The XX Factor

Mike Daisey Mansplains Himself

Mike Daisey
Mike Daisey performing The Agony and the Ectasy of Steve Jobs at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington in 2011.

Photo by Astrid Riecken/Washington Post via Getty Images

“Just so we’re clear: This is a wonderful dramatic staging of privilege,” Mike Daisey said as he took the lone seat on an East Village stage Wednesday night to deliver a monologue on the topic of “how our world is built on the subjugation and ownership of women, and how men perpetuate that violence every day.” Daisey—a celebrated monologist who has previously spun tales about Apple, Amazon, and the New York City transit system—began, naturally, with a semen joke. The monologist is essentially paid to “dramatically jizz” all over his audience, he said. Perhaps even more perversely, we had all “paid to be come upon.” Big laugh from the guy next to me.

When news of Daisey’s show, titled Yes All Women (stylized in all caps), trickled down to the Twitter commentariat last week, Daisey was accused of hijacking a hashtag used to share women’s stories, co-opting it for self-aggrandizing purposes, and lacking the modicum of self-awareness necessary to predict the obvious mockery the piece would incite. In the monologue, as the promotional copy put it, Daisey would not “try to speak for women,” but instead “interrogate his own history and choices as a way of framing a human discussion about how it could be possible to live an authentic life where we actually see one another.” In other words, this show about “all women” would really be all about Mike Daisey.

Mike Daisey is really into “framing discussions.” He earned international acclaim for The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, a 2010 monologue later adapted into a wildly popular This American Life segment in which Daisey described traveling to China, touring Apple factories, and interviewing their workers—people who had been poisoned by the chemicals used to clean iPhone screens and disfigured in accidents, some of whom were just 12 and 13 years old. Many of Daisey’s critiques of Apple were broadly true, as they were plucked from the work of investigative journalists and Apple’s own internal reports. But when other reporters tracked down Daisey’s Chinese translator, they found that Daisey had lied about what he’d actually witnessed in China. He’d seen no worker with a mangled claw for a hand, no 12-year-old wage slave. When he got caught, he lied and lied again. Finally, in a torturous taped confrontation between Daisey and Ira Glass, Daisey hedged that a strict journalistic standard fails to “unpack the complexities” of how a “story gets told” in the theater, and that his central aim as a monologist was to “make people care” about the people working in Apple’s factories. The details may have been false, he argued, but his narrative was true.

So when Yes All Women was announced—with all its bluster about “interrogating” our histories to find a more “authentic life”—critics quickly responded by calling the show “easily the funniest thing that has ever happened, in all of human history” and Photoshopping a fedora on Daisey’s head. Daisey then invited them to suck his dick. But he also changed the show’s title to Yes This Man, admitted the “straightforward irony: I’m a man, who monologues, speaking,” and promised that those who paid for a $30 ticket would be treated to a thought-provoking unpacking of that contradiction that would transcend the snarky internet narrative that had coalesced around the show. “There’s what happens online,” Daisey told Salon, “and then there’s what happens in the room.”

There in the room, Daisey had a point: Because sexism is framed as a “women’s issue,” he said, only women are tasked with discussing it, and as they talk among themselves, men are freed to control the narrative on just about everything else. Finally, here was a man who wouldn’t excuse himself from the discussion, who would leverage his privileged position to detail all of the little ways that he had been complicit in the patriarchy. This works as a setup—a monologue is basically “the Greek Aristotelian form of mansplaining,” Daisey said in one of his misogyny-themed ba-dump-chings—but not as a revelation. Over the course of an hour, Daisey struggled to thrust his own experience into a vague framework about the “50 percent of people not considered as human as the other gender,” or as Daisey repeatedly distilled the problem, how “everything is fucked.”

The result read something like an hourlong internet comment animated for the stage. In one riff, Daisey confessed his experience kissing a boy for the first time in college, and feeling “enchanted by the difference” of kissing a man. But ultimately, he opted to “close that universe to exploration” to ensure that his sexuality fit into a more understandable sexual landscape. Perhaps he was frightened by the prospect of realizing that men and women are really “not different.” But somehow, the story pivoted into a digression about how women are so alluring to men because they are “truly unknowable,” and any man who would claim otherwise is engaging in the typical fallacy of male omniscience. This story helps buttress Daisey’s own biography (when critics have called him out as a “white, heterosexual male,” he’s responded that he doesn’t identify as straight), and to strike that special balance between self-centeredness and self-flagellation on which the whole monologue teeters. But it fails to illuminate anything about the experience of women, or even, really, of men. Later, Daisey told the story of how he and his wife, after spending nearly two decades together as creative and romantic partners, made the decision to live apart. “I cannot be myself in your presence,” his wife said at the split. “That’s patriarchy,” Daisey told the crowd. Is it? Or is it just what happens when you spend 17 years occupying an apartment with a professional monologist? Every turn in Daisey’s personal history can be pegged to a feminist talking point, but that doesn’t mean he has a point.

On the Apple story, Daisey’s real sin wasn’t that he had invented charges about a big, bad company out of whole cloth. The big lie in Daisey’s monologue lay in its centralization of his own place in the narrative. He compiled a bunch of reported stories about poor Chinese factory workers, then lied to make it seem like he had uncovered their tragedies himself—that their stories were, in fact, his own. In the two years since Daisey was marked as a fabulist, he has leaned into his status as an unreliable narrator to refocus himself again, this time as the man brave enough to fudge the details to uncover universal truths. In 2013, he mounted a 29-part show called All the Faces of the Moon and paired it with a podcast series called All Stories Are Fiction. In Dreaming of Rob Ford, a monologue he performed last month in Toronto, Daisey aimed to expose “the subjectivity of our storytelling” and “what it means to tell a story about a public figure.” And here’s how he spins the Apple incident in his bio: “In a brief, meteoric career with This American Life, his shows are among the most listened to and downloaded episodes of that program’s nineteen year history.” Well, he’s not wrong.

Daisey’s also right that we need more men to stand up and speak out about sexism. But that doesn’t mean that we need Mike Daisey. His ostensible aim is to encourage men to join in the discussion, but he’s done it by framing himself as both the narrator and the central figure of a story that he doesn’t fully comprehend. In the end, Daisey’s own life just doesn’t provide enough compelling material to justify the premise. The problem with Yes This Man is the inverse of the one that befell Daisey’s Apple narrative: The details are too mundane to be invented, but the narrative still reeks.

Now two years removed from the Apple meltdown, Daisey continues to make people really, really mad, as evidenced by the outcry when Yes All Women came to light, but watching the show this week just made me sad. When the monologist Daisified stories of oppression in order to talk about factory workers living halfway across the world, his tale hit the audience with a bang. But when he attempted to apply the same strategy to people who were sitting right there in the room with him, it sounded more like a whimper. By the end of the show, the man seated next to me had fallen asleep.