Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit
Published: May 20th, 2014 by Haymarket Books
Genre(s): Non-fiction, essay, feminism, women’s studies
Pages: 130 pgs
Synopsis (from Goodreads):
In her comic, scathing essay “Men Explain Things to Me,” Rebecca Solnit took on what often goes wrong in conversations between men and women. She wrote about men who wrongly assume they know things and wrongly assume women don’t, about why this arises, and how this aspect of the gender wars works, airing some of her own hilariously awful encounters.
She ends on a serious note— because the ultimate problem is the silencing of women who have something to say, including those saying things like, “He’s trying to kill me!”
This book features that now-classic essay with six perfect complements, including an examination of the great feminist writer Virginia Woolf ’s embrace of mystery, of not knowing, of doubt and ambiguity, a highly original inquiry into marriage equality, and a terrifying survey of the scope of contemporary violence against women.
There are some people that are going to see the title of this book and immediately scream, “MISANDRIST! THIS IS ANTI-MEN!” and immediately dismiss this short, yet powerful work by essayist and activist Rebecca Solnit. And, honestly, that’s fine — they’re not the intended audience for the seven essays found within these pages. Who Solnit intends on reaching out to, instead, are those who are on the fence about feminism, those who don’t really understand exactly how pervasive misogyny, racism, homophobia, and the like are in our society — and not just solely in the United States. It’s intended for people who use the feminist label, but could stand for a little more education. It’s intended for those deeply involved in the movement and want to know more ways on how to improve things for all people, not just straight white cis middle class women in the United States. See, people who are prone to shout “FEMINISM IS MISANDRIST” from the rooftops just generally aren’t open-minded enough to understand that there’s more to life than promoting standard gender roles.
First, I feel like I need to praise Solnit for her expertise in linking together a series of essays that — for the most part — all have a strong sense of cohesion. There was one essay regarding the philosophy of Virginia Woolf that loosely had to do with being comfortable with future’s uncertainty and developing spaces for women to be their own person, but I’ll save the criticism for a different paragraph. I appreciate Solnit’s well-rounded approach to bringing certain issues into light that others may have missed: the absolute power play between Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the hotel housekeeper he assaulted, how marriage equality actually is a threat to “traditional” marriage and gender roles — but in a good way, how certain men think they absolutely have to be the end-all-be-all on the topics they discuss, and the hope that stems from opening the djinni’s bottle of women’s rights and struggle. Issues from many different corners of feminism that aren’t often explored are covered in these essays and Solnit takes the time to explain exactly what led up to certain events happening, all while not condescending to the reader (in most cases, which I’ll get into). There are a few moments in which I found myself pumping my fist in the air as agreement and others in which I had to seriously sit back to consider exactly what she was positing.
However, I did find myself not really meshing with a few things about Solnit’s essays. As mentioned above, I wasn’t a fan of the Virginia Woolf piece, as I didn’t really think it was adding anything truly new to Woolf’s propositions in A Room of One’s Own. This one had me zoning out quite a lot while reading through and, unfortunately, I just kinda skimmed over it just to get it over with. This particular essay, called “Woolf’s Darkness,” felt like a strong instance of condescension on Solnit’s part, especially with regard to her constant call backs to ideas readers would only get if they had read her previous works — which I haven’t — and treating some of Woolf’s ideas about the future and personal space as her own. Furthermore, while I commend Solnit’s inclusion of how rape culture is pervasive throughout the world, I was also interested to see if she had an essay exploring the intersection between race and gender in the United States, given that it’s a highly-covered topic in third wave feminism. However, I was extremely disappointed to see that she didn’t even mention this particular — and important — topic anywhere in her essays. I don’t even want to excuse it as Solnit being an older writer and missing out on that arena of feminism; she writes in the final essay about keeping up with feminists of the younger generation and seeing what they’re passionate about. How is that something to be ignored, especially in light of the Trayvon Martin and other issues of race in recent years?
Overall, I would absolutely recommend this as a primer for some of the more pressing issues at hand when facing modern feminism. However, there are a few glaring issues — as covered above — that I would feel like I need to give warning to for those who are truly taking an intersectional approach to their feminism. While I’m glad to see that Solnit has included ways to include different sections of people in her feminism, even men who recognize that the status quo is harmful to them as well, there are some places in which she lacks that definitely need review. I would have liked to see more essays included in this, but since I know she’s constantly writing and publishing, I may have another short book to look forward to in the future.
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