Book Review: Men Explain Things to Me

By Emma Davis

Men Explain Things to Me is a series of nine essays written by Rebecca Solnit, an American writer, historian, and feminist. While the essays cover a range of topics from violence against women to the benefits of a dark future, the long tradition of silencing women runs throughout as a central theme. Solnit’s writing is generally pretty good, although several of her analogies seem a bit awkward and far-fetched (at one point she describes the fight for gender equality as a football game). Where she shines is in connecting the quotidian to the extreme, illuminating a pattern of violence that works to oppress and silence women. In fact this is one of her main arguments: we must not categorize the myriads of misogyny and address them separately, but rather address the ‘slippery slope’ that encompasses them all.

However, in trying to capture the larger picture, Solnit misses a lot of the details. Her book is an example of white pop feminism; painting the fight with broad strokes rather than exploring the intersections of gender, race, sexuality, class, and other facets of our identities. In In Praise of the Threat she does talk about marriage equality and the LGBT movement, but her argument is that feminism created space for the marriage equality movement by demanding more equality in traditional heterosexual marriages. She argues this as if feminism and the LGBT rights movement haven’t fed off and into each other consistently over the last few decades and worked together to chip away at restrictive gender roles and other binaries.

Solnit has an even bigger blind spot when it comes to race. “Violence doesn’t have a race, a class, a religion, or a nationality, but it does have a gender,” she boldly claims. I wonder if she has rethought these words since the increase in attention paid to cases of police brutality in the US. Furthermore, has she considered that the majority of wars waged since World War II have been waged in the Global South on people of color? What about the rate at which black transgender women are murdered? Maybe she didn’t want to write about experiences she doesn’t know, but that didn’t stop her from devoting an entire paragraph to criticizing the role of the veil in Islam as a form of erasure.

TimesUp and #MeToo Activists joined Actresses in a demonstration of solidarity against sexual harassment and violence against women at the Golden Globes in January. Photo:

These criticisms aren’t to say that Men Explain Things to Me isn’t worth a read. In the essay titled #YesAllWomen: Feminists Rewrite the Story, Solnit emphasizes the importance of language in tackling oppression. One of the key phrases that has come out of the last few years has been ‘rape culture’ and I think we’re seeing its influence in today’s news. At an unprecedented rate, women (and men) are coming forward to accuse prominent men of sexual harassment and assault. And they are being believed enough for those men to face consequences in many cases. For the moment, they’re only professional and social consequences, but they’re consequences nonetheless. The latest victory was the defeat of Alabama Senate Candidate Roy Moore, an accused paedophile, who despite allegations still had a great deal of support from the Republican Party and was not removed from the senate race. That isn’t to say the problem is solved. As is traditionally the case, women’s stories, credibility, and right to speak are being questioned, but the progress is inspiring.

For more optimism to carry you through these times, Pandora’s Box and the Volunteer Police Force will serve nicely. Leaning on anarchist David Graeber, Solnit argues that revolutions are the eruption of ideas, not violence, and like all those things that escaped when Pandora opened her box, it is impossible to put the ideas back. So while lawmakers attempt to repeal transgender rights and universal healthcare, take heart that they are not forgotten. As Martin Luther King, Jr said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”


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