Support the ‘Prince’
Please disable ad blockers for our domain. Thank you!

Wednesday, August 12

Previous Issues

Men explain things to me at Princeton

In 2008, Rebecca Solnit published the groundbreaking article “Men Explain Things to Me” outlining her repeated experiences with men ignoring her established knowledge (Solnit has written seventeen books about the environment, politics, and art) and condescendingly explaining her expertise to her — in one extreme case, explaining her own book. The publication of this article led to the coining of the word “mansplaining,” or “the explanation of something by a man, typically to a woman, in a manner regarded as condescending or patronizing,” according to Oxford Dictionaries.

Since then, the word and the concept behind it have only become more misunderstood and maligned as a supposed tool for “reverse sexism.” Ironically, the societal instinct behind mansplaining has contributed to dismissals of women’s experiences of it. As participants in an institution dedicated to the production and legitimation of new knowledge, the phenomenon of “mansplaining” must be recognized as a genuinely harmful practice at Princeton — while some may argue that female students are exaggerating the prevalence of the problem, one has to look no further than The Daily Princetonian comments section as an example. 

It is important to note, as Solnit does, that “mansplaining is not a universal flaw of the gender, just the intersection between overconfidence and cluelessness where some portion of that gender gets stuck.” Not all instances of men offering explanations are mansplaining, and women are equally capable of condescension. Mansplaining, however, defines a specific trend that spans interpersonal and societal dynamics of power.

In her article, Solnit described how “on [multiple] occasions, I objected to the behavior of a man, only to be told that the incidents hadn’t happened at all as I said, that I was subjective, delusional, overwrought, dishonest – in a nutshell, female.”

The implications of mansplaining go further than the conversational level; the systemic dismissal of women’s experiences and knowledge play out, for example, when countries like Yemen and Saudi Arabia deny that women’s testimony has legal standing, so a woman can’t testify that she was raped without a male witness. Mansplaining on Princeton’s campus and gender-based violence are not equivalent, but they are both examples on the spectrum of denying women’s right to legitimacy and believability.

Examples abound of female students feeling that they are ignored or spoken over in class. Frustration with the societal and unofficial administrative responses to campus sexual assault stems from the fact that women’s accounts are often treated as false until proven otherwise, as demonstrated by the paranoia around false accusations despite their infrequency. 

Women aren’t taken seriously by their doctors when they say they don’t want children, or when they report symptoms of pain. These are all examples of the varying degrees of society’s habit of dismissing women and their understanding of the world. Another example, one that hits closer to home, is the treatment of female writers in this newspaper — the comments section of The Daily Princetonian serves as a helpful microcosm for this trend and substantiates female students’ assertion that these instances occur even within the elite “Orange Bubble.”

Op-ed sections by their very nature depend on the legitimacy of one writer’s account, as they are reliant on subjective interpretations of reality. As a result, there is a perhaps subconscious preference for male voices — 97 percent of opinion columns written by scholars in the Wall Street Journal are men. In this newspaper, female opinion writers face repeated denials in the comments section of their claims to knowledge.

While comments sections are never hospitable places, there is a visible difference in the way male writers are treated versus female writers. Articles written by male writers generally receive comments that take issue with the substantive points in the article — one exemplary comment reads: “An interesting article that raises some questions” and goes on to analyze the article point by point. Questions about the articles’ point (“What's the point of legislation if it's only symbolic?”) appear more frequently, and the attacks tend to be at larger groups (liberals, authoritarians, etc.) rather than against the writer personally. There are obviously examples of these targeted attacks, but they are much less frequent.

Female writers, on the other hand, are eviscerated or condescended to for their pretensions at knowledge. Comments include: “I think you misinterpret what a person usually means ...”; “The author like many before her fails to understand ...”; and “this author needs to stop looking down on everyone.” Insults on my own columns (which have since been taken down for violating the paper’s comments policy) have called me a “toddler” and “Princeton’s acceptance mistake,” digs aimed to undermine my claims to mature analytical thought and intelligence. The most dramatic example of condescending advice from a commenter included a “Self-help Program” (for the curious: “Step #1: Get off facebook. It is a for-profit addiction specifically designed to suck your soul away. Step #2: Don't virtue signal.” The commenter reminded the female columnist something I would be shocked if public female figures forgot: “Nobody cares how you feel.”

This trend is in no way limited to The Daily Princetonian. However, it offers concrete examples of the opposition to women asserting their right to knowledge production. Even those women who have purportedly confirmed the legitimacy of their intelligence through admittance to an Ivy League school are personally attacked when they express their thoughts on a public platform.

Clearly the internet does not represent the best of our society. But it does express the societal inclinations that lurk behind closed doors. While harassing female columnists is the extreme, it is a point on a spectrum that includes the abysmally small number of female faculty at Princeton, the underreporting of college sexual assaults, and the chronic interruption of female students in precepts and seminars. It is pointless to ask trolls to stop trolling. Nonetheless, they are a visible symptom of a larger problem that includes the administration and student body at Princeton, who can use this as a moment of realization. The problems we are complaining about are real — look no further than the comment section.

Get the best of ‘the Prince’ delivered straight to your inbox. Subscribe now »

Madeleine Marr is a sophomore from Newtown Square, Pa. She can be reached at