Review: Men Explain Things to Me

Rebecca Solnit’s essay collection Men Explain Things to Me was a book club pick that I went into with no knowledge of Solnit, her style, or what it was about. Honestly, it was an emotional roller coaster. Solnit is funny, witty, serious, factual, uplifting, and includes more reality checks than the average person hopes to encounter in 150 pages. Punctuated with simple, yet powerful, art by Ana Teresa Fernandez, Solnit takes on the gender divide and how inequality continues to play out in our society in small, everyday ways. She takes on rape (more than once), people who are against same-sex marriage, Virginia Woolf, and many more topics.

Naturally, I enjoyed her inclusion of Cassandra from Troy, since that is where the meaning of my name (Kassandra) comes from. She was cursed with the gift of foresight that no one believed. In other words, she knew what was going to happen, but everyone ignored her and thought she was a liar. Apollo cursed her because she refused to have sex with him. Of this, Solnit concludes: “The idea that loss of credibility is tied to asserting rights over your own body was there all along” (117). From the age of the Trojans to 2017, Cassandra’s story is relevant.

My favorite essay was “Grandmother Spider,” in which Solnit discussed the obliteration of women historically. She talks about family trees only recording men, women and children taking the last name of the husband and father, women historically having no legal existence once married, a veil covering a woman until she is basically invisible, and many more topics underneath the blanket of obliteration. In particular, I was struck by her language in describing the picture for that chapter, shown here:

fernandez ch 5

Solnit writes:

A woman is hanging out the laundry. Everything and nothing happens. Of her flesh we see only several fingers and a pair of strong brown calves and feet. The white sheet hangs in front of her, but the wind blows it against her body, revealing her contours. It is the most ordinary act, this putting out clothes to dry, though she wears black high heels, as though dressed for something other than domestic work, or as if this domestic work was already a kind of dancing. Her crossed legs look as though they are executing a dance step. The sun throws her shadow and the dark shadow of the white sheet onto the ground. The shadow looks like a long-legged dark bird, another species stretching out from her feet. The sheet flies in the wind, her shadow flies, and she does all this in a landscape so bare and stark and without scale that it’s as though you can see the curvature of the Earth on the horizon. It’s the most ordinary and extraordinary act, the hanging out of laundry- and painting. The latter does what the wordless can do, invoking everything and saying nothing, inviting meaning in without committing to any particular one, giving you an open question rather than answers. Here, in this painting by Ana Teresa Fernandez, a woman both exists and is obliterated.

I found this passage to be simple, yet profound, as Solnit found the image.

Overall, I found Solnit’s collection to be all over the place emotionally. She conjured rage, pain, skepticism, reality, pride, and inspiration in me. She takes a hard look at gender inequality, and anyone willing to bypass the bias in their own minds will see that she presents a relatively fair view of the issues faced by women and all who value equality. The collection could be read all at once, or a little at a time, but regardless the message will ring true.

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