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Men who explain things

Every woman knows what it's like to be patronized by a guy who won't let facts get in the way.

April 13, 2008|Rebecca Solnit | Rebecca Solnit is the author of many books including "A Field Guide to Getting Lost," "River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West" and "Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities." A longer version of this article appears at Tomdispatch.com.

I still don't know why Sallie and I bothered to go to that party in the forest slope above Aspen. The people were all older than us and dull in a distinguished way, old enough that we, at 40-ish, passed as the occasion's young ladies. The house in Colorado was great -- if you like Ralph Lauren-style chalets: a rugged luxury cabin at 9,000 feet, complete with elk antlers, lots of kilims, and a wood-burning stove. We were preparing to leave when our host said, "No, stay a little longer so I can talk to you." He was an imposing man who'd made a lot of money in advertising or something like that.

He kept us waiting while the other guests drifted out into the summer night, and then sat us down at his grainy wood table and said to me, "So? I hear you've written a couple of books."

I replied, "Several, actually."

He said, in the way you encourage your friend's 7-year-old to describe flute practice, "And what are they about?"

They were actually about quite a few different things, the six or seven out by then, but I began to speak only of the most recent on that summer day in 2003, my book on Eadweard Muybridge, the annihilation of time and space and the industrialization of everyday life.

He cut me off soon after I mentioned Muybridge. "And have you heard about the very important Muybridge book that came out this year?"

So caught up was I in my assigned role as ingenue that I was perfectly willing to entertain the possibility that another book on the same subject had come out simultaneously and I'd somehow missed it. He was already telling me about the very important book -- with that smug look I know so well in a man holding forth, eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority.

Here, let me just say that my life is well-sprinkled with lovely men, including a long succession of editors who have, since I was young, listened and encouraged and published me; with my infinitely generous younger brother; with splendid male friends. Still, there are these other men too.

So, Mr. Very Important was going on smugly about this book I should have known when Sallie 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, as if in a 19th century novel, he went ashen. That I was indeed the author of the very important book it turned out he hadn't read, just read about in the New York Times Book Review a few months earlier, so confused the neat categories into which his world was sorted that he was stunned speechless -- for a moment, before he began holding forth again. Being women, we were politely out of earshot before we started laughing.

I like incidents of that sort, when forces that are usually so sneaky and hard to point out slither out of the grass and are as obvious as, say, an anaconda that's eaten a cow, or an elephant turd on the carpet.

Yes, it's true that guys like this pick on other men's books, and people of both genders pop up at events to hold forth on irrelevant things and conspiracy theories, but the out-and-out confrontational confidence of the totally ignorant is, in my experience, gendered.

Men explain things to me, and to other women, whether or not they know what they're talking about. Some men. Every woman knows what I mean. It's the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men's unsupported overconfidence.

This syndrome is something nearly every woman faces every day, within herself too, a belief in her superfluity, an invitation to silence, one from which a fairly nice career as a writer (with a lot of research and facts correctly deployed) has not entirely freed me. After all, there was a moment there when I was willing to believe Mr. Very Important and his overweening confidence over my more shaky certainty.

More extreme versions of this syndrome exist in, for example, those Islamic countries where women's testimony has no legal standing; so that a woman can't testify that she was raped without a male witness to counter the male rapist. Which there rarely is.

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