I first cracked open Men Explain Things to Me* on the subway. I traveled one stop and then looked out the window picturesquely, as one does. I saw an Aerie untouched ad posted in the station, and someone had graffitied “pussy rape” right next to this girl’s vagina. When people say that books like these are whiny or that feminists have a stick up their butt, all it takes is a functional pair of eyes and ears to prove them wrong.
Look, I regularly shave my armpits, and I seamlessly fit every female stereotype about wine, but I call myself a feminist, because I believe that at its core, “Feminism…is the radical notion that women are people” (Solnit, 152). White men have had it made for centuries. That’s not to say that every white male has had it made, but on the whole, their lot is the best of the barrel. Going forward, I think that white men should still totally strive to have it made, but not at the expense of other races or genders. Let’s all have it made.
White men are not intrinsically better or more capable; history has shaped the availability of resources to certain groups of people, and that has a longstanding effect on our social spheres today. It’s easy to keep your head in the sand with this sort of thing—especially when it doesn’t affect you—but it’s not ethically or practically a great move.
Women constitute 50% of the population; it’s astounding to me when we’re not treated as such. To be honest, I haven’t experienced much sexism firsthand. I know that so many women have, and I’m incredibly lucky to have men in my life who defy statistics. That being said, I am offended (and potentially, in the future, affected) by certain political maneuvers performed by males who frankly have no idea what they’re talking about. No, I’m not necessarily referring to pro-life agendas (which I believe are much more complicated); I’m talking about Republican politicians who say things like, “‘If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.’” (Solnit, 13). Of note, members of both parties criticized his language, but the fact that a seemingly intelligent public figure said something this absurd is no less concerning. People genuinely believe that garbage, and that’s a problem.
Rape is a central topic to Solnit’s assortment of essays. She throws out incisive statistics, horrifying anecdotes, and perceptive solutions to gender issues. It’s not like she thinks all women are God’s gift to the world. She acknowledges, “Of course, women are capable of all sorts of unpleasantness, and there are violent crimes by women, but the so-called war of the sexes is extraordinarily lopsided when it comes to actual violence” (Solnit, 33). This is a fact, backed up by actual numbers. It’s confusing to me when men try and contort such blatant history. Women are routinely victims of domestic violence—how is this ever subject to convolution?
Men Explain Things to Me is not a novel in which tone-deaf men dully describe certain topics to women. Instead, Solnit’s book combines seven of her essays related to the feminist movement. From a literary perspective, not every one of these essays is pertinent. At the very least, they don’t all get to the point in a way that I believe is structurally necessary with a collection such as this. Some essays prove Solnit’s general skills as a writer more than they service the message as a whole. She has a very valuable viewpoint on the subject, but the edition I own has some distractions that render it less effective. There are asides about writing and the creative process that, while I find interesting, aren’t relevant to the topic at hand.
Still, in its entirety, Solnit’s work hits readers hard. It’s easy for women like me—who are surrounded by supportive men—to celebrate in our contentedness. But, as Solnit claims, “finding ways to appreciate advances without embracing complacency is a delicate task” (Solnit, 144). Oppressive patriarchy can express itself insidiously and patronizingly, and I agree with Solnit that, “The battle for women to be treated like human beings with rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of involvement in cultural and political arenas continues” (Solnit, 14). Overall, partially due to its hit-or-miss structure and partially due to its warranted incendiary writing, Men Explain Things to Me receives 3 out of 5 camel humps.
*Solnit, Rebecca. Men Explain Things to Me. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014. Print.