Mini-Review: Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit (2014)

October 26th, 2015 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

#YesAllWomen

four out of five stars

(Trigger warning for violence, including rape and domestic violence.)

When I first heard of Men Explain Things to Me, I giddily mistook it for an extended essay on mansplaining. Alas, it’s actually a collection of nine previously published essays, kicked off by the book’s namesake, “Men Explain Things to Me” (which inspired the term “mansplaining,” though Solnit didn’t herself coin it; mainsplaining, of course, eventually led to whitesplaining and Damonsplaining). Any disappointment I might have initially felt was quickly assuaged by the general awesomeness of Solnit’s other pieces.

Nearly all of the essays are loosely organized around women’s rights and feminism; deconstructing and dismantling the patriarchy, if you will. Solnit masterfully examines and connects myriad topics: rape culture; the epidemic of violence against women; the very real threat that “gay marriage” poses to the unequal power dynamics inherent in traditional marriage; how Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s (“alleged”) assault of Nafissatou Diallo could be read as a microcosm of the IMF’s predatory abuse of power; the disappearing of women from history, from genealogy, from public conversations and places; the voluntary policing of women that so many men (and not a few women) eagerly engage in; and the power of language to name, shame, and effect change. Especially timely (sadly, as always) is her discussion of toxic masculinity and mass shootings, in reference to the 2014 Isla Vista killings.

The only piece I didn’t really care for was “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Explicable,” which is rather dense and feels out of step with its neighbors; unlike the essays, which were originally written for online news sites, “Woolf’s Darkness” was adapted from a keynote lecture to the binational Nineteenth Annual Conference on Virginia Woolf.

Also a tad disappointing is Solnit’s decision not to reprint the essays with the original references and footnotes attached. Instead, she directs the reader to find the original, unedited, online versions of the essays (and doesn’t give direct links to 8/9, ugh). Imho, user convenience always trumps aesthetics (at least when it comes to books, and nonfiction ones especially), and having to hop online to search out references is not terribly user-friendly. Not that the inclusion of such would stop the mouth-breathers from huffing and puffing, but still.

All in all, Men Explain Things to Me is an insightful and enjoyable (if too-small!) collection of essays that’s well worth a read. 4/5 stars, although most of the individual pieces scored a 5/5 with me.

And, because this is a much shorter review than I’m accustomed to writing, here are a few choice quotes from Men Explain Things to Me. (I had already compiled them for the 2015 Book Memories Challenge, so why not?)

We have far more than eighty-seven thousand rapes in this country every year, but each of them is invariably portrayed as an isolated incident. We have dots so close they’re splatters melting into a stain, but hardly anyone connects them, or names that stain. In India they did. They said that this is a civil rights issues, it’s a human rights issue, it’s everyone’s problem, it’s not isolated, and it’s never going to be acceptable again. It has to change. It’s your job to change it, and mine, and ours.
(“The Longest War”)

Language is power. When you turn “torture” into “enhanced interrogation,” or murdered children into “collateral damage,” you break the power of language to convey meaning, to make us see, feel, and care. But it works both ways. You can use the power of words to bury meaning or to excavate it. If you lack words for a phenomenon, and emotion, a situation, you can’t talk about it, which means that you can’t come together to address it, let alone change it.
(“#YesAllWomen: Feminists Rewrite the Story”)

Six years ago, when I sat down and wrote the essay “Men Explain Things to Me,” here’s what surprised me: though I began with a ridiculous example of being patronized by a man, I ended with rapes and murders. We tend to treat violence and the abuse of power as though they fit into airtight categories: harassment, intimidation, threat, battery, rape, murder. But I realize now that what I was saying is: it’s a slippery slope. That’s why we need to address that slope, rather than compartmentalizing the varieties of misogyny and dealing with each separately. Doing so has meant fragmenting the picture, seeing the parts, not the whole.
(“#YesAllWomen: Feminists Rewrite the Story”)

What doesn’t go back in the jar or the box are ideas. And revolutions are, most of all, made up of ideas.
(“Pandora’s Box and the Volunteer Police Force”)

Here’s the box Pandora held and the bottles the genies were released from; they look like prisons and coffins now.
(“Pandora’s Box and the Volunteer Police Force”)

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Solnit’s examinations of rape culture, violence against women, and unequal power dynamics between the genders are frequently intersectional in nature; look to examples, both positive and negative, from other countries; and reference specific events involving women of color. For example, she explores how Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s (“alleged”) assault of Nafissatou Diallo could be read as a microcosm of the IMF’s predatory abuse of power toward developing nations; how the rape and murder of Jyoti Singh in New Delphi ignited a backlash against rape culture in India; the potential of “gay marriage” to upend the rigid gender roles of traditional marriage, based as it is on the idea that women are property to be traded between men; the groundbreaking work of indigenous Canadian women; and how we might look to the Zapatistas to better envision the future of feminism.

Animal-friendly elements: n/a.

 

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