The concept of ‘mansplaining’ explained for you . . .

by Carolyn Thomas  @HeartSisters

Regular readers already know how in love I am with the “Just a Little Heart Attack” film from the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women heart health campaign this year. In three short minutes, this film manages to do what countless other heart disease awareness campaigns I’ve seen fail to pull off: to be both hilarious and frightening, packed with life-saving education on common heart attack symptoms in women. The actress Elizabeth Banks – who also directed this short film, and whose real-life mother and sister have heart issues – plays a harried, multi-tasking mother trying desperately to get her family up, dressed, fed and ready to head out the door on time, all while completely ignoring her own worsening heart attack symptoms.

Elizabeth gets every small detail of this scenario pitch-perfect, including:

  • her “I’m fine!” reassurances as she reels with nausea, chest pressure, dizziness, jaw pain, neck pain, arm pain, weakness and profuse sweating
  • her apology to the 911 phone dispatcher for being a bother
  • and (my favourite scene!) her abject dismay at surveying the messy kitchen, knowing the ambulance is already en route and she won’t have time to tidy up before it arrives!

Women who have actually lived through this will probably recognize every excruciatingly familiar moment of what it’s like to experience a heart attack.

But noted health journalism watchdog Gary Schwitzer over at Health News Review felt otherwise about this film, which he criticized in a post called Disease-Mongering Du Jour: Heart Disease in Young Women.  

Gary Schwitzer

The reason Gary targeted the film as an example of “disease mongering” (defined as promoting public awareness of illnesses in order to expand the markets for those who sell or deliver treatments) was because Elizabeth Banks is just 37 years old. This age, says Gary, is far too young to be representative of most real-life heart patients. He also implied that the film’s true purpose is actually to get more of us to shop at Macy’s, a sponsor of Go Red for Women, and to convince younger women (of Elizabeth’s age) to suddenly start taking heart drugs made by Merck, another sponsor.

I and a number of other concerned heart attack survivors immediately submitted varied responses to this post, trying to explain to Gary how important such life-saving public awareness of women’s heart attack symptoms actually is to women in this target audience.

Some pointed out that women’s well-documented reluctance to seek immediate help, even in the face of significant symptoms, is an extremely serious problem leading to deadlier outcomes for women heart patients compared to their male counterparts. One reader even reminded Gary that the heart attack risk of a 37-year old woman is still more than four times greater than the risk of the average 37-year old woman having breast cancer.

But Gary’s responses to our facts, figures, stats – not to mention some personal real-life experiences of heart attack survivors about the same youthful age as Elizabeth Banks’ character – seemed increasingly exasperated as he kept repeating his original objections, while pointing out that we were likely too emotionally close to this subject and thus not fully able to comprehend – until four days later, when he decided to close the post to comments entirely.

And that’s when I learned the word mansplaining

The definition of mansplaining in the Urban Dictionary reads:

“Explaining in a patronizing manner, assuming total ignorance on the part of those listening. The mansplainer is often shocked and hurt when their mansplanation is not taken as absolute fact, criticized or even rejected altogether.”

The New York Times even featured the noun mansplainer in its list of “Words of the Year” for 2010, defining it as:

“A man compelled to explain or give an opinion about everything –  especially to a woman. He speaks, often condescendingly, even if he doesn’t know what he’s talking about or even if it’s none of his business.”

Now let’s use the verb mansplain in a sample sentence:

“Even though he knew she had an advanced degree in neuroscience, he felt the need to mansplain ‘there are molecules in the brain called neurotransmitters’ to her.”

As a woman, I’ve had lots of experience with this concept, of course, but only  came across this specific word to describe it during the above-mentioned Schwitzer vs AHA conflab.  That’s only because my Mayo Clinic heart sister Laura Haywood-Cory sent me a link to an irreverent essay called “You May Be a Mansplainer If . . . “ written by the irreverent blogger Suzanne E. Franks.

Laura was feeling frustrated by Gary’s puzzling unwillingness to consider the many comments posted from real live heart patients. For example, one of his responses to these commenters:

“When we are very close to an issue, we may read into things words or intentions that are not actually there.”

This kind of patronizing reaction prompted Laura to observe that sometimes an unreceptive response like this might be just a simple case of “mansplaining”. (She later wrote more on this, invoking her ‘Ring-ring, it’s the clue phone for you . . .’ advice to Gary).

Meanwhile, here’s how Suzanne defines the concept of mansplaining on her uppity blog, Thus Spake Zuska, crediting Karen Healey as the original source:

“Mansplaining. We’ve all had to endure it, so frequently we are often overwhelmed with the desire to hork up serious chunks on the mansplainer’s shoes. And yet, you can’t always do that. Maybe the mansplainer is your boss. Maybe he’s mansplaining on a blog or your Facebook page, and you just can’t get at his shoes. What to do?

“Mansplaining isn’t just the act of explaining while male, of course; many men manage to explain things every day without in the least insulting their listeners. Mansplaining is when a dude tells you, a woman, how you are wrong about something you are actually right about, or miscellaneous/inaccurate ‘facts’ about something you know a hell of a lot more about than he does.

“Think about the men you know. Do any of them display that delightful mixture of privilege and ignorance that leads to condescending, inaccurate explanations, delivered with the rock-solid conviction of rightness and that certainty that of course he is right, because he is the man in this conversation?

“That dude is a mansplainer.”

When Suzanne invited her readers to contribute their own examples of mansplaining to help illustrate this communication trait, their useful responses included:

  • You may be a mansplainer if you don’t stop to consider your words and how they may be heard by the intended listener. If, when it is pointed out to you that the words you use may mean something in particular to the listener, you insist they are wrong because you “meant” something else.
  • You may be a mansplainer if a person tells you how they feel about your behaviour, and you tell them they must have misunderstood.
  • You may be a mansplainer if, when a woman says she’s pretty sure you’re wrong, that seems to only increase your conviction that you are, in fact, right.
  • You may be a mansplainer if you have ever accused a woman in an argument of being “irrational” or “emotional”, when you simply disagree with her.

But my very favourite response was from Suzanne herself, who wrote about one of her own blog readers, John Brookes, a man I don’t know but feel like I do (because I swear I’ve had to sit next to this guy at countless dinner parties!)

John’s own mansplaining attained legendary online status after he left a long comment in response to her post about making homemade chicken soup, as Suzanne describes:

  • You may be a mansplainer if your comment on my blog starts with “I’m not sure what exactly this discussion is about. Please allow me to make a few points.” 

See? Even a clear lack of understanding doesn’t stop mansplainers from bulldozing through a conversation!

John then dives into pontificating at length in a supremely self-absorbed monologue/comment including but not limited to the Harvard food pyramid, his own cookbook that he’s writing (of course he is), his $10,000 camera equipment with which he will take cookbook food photos far superior to Suzanne’s own shot of her bowl of chicken soup (which unfortunately, as he notes, had a speck of glare on the surface “of course due to the Fresnel reflection from the refractive index mismatch“, and finally finishing off with a magnificent summary of “the fascinating issue of gut microflora, modern food, and antibiotics”  – all this in one long (and worse, boring) non sequitur that had little if anything to do with, well, anything.

I’m actually thinking of ordering a mug with this classic John Brookes mansplaining masterpiece on it. All of my girlfriends tell great stories of mansplanation examples like this, too.  Maybe I should order a case . . .

It’s now widely believed that the word mansplaining may be linked to a landmark essay published in the Los Angeles Times in 2008 by author and historian Rebecca Solnit, called “Men Who Explain Things”:

“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 of a willingness to believe Mr. Very Important and his overweening confidence over my more shaky certainty.”

Heart sisters, you may very well be asking yourself by now:  Can women be mansplainers, too? 

Oh, yeah . . .

My pal Laura, in fact, reminded me yesterday of one Health News Review reader’s comment about the AHA film, in which a female lawyer declared, in response to a number of other comments written by heart attack survivors:

“Presenting such a young woman having a heart attack seems silly…  I believe what was depicted in this video was an acute myocardial infarction, what laypeople call a heart attack, caused by atherosclerotic coronary artery disease.” 

Oh. So THAT’S what a heart attack is . . .  Laura and I agreed later that this explanation, coming from a person who has never actually herself experienced a heart attack (as we laypeople call it), was super-duper helpful to both of us Mayo Clinic-trained heart attack survivors.

Could her comment be interpreted as a female manifestation of mansplaining – or just lawyer-speak? In either case, it’s what we laypeople call “insufferable”. 

And finally, author Justine Larbalestier neatly summarized on her own blog this helpful hint for potential mansplainers:

“Just as a general rule, if you ever find yourself in a position where you are explaining to a woman who has lived experience on the subject at hand when you don’t, then perhaps you might want to, you know, shut up.  Also listen.”

While Gary Schwitzer, like all bloggers, does have the ability on his own site to block contrary opinions he doesn’t like, his attack on the Elizabeth Banks film was also picked up by Forbes, by MedPageToday, and by Cardiobrief so far, where even more real live female heart attack survivors who actually know what they’re talking about left even more comments in a futile attempt to enlighten him.

See also: “Gaslighting” – or, Why Women Are So Darned Emotional During Their Heart Attacks


January 31, 2016:   The American Heart Association released its first ever scientific statement on women’s heart attacks, confirming that “compared to men, women tend to be undertreated, and including this finding: “While the most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort for both sexes, women are more likely to have atypical symptoms such as shortness of breath, nausea or vomiting, and back or jaw pain.”


21 thoughts on “The concept of ‘mansplaining’ explained for you . . .

  1. Pingback: E-bike
  2. When a physician interrupts a patient and makes erroneous statements in a condescending manner, could the behavior be considered “docsplaining?”


    1. Well, it could – if you believe Harvard professor Dr. Jerome Groopman‘s book “How Doctors Think”, there is something called The 18-Second Rule. He writes:

      “That’s the average time it takes a doctor to interrupt you as you’re describing your symptoms. By that point, he/she has in mind what the answer is, and that answer is probably right about 80% of the time.”


    1. Thanks so much, Allison. Ever since I learned this new word recently, I seem to be noticing more mansplainers around than I ever did before…. 😉


  3. Has any research been done on how much mansplaining CONTRIBUTES to heart attacks? I felt my blood pressure rising exponentially with every sentence I read in this post. Must retreat to the corner and meditate – now!


    1. I’m sensing that you have encountered your fair share of mansplainers so far, Deborah . . . Enjoy your meditation – lovely to hear from you again.


  4. Thank you so much for this explanation. Many of us have been prey to mansplaining!!!.. The problem is, you can’t get someone like him to see your point if it was attached to his head and held out in front like a carrot!!! I was 22 when I was diagnosed with heart disease. And the thing is even if it’s not a heart attack that a woman has, they could very well be on the verge. Us women always put everything and everyone ahead of ourselves. I happen to think the video was an accurate depiction whether she was 22, 33, 44, 55, 66, etc!!


    1. Thanks so much, Natasha – I too agree that this video is a bang-on accurate depiction of an alarmingly typical reaction to heart attack symptoms in women – all women of all ages.


      1. I had this happen to me the day that I came home from the hospital after quad bypass and heart attack. It was the saddest moment of my life. My reaction to it at that time was inappropriate but I have forgiven myself. I will never forget it but have forgiven. I will not go public here and say who the man was but I will say that I pray for him and his family everyday. It is now out of my hands and I am so grateful that I found this group, in addition to support from my Dr., his staff and coworkers that really care for me. I am in cardio rehab plus a real live support group on another journey in my life. I can not thank you enough.


  5. Thank you so much for explaining “mansplaining”. It’s a fascinating, if frustrating (whoops, there I go again, with my pesky lady-feelings) phenomenon.


    1. Now Laura, don’t go getting all emotional on us here . . . 😉 Thanks for getting the ball rolling on this topic.


      1. You’re welcome! Thanks for being so articulate on this issue, when I tend to be reduced to sputtering disbelief.

        Also, CardioBrief is reporting on the issue.

        The first comment is from someone at the AHA; the next two comments (so far) are largely in agreement with Gary.


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