One of the interesting things about the technological world is that new, precise terminology develops really quickly. This can be confusing and a barrier to understanding things, but when it bleeds over into culture surrounding technology (e.g. newsgroups back in the day and social networking sites now), there’s great jargon that really captures cultural phenomenon.  Today, I learned the term “mansplain” through meta-comments about a blog post.  Urban Dictionary defines “mainsplain” as:

To explain in a patronizing manner, assuming total ignorance on the part of those listening. The mansplainer is often shocked and hurt when their mansplanation is not taken as absolute fact, criticized or even rejected altogether.

I’ve definitely been guilty of this.  The example that weighs heavily in my memory happened on a trip back home during my freshman year of college.  I had just participated in reading Naomi Wolf’s “The Beauty Myth” as part of a university-wide reading program.  It was really an eye-opening book for me because it described cultural pressures and beauty standards that, as a man, I really didn’t have to think about or deal with.  I was excited by my new-found consciousness and filled with moral outrage about the injustice of gendered beauty standards.  On my trip back, I went with my family to one of my brother’s quiz bowl competitions.  In talking with one of his female teammates, the subject shifted to gender and appearance.  I began to describe “The Beauty Myth” and how culture and mass media oppressed women and suggested that she read the book.  My brother’s teammate cut me off.  “I don’t read that dykey stuff,” she replied shortly.

Until recently, this story sat in my mind as an example of how ideas that restrict someone can be internalized, but now I see it as a possible response to my mansplaining.  Surely, a young woman participating in an intellectual competition, thick with geeky connotations, where women were definitely in the minority didn’t need to have gendered double standards explained to her.  This kind of mansplaining seems particularly problematic because it’s pedantically clobbering someone about issues of gender.  This is easy for me, and likely other men, to do because part of male privilege and the expectations and behaviors that perpetuate it is that men aren’t supposed to think about how our lives are mediataed by gender.  So, it’s a lot easier to try to front with presumed expertise when we learn about how gender works in our society from books or descriptions of other people’s experience than to describe and analyze our own experiences with gender.

What is the remedy?  It seems so difficult when I feel conditioned to mansplained. The familiar elementary school report is just one example of how our culture values singular expertise on a subject and assumes that the non-expert doesn’t have anything to contribute to the teaching or learning process.  I feel like I get most of my validation from the things that I do that are perceived as having the most exclusive knowledge.  Do I get validation because I enjoy writing computer programs or do I write computer programs because it’s something that is culturally perceived as challenging and talent-requiring?  What can individuals do with skills or knowledge other than demonstrate their expertise?

I can answer the last question at least.  We can do stuff.  And one thing that is incredibly helpful to me is to do things where I am most definitely and perpetually not expert.  It forces me to appreciate the abilities or knowledge of others and learn from them.  Playing music is one of those things and playing soccer is another.  When I think about gender, it’s hard not to think about soccer because playing it, for me, has always involved playing with women, but the institution has also seemed so male dominated.  It’s easy for me to fetishize women who play on otherwise all-boys high school teams, or who are the sole lady at the pick-up game, and it’s compelling to say, “I know what you’re facing, I can see how the pressures and expectations of gender are playing themselves out on this field.”  But, really, we know these things because we live them, on one side of the gender divide or the other, and we can do our best to make these spaces in our lives more gender equal.  Finally, I rely on soccer as an example of personal changes in gendered interactions because it’s so obvious that what, beyond “teaching” someone skills or pointing out their minority status in the game, what will really benefit women playing in mostly-male soccer games benefits most men too.  It doesn’t elevate the game when any player makes assumptions about the skills of their teammates.  It’s not fun for everyone when two dudes start yelling at each other over some foul.  And it doesn’t make anyone more skillful when a handful of skilled players hog the ball and are oblivious to their teammates.  It’s pretty clear in this example, but generally true, I think.  While gendered expectations benefit men in a lot of ways, they also restrict us.