31 January 2010

Mansplaining and Gendered Representation

I was responding to Historiann's thread that included a link to the post on "mansplaining" when I started thinking about Freud, De Beauvoir's "The Second Sex" and generally about women, men, image, representation, and power. I've adapted that comment here, since I didn't want to hijack Historiann's comments thread any more than I already had!

It would seem at first that "mansplaining" doesn't really need to refer only to men talking to women but that it applies more generally to posturing in dialogues to assert one's power. That was my first impression, although I had a gut feeling that there is a difference in the dynamic when a man condescends to a man and when (a certain kind of man) condescends (in a certain kind of way) to a woman.

If the dialogue takes place between two men, is it about jockeying for power? In other words, does the mansplainer enter into the discussion as if it is a competition for authority between two people, each of whom could conceivably "win" the competition? Earlier, I used the (classy) metaphors of pissing contests and dick-measuring contests to describe some of the dynamic I see between men who are condescending to each other as a way of racing to the top. But in terms of image and representation, these size-related competitions are one of the most common ways we represent one man's power over another man. Both men have the same "weapons" to be deployed in the competition, although one will win over the other in the end.

In contrast, a mansplainer talking to a woman is engaging in a dialogue that cannot be represented as a competition between equal parties. From the mansplainer's perspective (thanks, Freud!) the woman is simply not even in the running. She cannot compete in the battle of size because she just doesn't have a phallus. At all. Thus, to me, “mansplaining” refers to that implicit assumption that the woman isn’t just the lesser party in the race for authority, but that she can’t even take part in the competition?

And that is precisely why it is so extraordinarily frustrating! The mansplainer starts from the assumption that the woman he is addressing isn't just subordinate to him, but that she literally cannot claim authority to speak. Ever.

Who is Comrade Svilova?

She was a member of the infamous Council of Three, the Soviet Avant Garde filmmaking group that revolutionized documentary. As an editor working in the Soviet Montage movement in the 1920s, she made a significant contribution to film editing as we know it today. Ever seen a humorous cutaway to something that is not actually related to the scene at hand but provides a welcome punchline to the events of the film? That would be a (bastardized) example of the techniques of the Soviet School of Montage. (The Council of Three was really more interested in using film to change the world -- viva the revolution!)

And yet, most people have never heard of her; those who have know her primarily as the wife/editor of Dziga Vertov, the most famous member of the Council of Three.

I'm blogging anonymously for now, and as a feminist filmmaker and film scholar it seemed appropriate to take on the name of someone whose contributions to film art and culture are immense, but who is so little known as to be almost anonymous herself. For more information:

Yelizaveta Svilova on imdb.com

A short bio from movies.amctv.com

More about the blogger: I am a PhD candidate focusing on the cinemas of Eastern Europe and Russia, as well as feminism and gender in cinema.

Mansplaining, or Boys and Their Toys

I've been following this post from ScienceBlogs on "mansplaining" -- which is not to be confused with the act of explaining-while-male.

Mr. Svilova is a born explainer. Working in I.T., he'll patiently go over computers and other technological widgets and gadgets with anyone who wants/needs help, but believe me, he's thrilled when someone comes to the conversation with their own knowledge -- or when his help isn't required.

And I think that's the key difference between "mansplaining" and helpful explanations. For a mansplainer:

1.) It's an issue that the other person (male or female) doesn't require/appreciate his assistance
2.) Specifically, it's a phallic/castration issue, and strikes deep at the heart of his manhood
3.) Such individuals are compelled to carry on conversations with people who don't want their input, suggesting that it's for the other person's good.

Someone who is genuinely interested and engaged in something and wants to share their experience -- especially with someone who has equivalent knowledge or experience -- will frame their comments in terms of questions, opening up discussion to further inquiry. For a mansplainer, he/(she*) prefers to engage in dialogue with those who have strong backgrounds/opinions/knowledge about a topic but will not approach the conversation as one between equals -- because a worthy opponent makes grandstanding and posturing so much more satisfying! There is no suggestion of open exchange of ideas and expertise in a mansplainer's style of addressing those who he purportedly wants to help. By pretending that these Others -- his equals -- are in need of his expertise, the mansplainer is able to reaffirm his identity and shore up his fragile sense of self/manhood.

The exchange on ScienceBlogs (especially in the comments) points out that mansplaining is just another form of pissing contest. It brings back vivid memories of all of the pissing contests I've had to sit through in 4 years of film school. Ultimately, of course, the best topic for dick-measuring contests is film equipment of all kinds; which brings me to my own recent exchange with a mansplainer.

It all began when a classmate was considering using a certain camera for his project, a camera I'd used myself and really liked. I mentioned my positive experience, and that I was considering buying one myself. Oops! I shouldn't have stepped on the boys' turf by revealing that I'd used and researched the Hottest New Toy!

His response:

I'd definitely rent one before just going out and buying one. It is a very difficult camera to use, and NOT A GOOD CHOICE FOR DOCUMENTARY. Unlike the DVX, HVX, EX1 - you cannot take it out of the box and just begin shooting beautiful images. The jury's still out, but it may be an alright camera to use in a narrative production, with an AC, Sound Person, cam op, etc...but one thing it is not is a DIY documentary rig. While it would probably yield some pretty good results in a sit down interview, this is the last camera I'd want to shoot a live event with. Not only is the sound awful, but most of your footage (and I do mean much more than 60%) would be out of focus. In a controlled environment where you can rehearse camera movements, focus pulls, marks, etc...one could definitely, with some trouble, achieve a good looking take. In a spur of the moment, live scenario (where you don't get a second chance)...this is not the sole camera you want capturing an event.
Notice all of the assumptions ... I couldn't possibly decide for myself whether the camera was appropriate for my needs, my own trial with camera must have been flawed because he knows exactly how much of my footage will be out of focus, and as a documentary maker 1.) I just take cameras out of boxes and shoot pretty images, 2.) I never use a crew, 3.) my films are only interviews and live events. This is doubly ironic since he had been my dolly grip for a soundstage-based shoot just a week before!

I wrote**:

Thanks for the feedback on your experience of the camera. Double-system sound is definitely a drawback, but when I've used the camera I found that it was a similar shooting experience to the DVX. I find that the DVX's auto-focus is very unreliable, as is the auto-exposure, so fiddling with those settings on the 7D to set up shots was pretty similar to what I'm used to with the DVX.

The 7D I used a few months ago belongs to a friend of mine who machined a set of rails to hold the camera and the sound system; this also adds some extra weight for greater hand-held usability. I didn't use his rig since I was shooting MOS on the 7D, but that kind of system seems to make the 7D even easier to use in less controlled settings.

I do feel obliged to note that documentary is not only sit-down interviews and run-and-gun event coverage. ;-)

Hmm, isn't it odd that in replying to his comments, I focused on my experience with the camera, without asserting that I knew whether it would be useful to him? I'm not suggesting that my reply didn't have its own posturing, but I hope I did my best to make my comments open-ended and not suggest that I knew more about his situation than he did.

His "generous" reply:

You can do whatever you like, but...

...in my opinion most documentaries ARE sit down interviews and run and gun event coverage. From the footage I've seen you produce - live [event] footage, walk and talk interviews, classroom footage, etc; it would have been extremely difficult to capture those "events" on a 7D. It has nothing to do with the fact that you are a skilled focus puller, or have no use for the auto focus system on your DVX - The focus is SOOOOOOOOO shallow that you simply cannot nail it all the time perfectly, in fact, I'd go as far as to say you will almost never get it right unless you set marks, and then rehearse those marks. If you were ONLY doing place films I might agree with you, it's probably a great camera for something like that, but it's still a real challenge to get the look and feel you'd like out of this camera. It is quite awful at handling any type of movement, panning, flashing lights, etc.

I'll go back to what I said before I even laid my hands on the 7D. It is, at it's heart, a still camera. It is not first and foremost, designed to shoot video or motion pictures. It is designed to capture 18 megapixel still photography. If that is what you primarily want to do, than buy the camera. If not, I'd advise you to purchase a camera designed to capture video. In the long run you will appreciate the extended features, battery life, motion picture lenses, that cater to cinematography over still photography.
I don't think much further analysis is required. His comments speak for themselves -- or do they? What was (depressingly) amusing in the responses to Zuska's post is how many people responded by engaging in precisely the form of behavior that was being critiqued.

Boys and their toys = men and their phalluses. And for too many, it seems, their sense of manhood is inextricably tied to posturing and putting others (men but especially women) "in their place."

And this necessitates speaking for rather than speaking with the Other.

* Perhaps women engage in this form of dialogue, too; I'm thinking Maggie Gallagher for one.
** The exchange was a class wiki. I.e. public enough for me to feel I'm not violating his privacy by posting it on this anonymous blog.