The same friend who lent me Decoded asked me if I wanted to borrow Men Explain Things to Me, which is great, because it has been on my list for a while now. When I went over to her house, she handed me the book. A mutual friend who was there and only in town until early the next week then said, “Can you read it really quickly so I can have it?” So I read it all the next day—I know I didn’t have to read it quite that fast, but we were meeting up again the day after that, so it seemed convenient. Nevertheless, I don’t recommend downing this book in one go: at under 200 pages it is a slim volume indeed, but Rebecca Solnit packs a lot of heavy stuff in here. Plus, although there is a common theme throughout the essays, they are by and large unrelated. It’s worthwhile taking some time to digesting each one before you move on.
But I’ve never been great at taking my advice, so let’s do this thing.
The first essay, titled the same as this book, is clever and funny in a facepalming sort of way, and it’s easy to understand why it went viral when Solnit first published it. Obviously, as a man, I don’t experience mansplaining (to use the term Solnit herself did not coin and actually rather dislikes, sorry not sorry) the way women do—indeed, I am probably more often than I’d care to admit on the other side of that exchange. But at least I can admit that, whereas there are so many men out there who, like the chateau-owning New York Times Book Review–reading mansplainer of Solnit’s essay, don’t understand what they’re doing or why it’s so pernicious.
And then you have people, men and women both, who like to criticize conversation about this issue by pointing out that there are “more important problems” we should be dealing with, like rape and domestic violence and oppression of women the world over. Why are we wasting our words on mansplainers, they say, when we should be going after murderers? So I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Solnit follows the first chapter with an essay on the frequency of rape in the United States. It is a harrowing chapter, quite a bit darker and more statistics driven than Solnit’s opening, levity-fuelled number. It’s almost like how in that first episode of Game of Thrones, you get so distracted enjoying Mark Addy that you are almost lulled into a false sense of security before holy shit the brother and sister are having sex and then he pushes a kid out the window. But as the story unfolds further, we quickly see that one of these things is related to the other—the problems afflicting the Iron Throne are too knotty to separate neatly into “important” and “not important”, and so too it is with the problems affecting women.
As Solnit’s subsequent essays demonstrate, one of the factors in women’s ongoing oppression is how little men listen to them. Men often don’t listen to women when they speak up about rape; the courts, largely dominated and presided over by men, don’t support victims, largely female, and even when they do, those victims have to run a gauntlet of vitriolic public opinion even before the case makes it to trial. So we can’t discuss an “important” issue, like rape, without talking about mansplaining, because the latter is why the former can continue unchecked.
Solnit walks a careful tightrope between optimism and frustration. As a historian she likely takes a broader view than others might; she has a great awareness of the cultural shifts that have occurred over the past few centuries. It’s interesting to see her so excited about, for example, the Strauss-Kahn case—and then to see that excitement tempered by a postscript added in this addition where she talks about the criminal charges being dismissed. The final essay of the book attempts to reminds us that feminism and its related struggles for equity and liberation is a long, gradual journey. According to Solnit, it is possible for us to be disappointed by the current state of affairs even if we’re happy with the gains we have made.
I don’t know if I share quite the same mixture of optimism she does. I don’t know if that’s because I’m not as familiar with history as her, or if it’s an age thing, or what the reasons might be. I have some measure of optimism: like Solnit, I am heartened and encouraged by the feminist voices (both male, female, or otherwise) who speak up and speak out against specific injustices, online or offline. Last week when a terrible pick-up artist website published an article about “how to talk to a woman wearing headphones”, multiple unrelated people I follow on Twitter were posting about it and tearing into it within minutes of each other. There is a heady sense of “you are not alone” in the conversation now.
Yet while reading Solnit’s essays, I couldn’t help but be struck by how easy it is to take her 2012, 2013 specifics and replace them with events from the past year. Strike “Dominique Strauss-Khan” and put in “Roger Ailes”. Replace the Steubenville case with Stanford’s Brock Turner, who has been released from prison 3 months into his 6 month sentence (he’s just such a nice boy, dontchaknow). Whatever gains we might or might not be making long term, it seems that, short term, the cycle continues.
Of all the essays here, “In Praise of the Threat: What Marriage Equality Really Means” is the one I liked most. That might be because my friend and I talked about our views on marriage, so the topic is still fresh in my mind. But I also like how Solnit essentially cuts through the smokescreen and straw people surrounding the conservative position on the subject and says, “Y’all want men to be men and women to be women (i.e., less than men) and you should just say so.” I’m a little terrified that some people (Michelle Bachmann, back in 2008, and now Donald Trump and his followers in 2016) appear to have taken her up on this: recently, the trend has been towards thinner- and thinner-veiled misogynistic rhetoric. The drainpipe, sewer type posts that you only used to find on 4chan or, you know, any woman’s Twitter mentions are now par for the course in the news, and it’s very unfortunate. Nevertheless, the essay itself is a thoughtful examination that asks us to question the fundamental premises of a social institution like marriage, and I love being asked to do stuff like that.
I was far less enamoured with “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable”. While I fully admit I need to read more Virginia Woolf, I had trouble following this particular essay’s point. I found it much less focused or coherent than the other chapters in this book—or at least, I should say, one’s comprehension and enjoyment of this chapter probably needs a little more knowledge of Woolf and Susan Sontag than I have.
Your mileage with these essays will vary. Men Explain Things to Me is interesting and certainly has its high points. Solnit writes persuasively and passionately. Yet it treads a lot of ground that others have covered, often better, and I find that I don’t appreciate the form—as a collection of nine disconnected essays—as much as I would a longer, more thorough book that perhaps restricts itself to fewer topics. Like I said at the beginning of the review, this isn’t a book I’d recommend reading in one sitting—yet if you’re going to read something in multiple sittings, why not find something a little meatier? At the end of the day, Men Explain Things to Me is brilliant in a literary kind of way but the essays themselves are of uneven quality when it comes to the ideas and arguments within.