On ‘Denial’: or, the uncanny similarity between Holocaust and mansplaining

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Last week, I finally got around to seeing Denial. It has many qualities and a few disadvantages – its attempt at hyperrealism treading on both – but I would like to focus on the aspect most reviews I’ve read so far seem to have missed. In other words: mansplaining.

Brief contextualization. Lest I be accused of equating Holocaust and mansplaining (I am not – similarity does not denote equivalence), my work deals with issues of expertise, fact, and public intellectualism; I have always found the Irving case interesting, for a variety of reasons (incidentally, I was also at Oxford during the famous event at the Oxford Union). At the same time, like, I suppose, every woman in the academia and beyond with more agency than a doormat, I have, over the past year, become embroiled in countless arguments about what mansplaining is, whether it is really so widespread, whether it is done only by men (and what to call it when it’s perpetrated by those who are not men?) and, of course, that pseudo-liberal what-passes-as-an-attempt at outmaneuvering the issue, which is whether using the term ‘mansplaining’ blames men as a group and is as such essentialising and oppressive, just like the discourses ‘we’ (feminists conveniently grouped under one umbrella) seek to condemn (otherwise known as a tu quoque argument).

Besides logical flaws, what many of these attacks seem to have in common with the one David Irving launched on Deborah Lipstadt (and Holocaust deniers routinely use) is the focus on evidence: how do we know that mansplaining occurs, and is not just some fabrication of a bunch of conceited females looking to get ahead despite their obvious lack of qualifications? Other uncanny similarities between arguments of Holocaust deniers and those who question the existence of mansplaining temporarily aside, one of undisputable qualities of Denial is that it provides multiple examples of what mansplaining looks like. It is, of course, a film, despite being based on a true story. Rather than presenting a downside, this allows for a concentrated portrayal of the practice – for those doubting its verisimilitude, I strongly recommend watching the film and deciding for yourself whether it resembles real-life situations. For those who do not, voilà, a handy cinematic case to present to those who prefer to plead ignorance as to what mansplaining ‘actually’ entails.

To begin with, the case portrayed in the film is a par excellence instance of mansplaining  as a whole: after all, it is about a self-educated (male) historian who sues an academic historian (a woman) because she does not accept his ‘interpretation’ of World War II (namely, that Holocaust did not happen) and, furthermore, dares to call him out on it. In the case (and the film), he sets out to explain to the (of course, male) judge and the public that Lipstadt (played by Rachel Weisz) is wrong and, furthermore, that her critique has seriously damaged his career (the underlying assumption being that he is entitled to lucrative publishing deals, while she, clearly, has to earn hers – exacerbated by his mockery of the fact that she sells books, whereas his, by contrast, are free). This ‘talking over’ and attempt to make it all about him (remember, he sues her) are brilliantly cast in the opening, when Irving (played by Timothy Spall) visits Lipstadt’s public talk and openly challenges her in the Q&A, ignoring her repeated refusal to engage with his arguments. Yet, it would be a mistake to locate the trope of mansplaining only in the relation Irving-Lipstadt. On the contrary – just like the real thing – it is at its most insidious when it comes from those who are, as it were, ‘on our side’.

A good example is the first meeting of the defence team, where Lipstadt is introduced to people working with her legal counsel, the famous Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott). There is a single woman on Julius’ team: Laura (Caren Pistorius), who, we are told, is a paralegal. Despite it being her first case, it seems she has developed a viable strategy: or at least so we are told by her boss, who, after announcing Laura’s brilliant contribution to the case, continues to talk over her – that is, explain her thoughts without giving her an opportunity to explain them herself. In this sense, what at first seems like an act of mentoring support – passing the baton and crediting a junior staff member – becomes a classical act in which a man takes it onto himself to interpret the professional intervention of a female colleague, appropriating it in the process.

The cases of professional mansplaining are abundant throughout the film: in multiple scenes lawyers explain the Holocaust as well as the concept of denial to Lipstadt despite her meek protests that she “has actually written a book about it”. Obvious irony aside, this serves as a potent reminder that women have to invoke professional credentials not to be recognized as experts, but in order to be recognized as equally valid participants in debate. By contrast, when it comes to the only difference in qualifications in the film that plays against Lipstadt – that of the knowledge of the British legal system – Weisz’s character conveniently remains a mixture of ignorance and naïveté couched in Americanism. One would be forgiven to assume that long-term involvement in a libel case, especially one that carries so much emotional and professional weight, would have provoked a university professor to get acquainted with at least the basic rules of the legal system in which the case was processed, but then, of course, that would have stripped the male characters of the opportunity to shine the light of their knowledge in contrast to her supposed ignorance.

Of course, emotional involvement is, in the film, presented as a clear disadvantage when it comes to the case. While Lipstadt first assumes she will, and then repeatedly asks to be allowed to testify, her legal team insists she would be too emotional a witness. The assumption that having an emotional reaction (even if one that is quite expected – it is, after all, the Holocaust we are talking about) and a cold, hard approach to ‘facts’ are mutually exclusive is played off succinctly in the scenes that take place at Auschwitz. While Lipstadt, clearly shaken (as anyone, Jewish or not, is bound to be when standing at the site of such a potent example of mass slaughter), asks the party to show respect for the victims, the head barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) is focused on calmly gathering evidence. The value of this, however, only becomes obvious in the courtroom, where he delivers his coup de grâce, revealing that his calm pacing around the perimeter of Auschwitz II-Birkenau (which makes him arrive late and upsets everyone, Lipstadt in particular) was actually measuring the distance between the SS barracks and the gas chambers, allowing him to disprove Irving’s assertion that the gas chambers were built as air raid shelters, and thus tilt the whole case in favour of the defence.

The mansplaining triumph, however, happens even before this Sherlockian turn, in the scene in which Rampton visits Lipstadt in her hotel room (uninvited, unannounced) in order to, yet again, convince her that she should not testify or engage with Irving in any form. After he gently (patronisingly) persuades her that  “What feels best isn’t necessarily what works best” (!), she, emotionally moved, agrees to “pass her conscience” to him – that is, to a man. By doing this, she abandons not only her own voice, but also the possibility to speak for Holocaust survivors – the one that appears as a character in the film also, poignantly, being female. In Lipstadt’s concession that silence is better because it “leads to victory”, it is not difficult to read the paradoxical (pseudo)pragmatic assertion that openly challenging male privilege works, in fact, against gender equality, because it provokes a counterreaction. Initially protesting her own silencing, Lipstadt comes to accept what her character in the script dubs “self-denial” as the only way to beat those who deny the Holocaust.

Self-denial: for instance, denying yourself food for fear of getting ‘fat’ (and thus unattractive for the male gaze); denying yourself fun for fear of being labeled easy or promiscuous (and thus undesirable as a long-term partner); denying yourself time alone for fear of being seen as selfish or uncaring (and thus, clearly, unfit for a relationship). Silence: for instance, letting men speak first for fear of being seen as pushy (and thus too challenging); for instance, not speaking up when other women are oppressed, for fear of being seen as too confrontational (and thus, of course, difficult); for instance, not reporting sexual harassment, for fear of retribution, shame, isolation (self-explanatory). In celebrating ‘self-denial’, the film, then, patently reinscribes the stereotype of the patient, silent female.

Obviously, there is value in refusing to engage with outrageous liars; equally, there are issues that should remain beyond discussion – whether Holocaust happened being one of them. Yet, selective silencing masquerading as strategy – note that Lipstadt is not allowed to speak (not even to the media), while Rampton communicates his contempt for Irving by not looking at him (thus, denying him the ‘honour’ of the male gaze) – too often serves to reproduce the structural inequalities that can persist even under a legal system that purports to be egalitarian.

Most interestingly, the fact that a film that is manifestly about mansplaining manages to reproduce quite a few of mansplaining tropes (and, I would argue, not always in a self-referential or ironic manner) serves as a poignant reminder how deeply the ‘splaining complex is embedded not only in politics or the academia, but also in cultural representations. This is something we need to remain acutely aware of in the age of ‘post-truth’ or ‘post-facts’. If resistance to lying politicians and the media is going to take the form of (re)assertion of one, indisputable truth, and the concomitant legitimation of those who claim to know it – strangely enough, most often white, privileged men – then we’d better think of alternatives, and quickly.