Men Explain Things to Me
By Rebecca Solnit
Haymarket Books/Dispatch Books, 2014
The seven essays in Rebecca Solnit’s latest collection, Men Explain Things to Me, range from the righteously indignant title piece to commentaries that address the persistent plague of male violence, the backlash against marriage equality and the bubbling up of feminist activism among a new generation of youth. There’s also serious scholarship here, including an analysis of Virginia Woolf’s embrace of ambiguity and doubt, alongside work meant to inspire social change. It’s a potent and engaging brew, and while some of the essays seem somewhat dated — six of the pieces were published in TomDispatch, The Financial Times, and Zyzzva Magazine between 2008 and early 2014 — Solnit’s pull-no-punches observations nonetheless make this a valuable contribution to feminist theory.
Indeed, the many pontificators who have declared feminism passé need simply read the memoir fragment that became the title essay, “Men Explain Things to Me,” to be reminded of their folly. In the piece, Solnit recounts a personal experience: The scene is a genteel dinner party and Solnit, with her friend Sally, is telling the male host about the recent release of her book, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West.
“He cut me off after I mentioned Muybridge,” Solnit begins. “‘Have you heard about the very important Muybridge book that came out this year?’” The gent asked.
“Mr. Very Important,” she continues, “was going on smugly about this book I should have known when Sally interrupted him to say, ‘That’s her book.’ Or tried to interrupt him anyway. But he just continued on his way. She had to say, ‘That’s her book’ three or four times before he finally took it in… And then, he went ashen.”
Yes, it’s funny in a “gotcha” sort of way, but it is also an experience that will resonate with many women. It surely did with me, as I remembered the guy who offered to “correct” an article I was working on and the man who suggested I read a lot if I wanted to write well.
While it helps to have a sense of humor about some of this, other topics, like the ubiquity of rape, sexual assault and domestic violence, are deadly serious. Solnit’s “The Longest War” addresses these crimes — the kinds of assaults that include the recent murder of teenager Maren Sanchez by a male peer in Connecticut and the killings carried out by Elliot Rodger in Isla Vista, California — and underscores the fact that they are far more likely to be perpetrated by men against women than the reverse. “The lives of half of humanity are still dogged by, drained by, and sometimes ended by this pervasive variety of violence,” she writes. “Think of how much more time and energy we would have to focus on other things if we weren’t so busy surviving.”
Or, imagine, for that matter, not having to fight for marriage equality — not only in the traditional sense of the term, which denotes same-sex marriage, but in terms of equality between heterosexual partners. In “In Praise of the Threat,” Solnit champions the parity she believes is inherent in LGBTQ relationships. While I would argue that the existence of racial and class hierarchies are as common in same-gender relationships as they are in straight ones, her contention that queer couplings represent an alternative to the rigid gender binary — one that opens up space for reimagining heterosexual relationships as well — is both refreshing and hopeful.
Likewise, her closing essay, “Pandora’s Box and the Volunteer Police Force,” notes how far we’ve come in the past 50 years. Domestic violence is considered a crime; women are visible players in political, social and economic life; bearing children out of wedlock is no longer deemed shameful or even wrong; and the term “rape culture” has been coined to call attention to society’s assumptions about predatory male behavior.
And our lexicon has recently been expanded. As Solnit wrote on TomDispatch on June 1, the term “sexual entitlement” has come to the fore since the Isla Vista murders. This attitude, she explains, rests on the assumption that a man has the right to have sex with a woman regardless of what she wants. “In other words,” Solnit wrote, "his rights trump hers, or she has none.”
Although this is maddening, Solnit nonetheless celebrates the feminist gains that have been made to date and argues that, no matter the backlash, the genie cannot be stuffed back into the bottle. Although I’m not entirely convinced — just look at the Taliban or Nazi rise to power and the immediate suppression they orchestrated — if her optimism catalyzes a movement to ensure that these gains are maintained and built on, it will be high time to toast the vigilance of those — like Solnit — who have made it happen.
#YesAllWomen, by Alina Mogilyanskaya
'There Was No One For Me To Turn To,' by Alina Mogilyanskaya
Now All Men, by Nicholas Powers