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Explaining Away Mansplaining

The Concept of Power and Connection in Rebecca Solnit’s "Men Explain Things to Me"

Image Cred. to @winterwillneverend | Instagram

When writing a personal piece, an author tries to make connections to their audience through their own experiences. This can be done in order to teach a moral lesson, or to give a perspective on an aspect of life that can referred to as taboo. The most prominent would be the oppression of power of women. “Men Explain Things to Me,” an essay by Rebecca Solnit, reflects on Solnit’s experiences of being constrained by a man at a party. Solnit’s essay will be examined alongside Roland Barthes’ “Death of the Author,” which examines the relationships between the author and the reader. This essay will explore Solnit’s style of writing, and how well her written experiences can connect with her audience.

“Men Explain Things to Me” is a book of essays written by Rebecca Solnit, which can be considered a remarkable standard of feminism. Each essay acts as a chapter which focuses on different glimpses of women held under a male patriarchy, giving the reader a detailed understanding of the bigotry women experience in the most conventional events.

The first essay, “Men Explain Things to Me,” takes place at a party in Aspen, Colorado. The author talks about how out of place she and her friend, Sallie, felt in a room full of people who were, “all older than [them] and dull in a distinguished way,” (Solnit, 3). When the two girls try to leave, the host stops them and says, “No, stay a little longer so I can talk to you,” (Solnit, 3). The girls stay, and the host, “an imposing man who’d made a lot of money” (Solnit, 3), had them sit with him as the other guests left the party. They begin to talk about a book that the author has written. In this part, Solnit describes him “with that smug look [she knew] so well in a man holding forth,” (Solnit, 4) as he tells her about this very important book. Solnit was so caught up in the idea of this book, she was willing to sit quietly and let him talk at her about this book.

Solnit realizes that the book he’s talking about is hers, and Sallie tries to tell the host that several times before “he finally took it in” (Solnit, 4). From there, he admits that he had not read her book, and instead read its review in The New York Times. The girls leave, making sure they were “politely out of earshot before [they] started laughing,” (Solnit, 4) at him. But while ending on a symbolic note, Solnit explains how situations like this entertain her because of the vast obviousness that some men are so blind to because of their achievement to impress, while instead they fail as a result of their own egotistical ideology.

The purpose of Solnit’s essay, “Men Explain Things to Me,” is to outline the issues that can often come about in conversations between men and women. Solnit also makes connections to the concept of power in her interaction with the host; such as at the beginning, when Solnit described him as “an imposing man who made a lot of money” (Solnit, 3), referring to how his wealth gave him a symbol of status. This is furthered towards the middle, as when she was was describing her book, “he cut [her] off” (Solnit, 4) so he could tell her about a more important book.

The essays takes on a sarcastic tone as Solnit illustrates the definition of mansplaining through her encounter with the host. This is most prominent in the beginning of the book, when she wonders “why [she] and Sallie decided to go to that party” (Solnit, 3), as well as towards the end of the essay when the host finally realizes that she had written the book after Sallie had told him “three or four times,” (Solnit, 4). The author also refers to the host as “Mr. Very Important” (Solnit, 4), further enforcing the sarcastic tone she takes towards his know-it-all attitude. Furthermore, Solnit is able to see right through his façade without having him to say a word, she could feel the smugness coming off of him.

After “Mr. Very Important” realizes that Solnit in fact wrote such an important book, “he was stunned speechless” (Solnit, 4). The reaction of the host illustrates how women’s intelligence was judged and underestimated in comparison to men. The host symbolizes how men in society generally look down on women and their achievements.

Solnit had structured the essay to demonstrate her personal train of thoughts; such as her use of run-on sentences and the use of casual, simple words and phrases. An example is the last paragraph of the essay, when it was revealed that she enjoyed these kinds of moments, comparing them to “anaconda that’s eaten a cow or an elephant turd on the carpet,” (Solnit, 4). In this case, the anaconda refers to the host and the animal turd refers to his shocking realization that Solnit in fact wrote the book and it was hard for him to contain his surprise, much like an anaconda that has eaten a cow.

This concept takes on the ideology of power, a concept that can be spread across a smorgasbord of issues in the world. A primal ritual in Western culture is the relationship between the reader and the author, as explained in “Death of the Author,” another essay written by Roland Barthes. This essay takes on the argument against the preferred method of the reading and criticising of works that relies on aspects of the author’s identity. These values extend to an author’s political views, religion, ethnicity, etc. Through this criticism, the author utilizes their experiences and personal biases to further their argument in their text. According to Barthes, this method of reading may be appear as clean and convenient, but is rather quite messy and flawed.

In connection to Solnit’s work, she exerts her personal views into the essay on the social attitudes of men. Her writing style is well organized, as she writes in a manner that allows for her audience to be entertained by her comical, but quite serious events in her book. She has a way of referring to oppression as a type of ritual as the host talked to her with “with that smug look [she knew] so well in a man holding forth” (Solnit, 4); which according to her, is a frequent event.

The book is rather effective in terms of taking a derisive stand to the oppression of power towards women. While Solnit demonstrates the persona of a strong woman with a sense of humor, making a point to talk about her personal beliefs on the subject, she doesn’t touch upon the opinions and viewpoints of other women who’ve been in these situations as well, and may not have had the same leverage that Solnit had over the host. This lack of varied perspective can make it difficult for an audience to relate to her.

In conclusion, while Solnit produces a fascinating literary work that is sure to make you snicker in amusement, her piece is not fully capable of connecting with a variety of audiences in terms of experiences. However, she is able to create an environment that is rather common in Western society, as she writes about how men can assume that they are more intelligent than women; as well as why it happens, and how this affects the concept of the “gender wars” through this comical literary encounter.

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