If you’re from Adelaide, South Australia, and probably even if you’re not, you will have seen the below image with a caption along the lines of ‘The University of Adelaide now offers a masters degree in mansplaining?’ This whole thing has rustled my jimmies in more ways than one. I’d like to revisit my favourite theme of ‘things are more complicated than you want them to be’. I want to talk a bit about the concept of ‘mansplaining’ in general, but also some other things that trouble me here.
According to Wikipedia, mansplaining is ‘to comment on or explain something to a woman in a condescending, overconfident, and often inaccurate or oversimplified manner‘. So the joke here is based on the fact that this ad for the UofA depicts a male human explaining things to female humans. Apparently this is intrinsically bad. I think that the strict definition of mansplaining, as quoted above, exists and is bad. But, a male explaining something to a female is not automatically mansplaining, by its own definition.
I was recently accused of mansplaining in a discussion on Facebook around a sensitive issue relating to farmed animal advocacy. I can’t share the context or quotes and so I can’t prove this to you, but as far as I could tell, I was just correcting a human who happened to be female on something that she had said which was factually incorrect. Somehow, the definition of mansplaining has, in some cases and by some people, expanded to include any male saying something to any female which someone doesn’t like.
It gets even better. The ad is not even for the University of Adelaide. You can see on the bottom right of the image that it’s for Renewal SA, an organisation part of the South Australian Government. The image was deliberately cropped to include the UofA branding from the adjacent ad for the joke*.
The ABC article on this spectacle said “The University of Adelaide has distanced itself from an advertisement that has made headlines around the world and attracted criticism and ridicule on social media,“. Distanced themselves? I feel like you shouldn’t need to distance yourself from an ad you had no involvement in. Poor choice of words by ABC at best. The article only explains that the ad wasn’t actually by or for UofA about halfway in. Great journalistic integrity there, ABC.
What’s the harm in indulging in a bit of a joke, you might ask. This is a prime example of how easily information can be manipulated. Maybe this one was relatively harmless, but you could argue that the UofA’s reputation was damaged without justification. No one I’m aware of, even myself, even thought to question the original implication that this ad was authorised by and is for the University of Adelaide.
As a rule, we should avoid spreading untrue or misleading things for sake of a joke. This example of deceit was relatively low effort, imagine what one can do to the reputation of an individual or organisation if they actually try to make something up?
Until now, this all should have been fairly uncontroversial. I’m just talking strictly about definitions and facts. However, I can’t resist touching the trickier topic: I believe the existence of this ad is not, in and of itself, problematic, regardless of who payed for it. It might be, but it is far from a certainty.
Consider a portfolio of photos for advertisements over time from a particular advertising agency (or organisation, if you think they actually chose the photo themselves). Some will have men explaining things to men and women, some will have women explaining things to women and men, and inevitably one will have a male explaining something to several women.
Without looking at the broader statistics, this anecdotal evidence is absolutely meaningless, unless you mean to imply that a male can never address a group of women in an advertisement. There could be a *systematic* problem if we noticed that many of the ads by the SA Government, or the advertising agency, or advertisements in general, were of men talking to women relative to ads of women talking to men. Maybe there is a systematic issue, but that’s a separate argument to be made.
I believe that if there were also males in the group being addressed by the male as well as females, there would have been no perceived issue.
Afterword – Unless you think the idea that ‘we shouldn’t cause suffering in non-human animals for pleasure’ is contentious, this is probably one of the more controversial posts I’ve ever written. One of my closest friends suggested caution, saying that ‘Clementine Ford will eat you alive‘. Ok then, bring it on. One can’t have strong strong opinions weakly held unless they are vocal about what the believe to be correct.
I’m a sentientist and a utilitarian, in the sense that I want to reduce the suffering of sentient minds as much as I can. That is my mission. I am also human and am wrong sometimes. If you think I’m misguided about any of this argument, please don’t hesitate to tell me so I can quickly change my mind.
Edit – Since writing this, I have already updated my view slightly to allow for the fact that this image might still offend some people regardless of broader context. I think that emotion is real, and it matters. But I still believe that we have to take the bigger picture in to account.
With reference to my point of “unless you mean to imply that a male can never address a group of women in an advertisement”, some people have already said that they do believe this. This I must protest. A balanced world of advertising (which of course I accept we are far from today) would contain all kinds of combinations of demographics. Are we really to outright ban some mixes of demographics? This seems to be counter-intuitive to the equality we seek to achieve.