There’s some “‘s’plaining” to do ...

The complainant, David Clegg, objected to a guest’s use of the term “mansplaining” in an interview broadcast about the new Wonder Woman film. He thought the host should have challenged the guest on her use of a “sexist” and “derogatory” term. A guest was expressing her view of her own experience. There was no violation of policy.

COMPLAINT

In the wake of the release of the film Wonder Woman, The Current aired a panel discussion which asked the question Can Wonder Woman be the first female-led super-hero.” Guest host Jan Wong talked with three women with a feminist perspective and expertise in popular culture regarding the film’s debut, and the impact it might have. You objected to one of the guest’s use of the term “mansplaining” in the course of the conversation. You said it was a “gender-linked derogatory term” and wondered why neither the host nor the other guests challenged the use:

Is it the position of The Current and the CBC to casually condone such sexism? Would the hypothetical terms womansplaining / blacksplaining / gaysplaining be so casually accepted?

I am a regular listener and find that the CBC usually stands firmly behind equality and hosts challenge guests who present views of hate or hypocrisy. Why then, in this case, did such speech not receive equivalent treatment?

You thought that this was “casual sexism” and allowing it to air unchallenged was condoning bigotry.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer of The Current, Kathleen Goldhar, replied to your concerns. She agreed that there is some controversy over the word “mansplaining” but she did not agree it “reaches the level of offence you suggest.” She added that the word is a recent edition to the lexicon, and may have started off being used in a very negative sense, but that it has evolved and could be seen as more ironic or sarcastic:

Dictionary.com notes that it pretty quickly took on a meaning more “casual and jocular”. At the same time it has spawned a bevy of parallel words including womensplaining to describe women talking condescendingly to men, along with blacksplaining, gaysplaining, straightsplaining, and so on.

She noted that the term was used by one of the guests in the context of a question about all-female screenings of the film, and that her response was that it created a safe space where she could avoid “men mansplaining something to me.”

The choice of words is hers, and presumably is a description she feels captures the tenor of the conversations she was describing. In any event, certainly at this point, I don’t think it is a hateful term or even particularly derogatory. Certainly, I don’t think it crosses the threshold to an expression that would warrant an intervention by the program host.

REVIEW

CBC Journalistic Policy includes guides on language, and one of them is to avoid stereotyping. There is also policy on Opinion that states commentators on CBC platforms are able to express their views. The specific context here was in response to a question about all-female screenings of the movie, and indeed does describe the views and experience of one of the panelists, Emily Gagné. She did not say all men, she said men in her experience:

JAN WONG

Emily, what was your reaction when you heard about the backlash?

EMILY GAGNÉ

Of the screenings?

JAN WONG

Yes.

EMILY GAGNÉ
I mean I wasn't surprised because we've seen a lot of mansplaining in terms of this film to begin with. But I think it's a really positive thing and I would love to go to one if we had one here personally.

JAN WONG
So, but I don't get the point why I have an all women screening? What's wrong with having the other guys sitting in the audience?

EMILY GAGNÉ
As a female moviegoer I've often been in a theater and had men mansplain something to me or I've had to hear them holler and hoot about a woman that's scantily clad. So I think it's kind of a safe space for women to watch this movie. It's just like a perfect island full of women [laughs].

I appreciate you find the term offensive. Being critical of a certain behaviour is quite a distance from hate speech. The discussion was about the empowerment of women and an analysis of the Wonder Woman film from a feminist perspective. Ms. Gagné was saying she did not appreciate men explaining feminism to her. The tone was not overly serious, and as Ms. Goldhar pointed out to you, language is dynamic and this is a word that, through use and overuse, has almost become more ironic than derogatory. An entry on the “Words we’re watching” page of the Merriam Webster dictionary published May 2015 captures the evolution and nuance of the word:

Mansplaining is, at its core, a very specific thing. It's what occurs when a man talks condescendingly to someone (especially a woman) about something he has incomplete knowledge of, with the mistaken assumption that he knows more about it than the person he's talking to does.

Although mansplain is most likely the coinage of a LiveJournal user (thanks, Know Your Meme), no discussion of mansplain is complete without mention of Rebecca Solnit's 2008 essay "Men Explain Things to Me," now also the title of her 2014 collection of essays. (The essay was published first at TomDispatch.com and later in the Los Angeles Times. It was reprinted in Guernica with a new introduction by Solnit in 2012.) Although Solnit didn't use the word mansplain in her essay, she described what might be the most mansplainiest of experiences anyone has ever had. Solnit and a friend were at a party where the host (a wealthy and imposing older man), upon learning that Solnit had recently published a book on 19th century photographer Eadweard Muybridge, proceeded to tell her all about a very important book on the same photographer that had just come out. The book, of course, was Solnit's, but the man had to be interrupted several times by Solnit's friend before he'd absorbed that knowledge and added it to the knowledge he'd absorbed from reading the New York Times review of the book.

The splain of mansplain isn't new. It's been used to mean "explain" in texts showing informal speech or—as when Ricky Ricardo admonished his beloved in I Love Lucy—in imperfect English for at least a century. Since the advent and consequent blossoming of mansplain, splain has been attached to other morphemes to create words modeled on mansplain. Mother Jones put the word leftsplaining into the headline of an article by none other than Rebecca Solnit (about how people on the political left should stop expounding on the failings of lefties to fellow lefties). A politician under the mistaken impression that potlucks are a unique Iowa tradition was accused of potluck-splaining when he tried to illuminate non-Iowans on how the communal meals work. But the playfulness in those coinages is often absent in others -splain words: a white person who has a lot to say about racism to people of color may be accused of whitesplaining; a straight person who has lots of advice for gay people about how to deal with bigotry against them may be called out for straight-splaining.

As these neologisms indicate, the element prefixing -splain can refer to either the person who does the splaining or to the topic being -splained. The former is more common, and the latter is typically more playful.

There was no violation of policy in the use of the word.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman