A A few years ago a friend of mine got married, and when I pulled up to the rustic wedding site, a man I didn’t know came up behind my car and gave dramatic hand signs. . I didn’t need or ask for help, but he gave it, and I’m sure he thought the credit for my success in parking my little car in that very easy spot was at least partly his. In a very minor and probably unintentional way, he was trying to rob me of my sense of competence to bolster his own.
It’s not tampered with by a clown, but I’ve had hundreds or maybe thousands of experiences like this, of unwanted and unsolicited intrusions in the form of help, advice and approval (or its opposite). Too often it takes the form of a man saying “okay” when me or other women say something out loud or online, like we need their approval, like they’re the authorities in the room , as if it weren’t true or until he got his printer. When I wrote a post on social media about the phenomenon, the response was like that scene in Giant when they’re drilling for oil and it’s shooting skyward. Torrents of other women’s stories have sprung up.
Professor Sarah Detweiler told me: “I am an artist. I often need to use hardware stores. I’m going to ask, where are the caulking guns or something like that. I didn’t ask how to use them, I didn’t direct my project from anyone, and inevitably I’ll get ‘what are you going to do with that’ or ‘what do you need that for’ and I smile and say ‘which alley?’ The male workers went so far as to walk me up to them, standing in front of them, blocking my path, again asking me what I was working on because I couldn’t know. It’s happened to me almost everywhere and I hear it happen to other women all the time.
They discussed the devaluation generated by defensiveness, the feeling that you have to hold up your credentials and qualifications in the face of it, what happens when you are treated again and again as incompetent, and how a lifetime can lead to undeserved self-doubt. . We wondered if other women felt “an added sense of demoralized deflation afterwards, even if the intellect tells you to ignore the subtlety posed? adding that “sometimes it erases me even though I know I’m capable and accomplished.” .”
A distinguished scientist told me about men who feel the need to repeat what she said as if it was their idea or invalid until a man says it or cites other sources who have repeated what she said in her area of expertise. It’s exhausting and demoralizing. Obviously, there are worse forms of oppression, and other categories of hostile assumptions specific to other categories of people – for example, I can think of a Latino leader of a non-profit literary association supposed to be the maid at a gala, far too many Black men supposed to have stolen their car or bike. But this pervasive misogyny is having an impact.
Writer and editor Meredith Jacobson told me, “Aside from the millions of instances where guys oddly take the time to comment ‘You’re right’ on social media, it reminds me of when, as a As a young graduate student, I had a flat tire outside my apartment. I pulled out the car manual, read the instructions for changing a puncture, got out the spare tire and jack, and started following the steps, feeling capable and proud of myself for doing it. Just as I was tightening the last lug nuts—in the correct crossover pattern, as the manual says—my middle-aged neighbor came out and waved me over the key. I’m kicking myself for this now, but at that moment I automatically responded to the gesture by handing him the wrench, and he started making the moves like he was tightening the bolts himself, although they are already completely tight. He said, “Good job,” and gave me back that damn wrench like he was a priest bestowing some kind of patriarchal blessing that I never asked for. Decades later, it’s still infuriating, as it was my first time changing apartments and I was enjoying the sense of accomplishment before it fit in. Like the man who played air traffic controller while I parked, he pretended to help her in a way that helped himself, or her self-concept, and undermined it.
Fourteen years ago I wrote the essay that gave rise to the word mansplaining, about when men assume they know when they don’t and women don’t know when they know it, or operate on it, which can be a minor annoyance at a dinner party or a sabotage of a career or a life or death situation when a woman says things like “he’s trying to kill me” . This phenomenon has a sibling in men who grant unsolicited approval, instruction, and help. It’s a bit like having a volunteer parent, a boss, a supervisor who is also often a complete stranger.
I sometimes hesitate to do the simplest things in public, preparing for some guy to come and watch me tie my shoes or teach me how to lock my bike, which they both have, either said in passing. In recent years I have encountered it a lot on the hiking trails, where I have been instructed on the correct route by men who have not asked me if I already know the way, or inspected to know if I do well, ranked how far i go.
There is a deep incuriosity behind it all. They apparently don’t want to bother with the investigation that would determine whether the person in question has the knowledge or expertise in question, let alone whether they actually want help, advice or approval. I see it all the time in the incidents I file under Mansplaining Olympic Tryouts, from men explaining vaginas to female gynecologists, running diets to one of the world’s top marathon runners, a graphic novel character to its author , the fellowship to former Morgan Stanley executive Amy Siskin, recommending that women scientists read studies that these women actually authored themselves.
They could lead with questions, or at least not bother with guesswork, though that would require a minimum of interest in the people they interact with. Virginia Woolf once noted that “women have served all these centuries as mirrors possessing the magical and delightful power of reflecting the figure of man twice its natural size.” These men use women as these mirrors, calling them the best supporting actress for their lead role. They don’t seem to notice that the script is a farce or dark comedy and also royal pain, and the people around them are starring in other movies with better scripts