So I should say straight off, that this isn’t an essay for the guys who don’t know any better. It isn’t an essay for my converted sisters, so we can nod our heads in unison. Nor is it an essay meant to flash my ally credentials at feminists of colour. Mansplaining, for all the goofiness of the term itself, is a real and serious act of silencing, and it is embedded in wider systems of oppression. And I’d like to talk with you (whoever you are, as long as you’re down) about the ways in which the geek community works to silence and marginalize, through translation, explanation, and self-validation.
In 2008 Rebecca Solnit wrote an essay called Men Explain Things To Me. At a decidedly old guard party, theorist and author Solnit, has her new book explained to her by a gentleman who is ignorant of her identity. He doesn’t know that he’s explaining Muybridge, to the lady who wrote the book on Muybridge. Awkward.
The essay became an internet classic for a reason–this is an all too common scene.
Mansplaining isn’t the simple crime of men explaining things to women. (How very dare!) Rather, it’s the act of using naturalized male authority to seize control of the conversation, and put conversants in their place. It’s sexist argument from authority, and a logical fallacy.
So how does an argument from authority work? Authority is a conversational cudgel (to borrow some phrasing from a mansplainer in chief), a because-I-said-so that demands no proof.
Like so: Jack knows a lot about game design. Jack knows a lot about games and gaming culture. Surely Jack knows a lot about sexism in games! Jack’s unsupported opinion is enough for me.
Maybe Jack knows all there is to know about sexism in games (probably not), but his argument (“This isn’t a sexist game–trust me.”) doesn’t rely on evidence. It relies only on his authority. That authority derives in part from his background in game design, but more importantly, his trump card is male privilege.
Mansplaining isn’t just an argument from authority, it’s an argument from sexist authority. It’s very literally, “I’m right, you’re wrong, because woman.” If Jack’s background in game design fails, he can fall back on the greater weight that men’s voices still carry. He can prop his argument up, by leaning on subconscious gender biases that tell us one woman in a cast of six is enough, or that a woman speaking 30% of the time has tried to dominate the conversation, and that man is (yup, still!) the breadwinner, the leader, and the cool, calm and rational one.
Mansplaining is the conversational arm of there-there-dear sexism, and it isn’t going away anytime soon.
Let’s talk about Hugo Schwyzer for a sec. Recently this self-proclaimed feminist had a meltdown in which he publicly admitted to being a conniving user and abuser. In order to advance his career, he attacked bloggers who criticized his patrons, in some cases torpedoing their careers. In the midst of this endless parade of performative douchebaggery, he also outed a sex worker, and offered up mental illness like a blank cheque excuse for all of his actions. His patrons, prominent white feminist writers and editors, largely responded with silence, explanation, or denial. Mikki Kendall (@karnythia) started the hashtag #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen in response.
Schwyzer’s career and subsequent meltdown demonstrate the enduring allure of the mansplaining feminist: your guy onside. And even more importantly, it demonstrates another argument from authority that’s all too common in feminist circles: the argument from racist authority, or White People Explain Things.
Schwyzer’s role in feminism was to mansplain: to women (especially women of colour), and to other men. Schwyzer was trying ever so hard to be the Great Dude of Feminism, Spokesmodel and Professional Validator In Chief, and many women were very happy to help him get there. For those women who supported him, they could look to him for support in return. They could point to him as a guy who got it, a guy who knew that they were right, and took that message to the streets. He was a brand ambassador. A little bit of male authority to shore up a particular white, cis, middle class, digital feminism.
Part and parcel of employing that male authority, was using their (and his) white authority to silence feminists of colour. For white voices, like male voices, are less burdened by suggestions of tokenism, irrationality, or grudges.
I’ve been storing up a rant about Joss Whedon for years. It’s not about him personally, or about his work specifically, but rather, how his work is treated (venerated) by fans and academics alike. This is not that rant, but I do need to talk about Joss Whedon, Rob Thomas, Greg Rucka, Brian K. Vaughan, and all the middle-aged, white, male heroes of geek feminism.
We all know the story. Joss Whedon was asked, “Why do you write strong female characters?” and he famously responded, “Because you keep asking me that question.” That anecdote is the keystone of his place in geek feminism. Here is a man who fights the good fight, simply because there are still battles to be fought. Amazing! What a hero! I don’t know Joss Whedon personally, and I’m not interested in interrogating his motives here. I believe that he is a sincere progressive, who loves to tell stories about awesome women, and thinks that it is important to do so. He seems like a good guy. So do Rob Thomas and all the rest. But what needs interrogating is the narrative of the heroic male feminist, both in the wider culture, and in geek circles. Should an ally be accounted a hero, just for doing what’s right?
Tied up in all of this is the geek spin on auteur theory. The great creator, the writer-director-show-runner, bears the responsibility and accrues all glory for the piece. It’s Joss Whedon’s vision that made Buffy so special. He’s Terrence Malick meets Henry Higgins, and despite the contributions of other writers and directors, of actors and crew members, it’s his vision that dominates, that makes it through to us, the viewers. Marti Noxon, Jane Espensen and the rest are, in this view, merely valued assistants. Creative also-rans who know their role is to help bring forth the vision of the great creator.
Of course, this has little to do with how a tv show is actually made. Nor even, how a game or mass market comic book is made. These are all collaborative creative pursuits. A hundred pairs of hands might touch that comic, game, or show before it makes it into yours. Editors, printers, distributors, producers, and marketers, to say nothing of colourists, inkers, second unit directors, and fight choreographers, all have real input into final product. Everyone from co-creators to money men. But this disrupts the tidy narrative of creative heroism. No one is bravely going it alone, but are rather situated in networks of creative, financial, and personal support, and the work of women and people of colour, is suddenly of real importance.
Joss Whedon and friends, though, is a little harder to venerate. Jane Espensen and friends, perhaps more so. Felicia Day and friends. Nichelle Nichols and friends. Anna Anthropy and friends. Jill Pantozzi and friends. All of these women have made important contributions to geek culture, but none of them can provide us with what Whedon, Thomas, and the others do: male validation. Proof that it’s not just a bunch of silly geek girls making stuff for each other, and talking about each other’s work, but that guys care about our issues too. We must be doing something right. There’s strategy to the grooming and inducting of male feminist heroes–but in turning the volume up on their mics, we make ours a little softer. What is the exit strategy for male validation?
The thing about authority that derives from privilege is that it’s normative: it’s the way things are, so much so that it’s invisible. Sometimes even to those without it. But in the case of Schwyzer, a certain cold calculus was employed: I can make it up that hill faster if we’re working together, and pushing those other(ed) women behind.
@BlackGirlNerds made this contribution to #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen: “When black women who are self-declared nerds are seen as an anomaly. And white nerdiness is the social norm.”
Just as we should be past explaining that girls can be geeks too, we should be past explaining that female geekiness isn’t exclusive to white women, or straight, cis women. We should be past explaining for each other, giving helping hands that only serve to keep other women in their place.
Being editor of Women Write About Comics gives me a certain authority to speak about issues of gender and comics. Being white, cis, and educated, gives me a certain unearned authority in society as a whole. All of these factors mean that you might take my words a little more seriously than you would have otherwise. I don’t know. I’m the editor of WWAC, but I’m not its voice. I’m honoured to work with my colleagues here on WWAC and in the geek journo community, but I’m not a translator or interpreter. That’s not my place. That role, White Lady Who Explains, is neither needed nor desired.
There are two fantastic image sets that recently made the rounds on Tumblr: My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.* My feminism includes all kinds of women working in solidarity–which cannot be demanded or coerced by women in power–and men operating as allies. My feminism does not include spokespeople or explainers.
* Originally said by Flavia Dzodan of Red Light Politics.