For some reason, no matter how many times or in how many ways we try to point out the problem, men routinely ignore us when we say that mansplaining is an issue. Indeed, as the new Funny or Die sketch “The Birth of Mansplaining” shows, mansplaining has been going on for a long, long time. Since the beginning of humankind, in fact. Or at least, we’re pretty sure it’s been going on that long, because although the term “mansplaining” is recent, the phenomenon definitely isn’t.
The sketch's story centers around two early humans. One, a woman named Bunga, is hard at work lighting a fire. She’s got all the right tools to do it —a “spark rock,” “fluff grass,” and “tree skin,” but definitely not “itch leaves” — and she knows exactly what she’s doing; however, her male companion, Ugg, feels compelled to explain to her exactly how she should be making fire in the first place. Because of course he does.
She doesn’t need his help. She didn’t ask for his help. He’s not telling her anything she doesn’t already know. But even when she points all that out, he continues, annoyingly. So she tells him to stop “man explaining.”
It’s a reasonable request, but he’s predictably resistant. So, she goes on to explain exactly what man explaining is — and to be fair, he does listen and engage, although it takes him a lot longer to catch on than one would hope. The kicker is when Ugg asks whether his mansplaining the wheel to Bunga the other day was, in fact, mansplaining. Bunga says yes, although Ugg still appears confused about how that’s the case.
Here’s the thing:
Bunga invented the wheel.
Hi there, mansplaining. How are you today?
Watch the whole thing here:
I’ll admit that I’m not totally sure what to take away from the ending — it seems a tad reductive to suddenly spear the dude who finally figured out what mansplaining is and is taking steps to stop it in its tracks —but maybe that’s the point: The reason mansplaining is still a problem is because it never quite made it through our evolutionary history.
And yes, I am aware that a comedy sketch is not history.However, the video does make the important point that mansplaining, although a recent piece of nomenclature, is not itself a new phenomenon. It’s been going on pretty much since human history began.
The term “mansplaining” came to the fore courtesy of Rebecca Solnit’s 2008 essay “Men Explain Things To Me,” in which Solnit recounted an incident where a man mansplained her own book to her (River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, for the curious). It wasn’t an isolated incident, either, this encounter with a Man Who Explains Things; it’s a full-on phenomenon, and it’s grounded in how our culture has historically thought about gender. Observed Solnit, “Yes, guys like this pick on other men’s books too, and people of both genders pop up at events to hold forth on irrelevant things and conspiracy theories, but the out-and-out confrontational confidence of the totally ignorant is, in m yexperience, gendered.”
“Every woman knows what I’m talking about. It’s thepresumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; thatkeeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushesyoung women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does,that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitationjust as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence.”
As a result, the term “mansplaining” — a portmanteau of “man”and “explaining” — worked its way into the vernacular as a way to describe this phenomenon in which “a man talks condescendingly to someone (especially a woman) about something he has incomplete knowledge of, with the mistaken assumption that he knows more about it than the person he’s talking to does,” as Merriam-Webster puts it.
The term has been accused of being sexist; I’d argue, though, that it isn’t. What it is — I think, at least — is a way to describe a particular way women often experience their gender: They’re often assumed to be less competent than they are purely because they aren’t men. This experience is backed up by research, too (because apparently no one believes us when we tell them that it’s the case): A 2015 study found that in the workplace, men are usually assumed to be good managers, but women have to prove they’re good managers; a study from 2016 found that male biology students regularly overestimate other male students, but underestimate female students; and a study published at the beginning of this year found that it even affects kids in that girls start thinking boys are smarter than they are when they’re as young as six — which almost certainly has at least something to do to do with what they observe in how our culture treats women compared to men.
But although the word “mansplaining” may be less than 10 years old, when you look back through history, you see it and its effects left and right. Women — deemed less competent than men — were not allowed to hold property, obtain higher education, or vote, for centuries, in many countries including the United States. Women were diagnosed with “hysteria” whenever they dared to do anything outside what was considered the norm according to rigidly defined gender roles — a made-up “condition” that wasn’t removed from the DSM until 1980. Women weren't even allowed to have credit cards in their own names until 1974.
And yet, the character of Mrs. Lintott in The History Boys isn’t necessarily wrong when she observes, “History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. What is history? History is women following behind with the bucket.”
Mansplaining: It’s real. And it’s been here for a while. AndI’m hoping that, now that we finally have a word for it, a way to talk about it concretely, it will finally start to go the way of the dinosaur. Because goodness knows it’s time.