limit the freedoms of men. I’m making things to ask people to consider their expectations, and the effect of their words on others. If this puts someone on the defensive, they are exactly a person who is in need of some self-reflection. 

20 thoughts on “Mansplaining: the Grad School Edition”

  1. ha·rassed, ha·rass·ing, ha·rass·es
    1. To irritate or torment persistently.
    2. To wear out; exhaust.
    3. To impede and exhaust (an enemy) by repeated attacks or raids.
    You can’t just take a word and make it mean what you want, if you wish to communicate your irritation, by all means do so and I understand how that can be the case, but to attempt to state that a single comment is harassment does not follow the definition and you are incorrect in your statement of such. Maybe you ‘feel’ harassed by men in general because you are the object of the ‘attacks’? but to state that any single guy is harassing you for a single comment is just flat out wrong.

    1. It’s persistent and irritating and wearing out because some people have to deal with it every day from strangers. Just because one man does it once doesn’t mean 20 other men haven’t done it to someone. Is it so much to ask to ask men to walk a mile in my shoes? I and many women would be happy if a man thought “that woman is beautiful… Wait… She might not like a compliment from a stranger. Maybe I’ll keep it to myself, or if I really want to say something, say a respectful friendly “hello” and leave it at that. Yeah. Sucks I can’t tell her how I really feel, but knowing she might not like that, I want to give her the decency of not bothering her.” How hard is that? Takes a little self control and empathy, that’s all.

  2. mansplained, mansplaining, mansplains
    1. To leave a comment on an article about mansplaining’s intersection with harassment using a dictionary definition of harassment to discredit the lived experiences of women who experience both mansplaining and harassment on a daily basis.

  3. I understand and agree with many of your sentiments involving street harassment, yelling things out at people based on just their appearance and then leaving it at that is rude and thoughtless, even if the content of the comment is essentially positive such as “beautiful”. I understand not wanting to be judged on appearances and as someone who has been overweight most of my life I’ve had strangers give me dirty looks, and even throw things at me without provocation. We have thoughts, but there is no need to verbalize, especially if you aren’t going to treat the recipient of the comment as a human being and try and engage them in conversation.

    That being said, I do take issue with the concept and use of the term “Mansplaining”. The complete obviation, not only of a person’s comment but in all honestly their whole person based on their gender, is lazy and often abused. I understand the need to avoid explaining to every condescending male the idea of male privilege and their complicity in the patriarchy. However, I believe the term is now being used as a tool of marginalization, and before you say that men can’t be marginalized I’m here to tell you that the cross sectional nature of oppression almost assures that many men share, to some extent, the experience of oppression (as my own experiences with harassment have). I don’t mean to talk down to you, I know that you understand these terms that I’m throwing around in a much more intimate and complex way than I ever could, but when the assumption becomes that any man who disagrees with someone on a feminist topic is sexist, it begins to feel much like sexism. I know it’s not possible for women to be sexist towards men because they do not occupy the same places of power structurally but I still think it is possible to be hurtful in an entirely nonconstructive way. Much of the rhetoric of feminism is violent, as is necessary, however much of it is directed towards people who are attempting to understand and grapple with their privilege than those who have actually transgressed. The Label of Mansplaining is a marginalizing shortcut in many situations and is hurtful in many ways. I know you understand what it’s like to be ignored or insulted based entirely on your gender without even the effort of understanding. I know that your life is much harder than mine, but this label and the general rhetoric associated with the current wave of feminism, while cathartic, does not justify an “eye for an eye” mentality; especially when it is directed at those who mean well but have not progressed as far as you because they have not had the same lived experiences.

    I am sorry for your experiences, things like this shouldn’t happen, women shouldn’t be constantly challenged every time they try to assert some kind of power. However I would call on you to give the same empathy to men that you ask of us, if we all acknowledge each other as people with lived experiences that the other cannot understand, we will become allies rather than enemies.

    1. Mansplaining: I understand your point (conveyed in a sexist manner which I read as “your life is harder than mine,” and interpret as “you poor baby” = total condescension), but you aren’t perfect either and I’m right because I made this point, even though it has nothing to do with the topic of conversation. Then closing with a completely contradictory statement like – “Women shouldn’t be constantly challenged every time they try to assert some kind of power,” which is obviously exactly WHAT JUST HAPPENED.

      Am I going insane?

      1. First: As far as I understood, the topic of this article was street harassment and Mansplaining, if that is the case I think my comment is on point, though perhaps not as well structured as it could have been.
        Second: I was trying my very best not to condescend or take a knowing tone (esp. as a male i.e. Mansplaining as it has been defined in several places), by admitting that as a woman you have to deal with much more shit than I do on a daily basis and feel more unsafe in far more situations than I do. I’m sorry if you felt I was saying “poor baby”, I was trying to genuinely discuss the discrimination you face as a woman in a patriarchal society.
        Third: The main thrust of my comment was the use of the term “Mansplain” which I feel is often used in a needlessly derogatory manner (along with many of the insults like asshole,dick, etc. that are very cavalierly tossed around) to offhandedly marginalize people with the best of intentions and an openness to learning about their own privilege. I can only imagine the anger that comes from being objectified and treated as inferior on a daily basis, and I would be angry too, but taking it out on those genuinely trying to understand is unproductive.
        Fourth: I was calling for an empathy towards many men who have also felt the cross-sectional nature of oppression (racism,classicism, fat shaming etc.) the same empathy which you ask of any feminist who has to shrug off his privilege in order to put himself in your shoes. Just like women who are victims of internalized misogyny, men are products of a vicious system and they act awfully because that is all they know. This doesn’t excuse any of their actions, but it is perhaps a good thing to keep in mind.
        Lastly: I want to emphasize that this is not meant to have a condescending tone, I am merely trying to clarify, what was on reflection, a somewhat oblique and meandering comment. I was merely trying to express my feelings as someone who has tried to overcome his “fauxminist” propensities, but finds him constantly alienated by, not the ideals of feminism, but rather it’s rhetoric.

      2. I think, as “strugglingtounderstand” mentions below, most things should be illuminated by a person’s intentions. I empathize with him. I have gone out of my way to not offend someone, only for them to take offense regardless. It wasn’t that I was meaning offense. It was that I have considered already how they might reply, and want them to know I have the best intentions. But I learned that saying how I didn’t mean offense caused the person to take offense anyway. I felt like I had not choice in how my words were received despite my best intentions. In short: one can’t control how others react. But I know my intentions, and my goal is to have positive, good intentions. Isn’t that a valid goal? I feel that any person trying to be agreeable so they may learn and participate in a conversation should not be badgered for an attempt to be agreeable. It seems there are no options for these participants if they disagree with the writer’s message either… To be disagreeable would have been offensive. Trying to be agreeable was offensive. Silence… well, that is the last option and that kills the power a conversation can have to enlighten others. So, what is left? I think Paradox has it right below….

  4. I think it is very difficult for some men to identify with a women’s point of view on sexual harassment, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try to understand. Just watch and listen folks. Hear what strangers or male acquaintances have to say in example situations provided in this discussion. And if your more of a hands on kinda guy, then experiment with a little harmless crossdressing and see what happens.

    It is the same for me and white privilege, I grew up in a broken family with a low income. I had never associated myself with privilege through that, but now, attending a Historically Black University & hearing about social issues, I am seeing & more so believing.

    Eyes open and trying to understand.

    And that’s all I ask of people when it comes to social-sexual boundaries and expectations.

    Have some respect. For yourself and the person you are addressing. Even if it seems that they do not respect themselves.

    1. Additionally, the sting in such appearance based comments, for me, comes from the sentiment that,”smart can become beautiful, but pretty cannot become smart.”

  5. In a working environment, such comments would be considered harassment. We’re all just trying to do our jobs, to live our lives without being made to feel shitty or uncomfortable by strangers. Everyone of us. At the very end of any and all arguments, that’s what it’s about. We are telling you we don’t want to hear such comments. We are telling you it makes us feel angry, or sad, or gross, or violated. Why do we even have to explain why? Why can’t you just stop as we have so politely been asking for decades? I’m sick of the argument that some women like it. That’s great. The thing is, you can’t tell the difference between her and me so please pay me the respect of not risking making me feel embarrassed, violated, or unsafe. We’re just asking you to walk by quietly. It’s like doing nothing at all.

  6. Tangential at best, but I am kind of curious how we could celebrate the unknown other in public? I am starting with the idea that there is a section of the population that feels that community can be built by interacting with strangers in a beneficial fashion (The only excuse I can come up with for arguing with this article), and that those interactions can be as simple as a complement. However, strangers are unknown, so personal compliments cannot be sincerely delivered. Therefore, what follows as an alternative? Obviously the simple answer is for people to stop giving compliments, but there is a part of the population that likes both giving and receiving compliments. What do we do for them?

    Complimenting a person is as powerful a privilege as insulting a person, but it can be a useful tool. I have the same feeling for it as I do for comedy. If someone has a talent for it, good things can happen, but when they fail, it is horrible. And both hinge on artist properly engaging their audience, and the subtleties of either I do not understand.

  7. I really liked reading this. Never thought that a compliment could be considered a command. It makes sense though. I was awarded “Class Clown” in High School and quickly learned that it created an expectation for a performance. I hated being treated like I could be funny or humorous on command. That was just once. I cannot imagine what it must be like for a person in society to receive these “compliments” repeatedly. The weight and responsibility that comes with up keeping the “performance”, or playing along with the “compliments” must be nauseating.

    One thing I didn’t like about this piece was all of the text taken from the private Facebook correspondence. I can see how it’s fueled a lot of the content, but the analysis seemed less focused on the idea of compliments as a performance enhancing drug pushed by social norms.

    Looks like you have the “Stop Telling Women to Smile” zine on Etsy. Is it available anywhere digitally to read?

  8. I don’t know how I feel about this, it ignites a lot of thought for sure, but I am having a very hard time pulling together my words to create a response. Mostly because of how stretched out the topics, and examples are.

    My first thought is that I don’t mind being told to smile in this way, “hey…everything ok? you aren’t smiling the way you usually are” I actually get that a lot from coworkers and friends of both genders. I don’t take it the wrong way because I know these people are genuine and just want to check with me that everything is OK. Is this the type of thing you are rallying against?

    And I admit that I have gone up to a cash register and said to the employee…”how is your day going?” “Seen a lot interesting things I bet!” “Keep smiling” “I love your hat, where did you get it” I am totally that person that can commiserate with the clerk and I want to make an impact on their day, maybe cause a chain reaction that causes them to make a positive mark on someone else’s day. When I worked at Dunkin’ Donuts for a very short period of time, I always appreciated those customers who asked how I was doing.

    One time when I was walking in Brooklyn from a local flea market wearing a dress that I had a hard time deciding if I liked or not, but I wore it anyways. I was passed by a total stranger that genuinely said, “great dress!” I said “thanks!” and kept on walking with an extra skip in my step.

    After depicting those examples I think it comes down to the person and just how authentic they are and what their angle is. If there intention is to try and get a date, or to condescend, or to assert power obviously it’s ill intentioned and we definitely know when those things are happening. When that happens I ignore, or if it is done by someone I know I simply say that I was not happy with the way they approached me with that comment, or I wish they wouldn’t comment on my looks. And not to mention that those things happen by both men and women. Women can be VERY condescending to other women.

    Have we lost touch with our basic human connections and could these casual interactions actually positively influence a persons day? or life? Could it generate chain reactions, and all around goodness if done with pure genuine kindness?

    A lot of questions, not a lot of answers…which leads me to my next point. Do any of us actually know? To have a article be so sure of itself and aggressive seems illogical. It seems to me we are all trying to peg something down that just can’t be truly divulged.

  9. The “would not be perceived as offensive to anyone involved” is especially maddening, because as a dude THIS IS A PHENOMENON HE HAS NEVER EXPERIENCED. Which is to say nothing of the fact that, as you so wonderfully pointed out above, he is invalidating all of your lived experience with the issue, and that of other women as well. Fuck that noise forever.

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