Writing tip: Adding “man-” turns your complaint into a take

Women manspreading.

Yesterday, Twitter user and self-described strategic analyst Eric Garland posted a long, threaded rant about the condition of contemporary politics. It began with this tweet:

As you can see, it’s pretty popular. I came across it when it was shared by Clara Jeffery, editor of Mother Jones, who likened it to the Federalist Papers. She’s clearly the expert, but I disagree with her assessment. Garland doesn’t advance a point so much as vent his frustration. You can read the whole million-tweet thread on this Google doc, thoughtfully assembled by Libby Watson. It digresses. A wag might summarize his argument as “What is game theory?” But over at Gizmodo, Alana Hope Levinson takes issue with the <THREAD> part. Men, she admonishes, Please Stop Manthreading:

There is this thing that people (mostly men) love to do on Twitter, something other than harass women and send DMs of their half chubs. It’s called threading, and it’s one of the many things ruining my Twitter experience.

That last sentence is great, and I bet she meant it as a joke. Still, maybe it’s just because my gender requires me to think about few other problems, but I don’t like what Levinson is doing, here. You can attach “man” to any complaint about annoying public behavior and turn it into a take. Every writer knows this. But we have sworn in the darkened chambers of our society never to abuse it, the same way Masons promise not to kill anyone with a trowel.

Here’s how it works: In the midnight hour, when others are asleep, light some candles and fire up Microsoft Word. Then think of something that annoys you. This will summon the ghost that emerged after the death of the term “mansplaining.”

“Mansplain” used to be a funny and useful word. It described the particular expression of systemic misogyny that occurs when a man explains something to a woman who is already an expert in that thing. For example, if I tell the woman astronomer1 that the sun is actually a ball of incandescent gas, I’m mansplaining.

The crucial element is that she already knows what I’m explaining to her. I don’t realize that, because society has taught me to assume women don’t know things. That’s why mansplaining is a feminist issue. Now that the term has become popular, though, most people use it simply to mean a man explaining something to a woman. This usage strips “mainsplaining” of the content of its feminist critique. Instead of sardonically showing us misogyny in action, this use of “mansplain” merely identifies woman and man.

If I explain to our lady astronomer the plot to an episode of the Simpsons she hasn’t seen, I’m not mansplaining. I’m just boring her. It is annoying and I am a man, but it is not gendered behavior. Women hold forth to women, too. It’s conceivable a woman might even bore a man. These situations would be tragedies, in their ways, but they wouldn’t be misogyny. They’re just people making people miserable, again.

You can’t write a take about how people are annoying, though. That’s why you have to capture the disembodied spirit of “mansplaining” by attaching the prefix “man-” to whatever annoys you, trapping the ghost inside it and making it a feminist issue. Three thousand-word Twitter thread becomes inexplicably popular, even though it’s just an avalanche of slang learned from interns? That’s annoying. A man did it? Please stop manthreading.

It’s like when you make a golem. Most of it is just shaping a boring body out of clay. But then you inscribe the old aleph in its forehead, and it comes to life, running around the village and, uh, doing good. Takes work the same way. Putting the word man– in front of some irritating thing people do—such as mansmelling and mansprinting down the escalator—situates our daily annoyances within a grand struggle. Men wouldn’t talk in the movie theater if cultural misogyny didn’t tell them they could. If he were a woman, my dentist probably wouldn’t have spent twenty minutes telling me about his cabin, mansplaining the whole lake. Mentists!

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