March 23, 2023 – If we were to ask a room full of women how many of them had never experienced mansplaining, very few would raise their hands. Or even no one at all. Similarly, if we were to ask a room full of men how many of them had manterrupted a woman, not many of them would speak up.
The truth is that mansplaining, manspreading and manterrupting are social practices that have gone unnoticed or been considered normal for many years. Naming them and pointing out the part they play in the structural inequality of society is fundamental to ending them.
This is one of the premises of “Men know, women listen: Mansplaining, manspreading and other malestream stories”, by professor Begonya Enguix, lead researcher of the Genders in Transition: Masculinities, Affects and Bodies (Medusa) group at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) Faculty of Arts and Humanities.
This essay is included as one of the chapters in the book Toxic Masculinity: Men, Meaning and Digital Media, edited by John Mercer and Mark McGlashan. The publication brings together contributions from researchers from different disciplines to help explore the ways in which toxic masculinity is constructed and represented in the online world and public discourse.
Practices that matter
In the chapter “Men know, women listen: Mansplaining, manspreading and other malestream stories”, Enguix explores why practices such as mansplaining, manspreading and gaslighting matter, and matter a lot.
- Mansplaining: a situation in which a man explains to a woman something she already understands or knows, in a condescending and patronizing way, unjustifiably assuming her lack of knowledge.
- Manspreading: a practice whereby some men sit with their legs wide apart on public transport and in other places, taking up more than their fair share of space.
- Gaslighting: a manipulation technique that consists of questioning a person’s sanity and discrediting their perceptions and memories in order to make them doubt their own judgement.
The essay is based on a visual and narrative analysis of examples from popular media (such as social media posts and newspaper stories) using a gender and feminist studies perspective. These have helped to draw attention to practices that for years have gone unnoticed or unreported by a large part of society, while also giving them a name. “Giving something a name means identifying it and drawing attention to it. Identifying a practice and drawing attention to it allows us to think about it and also to develop critical thinking about the conditions for its existence, change and transformation,” said Enguix.
“Some people may think that these practices don’t matter, that they have always existed and have gone unnoticed. However, they do matter. Mansplaining, for example, denies women’s authority and legitimacy to speak knowledgeably on a subject because, as the title of my chapter says, men are considered to be the ones who know and women are considered to be the ones who listen,” she explained.
As she points out in her work, male intimidation techniques, such as mansplaining or manspreading, affect women of all classes, backgrounds and levels of education. “Being a woman becomes our defining feature, our essential identity. When these mechanisms are at work, the weight, thickness and rigidity of gender subsumes everything we are and do,” she wrote in the chapter.
One of the many examples that Enguix analyses in her essay occurred during the US vice-presidential debate, held on 7 October 2020, between Kamala Harris, the Democratic candidate, and Mike Pence, the Republican candidate. He repeatedly interrupted Harris, who responded with an emphatic expression: “I’m speaking.” Her words, said Enguix, filled Instagram and Twitter with memes and references to manterrupting and mansplaining.
Origins and consequences
As Enguix explains, practices like this place our bodies at the centre of the feminist discussion on power and privilege. Some of the main consequences include the oppression, domination and silencing of women and the devaluation of their role in society.
Out of all the effects of these practices, Enguix particularly emphasizes the loss of recognition and visibility that significantly determines the role of women. “Visibility is a condition for political action, but recognition is equally important because it affects the consideration of what is being made visible,” she points out in her work.
Maintaining these practices and dominating discourse and physical space (with mansplaining and manspreading, respectively) are examples of normalized and naturalized male privilege. Men are assumed to have the right to know and to express themselves without fear of being constantly questioned, and they are also invited to occupy and dominate public space.
All of this has historically placed men as subjects closer to reason, and women as closer to emotions, which in our culture are less valued than rationality. As many feminist theorists have pointed out (Bordo and Gatens, for example), a social hierarchy has been constructed in which the traits associated with femininity occupy a secondary place and women constitute, as Beauvoir wisely pointed out, a second sex.
“The rational sphere, the productive sphere and the public sphere (i.e. spheres that are culturally associated with masculinity) have been constructed as hegemonic and have been historically and culturally more highly valued than the spheres associated with femininity, such as care, emotions, reproduction or the private sphere,” explained Enguix.
In her work, the UOC researcher places these practices at the tip of the iceberg of structural sexism. “These are expressions of a profound sexism that still circulates in our society and which treats women and other subjects conceptualized as non-dominant as inferior beings,” she said.
The role of media and politics
According to Enguix, the media have served as platforms for condemning these practices and generating public debate. “Once on the public agenda, these words have spread quickly, allowing people to reflect on their own experiences and recognize situations in which they were victims or perpetrators of manspreading, mansplaining, bropriating and so on,” she explained. “The first step to changing the unequal dynamics of gender relations is to see them and recognize their potential to silence, render invisible or humiliate; being so common, almost all of us have suffered or perpetrated them.”
Hashtags and Twitter and Instagram posts, memes and campaigns to reduce these habits (for example, campaigns used in public transport networks against mansplaining) have been and are very important when it comes to drawing attention, informing and raising awareness. However, academic reflections have been much scarcer. “For example, on 19 October 2021, there was only one page of articles on manspreading referenced in Google Scholar and three pages dedicated to mansplaining,” said Enguix.
According to the scholar, all media, whether digital or not, and all political discourses currently have a very powerful influence on people’s awareness of the consequences that many socio-cultural practices have for gender equality or inequality.
“Although local governments and some political groups have carried out campaigns to tackle manspreading, for example, the practices are often resumed once the campaigns are over,” she explained. “It is important to put more emphasis on these issues, which would undoubtedly have a positive impact on the well-being of the population as a whole.”
Understanding how power positions around these practices are determined can contribute to social change and a better future. “Highlighting how important our bodies and our bodily practices are in shaping the world we live in and revealing the sometimes subtle ways in which male privilege exists is important,” Enguix concluded.
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Mercer, J. and McGlashan, M. (eds). (2023). Toxic Masculinity: Men, Meaning, and Digital Media (1st edition). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781003263883