by Elisabeth Donnelly)
We need to listen to Rebecca Solnit. Over the course of 16 books, she’s one of the most brilliant thinkers of our time, tracing the past and future of America and the world through her incisive and provocative prose. Whether it’s something like A Paradise Built in Hell, about how humans respond to disaster, or Wanderlust: A History of Walking, or the vital essay collections A Field Guide to Getting Lost and last year’s The Faraway Nearby, Solnit writes mind-expanding books that make connections upon connections about crucial topics.
Her latest work, Men Explain Things to Me, is a quick shot of Solnit: seven related essays on feminism, gender roles, and violence against women. It’s a necessary read in these fraught times — starting with the title essay, which went viral and inspired the ever-useful term “mansplaining,” Solnit writes powerfully about the ways in which power is wielded in today’s society, and brings awareness to the staggering inequalities that we wrestle with on a daily basis. I had the chance to talk with Solnit on the phone.
Flavorwire: What was your experience of seeing how the original article spread and then the way that people were using the term mansplaining?
Rebecca Solnit: I had no idea what I was launching, is the very short version. I wrote this, as I say in the afterword to the title essay, at my friend Marina’s instigation. And it felt like it was something worth saying and she was insisting that it needed to be said. But I had no idea how viral it would become.
(I do want to add that I do not get credit for the term “mansplaining.” It was coined by somebody else, but allegedly instigated by the essay, which I’m proud of.) The amazing thing is that the piece has never stopped circulating. Hardly a week has gone by that I haven’t seen it reposted or referenced or linked to or had it come back to me in some way. Clearly I struck a nerve.
Actually, I was squeamish about the word mansplaining because I felt like it suggested this inherent flaw of the male of our species rather than saying that some guys do this thing. But a wonderful young academic I was talking to at UC Berkeley a few weeks ago said, “No, no, no. This word is so great because until you can name something, you can’t describe it, you can’t get other people to acknowledge it, you can’t recognize it for yourself.” And she said that the birth of this word allowed women to recognize that they’re not alone, and have some power in being able to name it, being able to snicker about it, being able to recognize that this is a widespread phenomenon.
And it’s really powerful to be able to name something like it.
Until a word exists, we don’t have a way to identify what’s going on. Everything changes when we come up with a word like homophobia or bioremediation or genocide or sexual harassment, words that have mostly been coined in my lifetime.
I wish I could have known the term when I was a female music critic about five to ten years ago.
Well, I think it got invented in 2008 or 2009, and then it was the New York Times word of the year in 2010. And by the time of the Benghazi hearings, mainstream media was using it to talk about what was happening to Hillary Clinton. I hope this is not my greatest contribution to human civilization, but I’m really happy to be a part of it.
What was the process of putting this book together? Did you feel like the pieces you compile in it were talking to each other?
Yeah, the seven essays are all about gender and power, including the one about same-sex marriage. I’m not sure we could have imagined same-sex marriage until we stopped imagining marriage as a hierarchical relationship where you have a dominant and submissive, or a master and slave, or boss and employee relationship. What was striking for me about the term marriage equality is it doesn’t just suggest that same-sex couples should have the same rights as differently sexed couples, but that people within marriage should be equal to each other. That’s something feminists brought us.
I don’t think people remember how astonishingly unequal we were not that long ago.
I think what’s really recurrent in the book is the way that you talk about power and how to wrap your mind around the idea of feminism or gay marriage, or even considering what someone else’s point of view beyond yours is. It’s a matter of being able to delegate power in the world and to give more people power.
There’s a lovely term my friend Marina Sitrin, who is a great political writer herself, brought back, the term horizontalidad, which at Occupy Wall Street became horizontalism. It describes a world that’s more horizontal and less vertical, a world that is more egalitarian and less hierarchical. But I aspire to, and I think feminism aspires to — a lot of movements do — a dispersal of power from the few to the many.
Then I feel like feminism, at least in the cheesy upper echelon of celebrity profiles and whatnot, just needs an image makeover.
You mean the Beyoncé feminism?
Yeah, or just the way that the word feels loaded in a way that prevents people from embracing it.
You see celebrity feminism where they’re shying away from the real confrontations and the issues, like it’s about peppy girl power, but it doesn’t want to address real inequality and its causes.
Making less money than a man. Many, many things.
Are you saying Beyoncé makes less money than a man? [laughs] I don’t think so, but celebrities are so many kinds of afflictions on this culture. That’s another story. Though I like Beyoncé, not to pick on her.
One of the things I find really exciting about this era is that young women on college campuses, for example, are doing very powerful, meaningful organizing around campus rape and assault. In the last couple of years since Steubenville and New Delhi, the sites of the two rapes I write about in the second essay, we’ve really redefined what the problem is, and we have had the term rape culture come into circulation. Mansplaining allows us to identify something deeply problematic we didn’t really have language for. Now we’re taking away all the excuses, the “what was she wearing” kinds of ridiculousness that have justified rape. And the young women on campuses have taken away the “it’s her responsibility to prevent rape” rather than “it’s his responsibility to, well, not rape.”
We’re also getting over the widespread sense that feminism was this historical phenomenon in the ‘70s and ‘80s and we won and everything’s beautiful and we can all shut the fuck up. Or it lost and we should all still shut the fuck up. There are so many theories about it that involve us all shutting up. But one of the things that’s interesting is how change on this front moves forward in what the the geologist Clarence King would have called punctuated equilibrium, in sudden jolts after long pauses. We have these periodic adjustments where we move forward again.
I have been looking at the Anita Hill case again for something I’m trying to write. Looking at how in 1991 there was basically no understanding of sexual harassment in the workplace and why women didn’t have a lot of choices about putting up with it, and also there was no language for it. What were you supposed to do about your boss’s inappropriate comments and the demands behind them? We’re in another one of these great upheavals around, internationally, rape and violence against women. Things that would have been treated as separate phenomena people see in connection now, harrassment and belittlement as the narrow end of the wedge; at the other end are rape and murder. We used to talk about domestic violence and rape and harrassment totally separately, but it’s significant to identify what they have in common and that these are all forms in which gendered power is misused, misdistributed, and sometimes lethal.
Right. I think everyone should. I don’t want to bring up “the crisis of masculinity” per se, but it feels like the shifting sands of the world create men who do not know how to handle the world. I’m thinking in particular of gun problems in America, which do feel like a tantrum, in a way.
It’s a tantrum, and it’s also manufactured by the gun industry. The NRA has bullied a lot of our elected officials and pushed a lot of deregulation in many ways that are serving the gun producers and not gun owners with the notion that, “Oh, we need armor-piercing bullets, we need semi-automatics, we need this, we need that,” and pushing more and more guns and manufacturing special guns for children. (They’re marketing guns to children now.) There’s definitely cultural factors in gun culture, but it’s also driven by an industry, just as climate denial is, and forging forward with damaging the climate further is serving certain business interests.
But, yeah, tantrum of masculinity. If you want to know how you’re doing, ask your enemies. You look at the fury launched against outspoken women, and you think “this must matter, because these people wouldn’t be so anxious to stop it if it didn’t matter on some level. Maybe we should let them assess it. The analogy would be, during the Occupy uprising, there were lots of grumpy people on the left saying that it was insignificant. But then you look at these summits of world leaders and they were really worried about Occupy and Wall Street was really worried by it. And you think, “okay, there’s real power here.”
I see a lot of guys who have adapted really well to the changed gender relations and roles, and I feel that one of the things that was always missing from feminism was articulating what’s in it for guys. And it’s not only getting over having to be the principal breadwinner and heavy and discipliner of children and always right and powerful, but lots of subtler things about the burden— you know, maybe we should talk about the burden of masculinity.
I was at a dinner Sunday night where we were talking about — or at least, I was talking about, I’m not sure who was agreeing with me — about how, as someone who’s grown up with gay men, I’ve often noticed how much straightness by men is defined by what you can’t do. You can’t wear this color, you can’t like these flowers, you can’t make these jokes, you can’t hug these people, you can’t… there’s all these prescriptions. It’s very repressive in so many ways and it puts such terrible demands on people. Just as femininity made obligatory and taken to an extreme can drastically limit the possibilities, so does this hyper-masculinity. I want to see everyone meet in the middle or find their own place in the spectrum without these pressures to conform and without having to obey mandates about who they’re allowed to be.
This interview has been condensed and edited.