In the first three chapters of Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit writes about our society’s history of male conquering and its manifestation in America as a virus against the credibility and autonomy of women. Solnit begins Chapter 1 with an anecdote about a posturing man who condescendingly attempts to explain the importance of a book which he had only read the review of, and which Solnit herself had written. Our societal prioritization of male power has polarized the genders’ communication habits, men are able to become arrogant while women silence themselves in moments of uncertainty. Although credibility is a basic tool of survival, Solnit explains that men are born with it while women earn it. This credibility of men over women is what perpetuates the lack of autonomy women are deemed to have in their lives and over their bodies. When women overcome the pressure to self-doubt themselves into silence they face different forms of backlash, either they are discredited as subjective actors and “told they are not reliable witnesses to their own lives, that the truth is not their property, now or ever” (7). Or, they are scared by the aggressive scorn of men so that arguing back seems “a scary exercise in futility and an invitation to more insult” (8). Even when women earn credibility it is through outward reinforcement, the validation of the public, or men, who deem her worthy of that credible status. According to Solnit, women fight wars on two fronts when they try to use their voice, one for the subject that they are talking about and the other for “the right to speak, have ideas, be acknowledged, to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being” (9-10). Solnit explains that she wrote the essay Men Explain Things to Me, to make sure that young women know that being belittled isn’t a result of their own failing or weakness, but rather a result of gender wars. In the postscript of her essay, Solnit argues that although women can also be facilitators of patronizing explanations, that’s “not indicative of the massive power differential that takes far more sinister forms. Or of the broad pattern of how gender works in our society” (12). In her essay Solnit is reflecting on the open space for men and the narrow space for women to speak, be heard, be respected, to participate and have rights which manifests itself in these forms of polite discourse and emerge in impolite discourse and in acts of intimidation and violence against women.
In chapter Two and Three, Solnit delves deeper into the discrediting of women by emphasizing the pattern that is overlooked in the incidences of violence against women. In most circumstances men develop elaborate explanations and justification for violence perpetrated against women, all to avoid gendering the violence when it provides the clearest explanation. The war of the sexes is lopsided, the “usual guidelines in such situations put the full burden of prevention on potential victims, treating the violence like it’s a given” (29). Therefore the burden lies on the woman to limit her life to avoid being a victim, while men impose their power and desire to control on women. This pattern of male power has been pertinent throughout history as they have endeavored to dominate, exploit and silence others for their own riches as seen throughout decades of imperialism. It is evident in the perpetual assault on women’s autonomy by men in power, such as Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the IMF who allegedly sexually assaulted a hotel employee and other subordinate women. It is also seen predominantly in the American political and legal system as well. Just in 2012, Senator Todd Akins claimed that a woman has ways of preventing pregnancy in cases of rape while working with five other male Senators to to gut reproductive rights, access to birth controls and abortion. However, not all men are predators, many men consider themselves feminists because they understand the benefit it provides men to not conform to the societal imagination of masculinity. Solnit explains that although the Women’s Liberation movement was construed as a movement intent on encroaching or taking power and privilege away from men, it is reflective more on those against it that they believe only one gender at a time can be free and powerful.
Questions for Consideration:
- Why do you think that men have been found, statistically, to be actors of more violence than women? In what way does our culture impact how men and women react differently to their emotions?
- In reflecting on the way that men impose their desire for control and power on women, how can we in our community foster a space where women are autonomous and men are able to live without the pressure to be this narrow form of masculine?
- What does Solnit’s ideal meaning of democracy say about what is lacking in our democracy today? How is classism and sexism intertwined according to Solnit?
- How does Solnit’s view the feminist movement and the women’s liberation movement differ from Bell Hook’s view? How does Bell Hooks Chapter 9 presentation on violence against women differ or show similarities to Solnits view of violence against women as fundamentally gendered?
Solnit does a great job at painting a picture of male and female roles in society and how those stereotypes ring true in certain situations and you thoughtfully had great responses to those ideas. In these first three chapters, she opens up the discussion of male domination and male power over women using the simple analogy of how men will explain things to women despite whether they know what they are talking about. This stems from the idea the men hold a hierarchal power in society that place females inferior to them which is the root to many other issues she later discusses. Violence, for example she says is “the way to silence people to deny their voice and their credibility to assert your right to control their right to exist”. This statement clearly supports why men act in violence towards women because it is their way to suppress their identities and keep them under their domination. The voices of women have been oppressed for their basic rights to life and Solnit discusses the long war of these rights in chapter 2. To reflect upon your question regarding why men statistically are more violent than women is that violence is a way to control and gain power and societal ideologies have insisted that men are the dominant in a relationship. To followup that, culture has painted a picture of what is masculine and feminine. Although we work to diminish these restricting stigmas, the idea that femininity means you should act “ladylike” and be “emotional” while masculinity means you should suppress any emotions and act “tough”. These cultural ideologies contribute to these gendered differences.
I believe that men have been found, statistically, to display more violence than women because that is what they have been taught. There is a cycle of oppression and the dominance of the patriarchy. While men are taught to “be manly” (which is associated with toughness and violence), women have been, and continue to be, taught to be subservient to men and to be meek. Our culture perpetuates gender roles, both visibly and covertly, and these gender roles are seen in violence statistics. If men have been conditioned to strive for the “manly” ideal, their use of violence is justified, if not celebrated by what are supposed values in those gender roles. I believe that by addressing these historically prevalent gender roles and breaking down the problems with women being seen as inferior and weak, and men being strong and assertive. I think it is deeply historically rooted, and will definitely take time, but I believe that the conversation on gender today is really helpful. I believe sexual violence is one way this gender role dynamic can be exhibited, as the purpose is to dominate and overpower, which are male traits that are supposedly “manly” I think that reflecting on gender roles is a really interesting dynamic through the lens of power, which I think Solnit really reflects in these chapters.
I agree with both Sarah and Maria about their observation that fundamentally societal gender roles which dictate men to be gruff and women to be meek are fundamentally why men are more violent than women. These expectations of the sexes subjects women to be subservient to a power hungry or dominating man. The fulfillment of men to present as strong and emotionless is celebrated in American culture and the violence of men in various forms, against women or against each other, is often protected. However, societal defense of violent men is often contingent upon their class and race.
I agree with Maria that the increased communication about how gender roles are an impediment to the flourishing of both genders, but I am curious what other conversations must be had to increase the knowledge about the gendered quality of violence. If more people knew that men are perpetrators of violent crimes at severe rates in comparison to women, would we more quickly reassess how our culture rears young men? Is it up to women alone to bring this to the attention of our communities, how can men overtly or subtly bring attention to it?
Not only is it in our culture, but also in many other cultures, that men are expected to uphold their masculinity, which is often done through holding back any emotions that aren’t anger or anything else that can be expressed through violence. I think men are more likely to be actors of violence because rage and violence are seen as aspects of masculinity, which was mentioned last class when talking about how violent men are often romanticized and depicted as being “ladies men” in the media. Also, because aggressive men being seen as masculine is so deeply rooted in our culture, there are many people who don’t see anything wrong with violence against women, especially when it is within one’s household, making it much harder to combat. Fostering a space where women are autonomous and men are able to live without the pressure to be this narrow form of masculine is reliant on both men and women acknowledging this issue and working together to combat it, which is similar to what hooks said in chapter 5 of Feminist Theory. However, I think that this would be very difficult to achieve seeing as some men can’t even acknowledge that men explaining things to women isn’t “really a gendered phenomenon” (10), which, in itself, is men trying to explain something that women experience firsthand to women themselves.
Men have been found statistically to be actors of violence than women due to how men are conditioned in society and how society views violence. This includes the stereotypes of men being strong and or powerful. Men and women are told from a young age to expect men to be inherently aggressive and forceful because that is what makes and defines a man. We are conditioned to also accept this as a fact without questioning this logic that is based on biological differences of sex. Both hound boys and girls are exposed to media that display the aggressor getting the girl and well liked. As young girls, it is often said to them that boys may pull their hair, be aggressive or violate them in some way because they like them. This then causes girls and women to equate affection and love with violence. It also causes girls to build a tolerance to violation. They will be more likely to endure it without speaking up about it because they believe that this is to be expected. Women are expected to simply endure things whereas men are expected to only express themselves through violence and aggression. Both are expected in a way to not show their emotions in healthy ways. They are not allowed to express their feelings that are outside the realm of what is deemed acceptable and appropriate. Both men and women risk being deemed too emotional. Women are expected to be more emotional but are also seen as a bad thing. Men are expected to be emotionless and cold which can lead to anger and lashing out. This can contribute to the violence.
As I have seen and experience, our culture expects men to hide their emotions to act strong or “like a man”. Meanwhile, women are seen as more emotional and vulnerable. Normalizing these behaviors has created a tendency where men tend to repress their emotions and not talk about their feelings. In many cases, these hidden, repressed emotions, are shown through violent behavior. Men are taught from a young age to be “manly”, they need to be tough, strong, and the head of the family. While women are taught to be nice, gentle, care for their family, and always act with a “motherly” instinct. This idea of masculinity and femininity perpetuates gender violence and male domination. Solnit’s idea on democracy where “everyone has a voice, that no one gets away with things just because of their wealth, power, race, or gender” reflects on the problems our modern-day democracy has. Our democracy runs on classism, our government and policies are built so the rich stay rich and get richer and the poor stay poor. Also, many, if not all, the sectors, policies, and laws in the government are rooted in systematic racism. As a democracy, we follow the Constitution of the United States, which its core values were developed in the 18th century by a group of white men. Even though we have seen ratification in this constitution, it is clear that the core values and rules were created in a time where women did not have rights and slavery was practiced. It is indispensable that we question the true values and implications of the base in our democracy.
Solnit explains her thoughts on women’s liberation by highlighting how the movement “has often been portrayed as a movement intent on encroaching upon or taking power and privilege away from men, as though in some dismal zero-sum game, only one gender at a time can be free and powerful. But we are free together or slaves together” (24). Hooks on the other hand, specifies and highlights how white women liberationists in particular excluded all other groups of women, assuming the “plight of white women” was synonymous with a condition affecting all American women. This “plight of white women” she refers to is them wanting to be equal to white men and rejecting the housewife role. Some men felt threatened by this idea and thought that feminism was anti-male. Bell hooks defines feminism as the struggle to end all oppression against all groups of people. She acknowledges that feminism is multidimensional as it applies to everyone irrespective of class, race, or gender. Both Solnit and Hooks echo the idea that feminism applies to everyone. Feminism cannot succeed without male participation. Notably, there has been a number of men who have engaged and contributed to feminist movements throughout history, and there was even an emergence of a men’s movement in the 1970s in favor of women’s liberation. However, individual theorists and men’s movements in the past have failed to gain widespread participation and long-term traction. Today, many men still shy away from topics relating to feminism and gender oppression, and there has also been a recent renewal of the men’s rights movement—which takes a strictly anti-feminist stance, claiming that men are the sole victims of gender oppression. In order for progress to happen, men need to find their voice and place within the women’s liberation movement. In our communities, we can encourage this by creating spaces where men and women can talk about these issues and share personal stories. One possibility is to bring back some form of consciousness-raising–including groups for women and groups for men. This could provide men with a space to express their feelings while confronting systems of power and bringing attention to various issues. The semi-casual and semi-structured nature of consciousness-raising can hopefully promote widespread participation—encouraging men to join the movement instead of shying away from big topics. These groups should not tolerate violence or blame women for their problems. The conversations should be centered on ways to support women and the feminist movement.
Males are taught from a young age that to be a man means showing off power and control of the things and people around them. Solnit chips at the idea that men are to be revered just because of their genitalia when she shares her dinner party anecdote. The man who claims to be so well-read and even attempts to silence Solnit with facts from her own work is proof that men like that truly believe they are superior. Even after it comes to light that Solnit is who wrote everything the man was trying to explain to her, he still insisted on her inferiority. In situations like these, it is understandable who someone would shrink after being bombarded with insults, and being told they are lesser. When males are taught to “be manly” they are also taught that they must be aggressive and that their penis affords them the opportunity to lord over women and soft-spoken men. When large groups of men come together it is not uncharacteristic for them to exchange verbal and physical acts of aggression to prove who is manliest. These situations teach males from a young age that to “be manly” they must verbally or physically abuse others to prove dominance.
Males are taught from a young age that to be a man means showing off power and control of the things and people around them. Solnit chips at the idea that men are to be revered just because of their genitalia when she shares her dinner party anecdote. The man who claims to be so well-read and even attempts to silence Solnit with facts from her own work is proof that men like that truly believe they are superior. Even after it comes to light that Solnit is who wrote everything the man was trying to explain to her, he still insisted on her inferiority. In situations like these, it is understandable who someone would shrink after being bombarded with insults, and being told they are lesser. When males are taught to “be manly” they are also taught that they must be aggressive and that their penis affords them the opportunity to lord over women and soft-spoken men. When large groups of men come together it is not uncharacteristic for them to exchange verbal and physical acts of aggression to prove who is manliest. These situations teach males from a young age that to “be manly” they must verbally or physically abuse others to prove dominance. If we want to develop a safe space in which women’s autonomy is respected, then we must be able to claim it for ourselves and have strong male allies. When I say claim it for ourselves, I mean changing our behaviors in social settings, so that men no longer feel that they can back us into a corner and make us submit. We also must not try to change the world by ourselves, meaning we must accept help from men who genuinely believe in furthering our cause.