Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny
I returned from the S-USIH conference to happily find on my desk a complimentary copy of Kate Manne’s book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (OUP, 2017). Starting on a new research project, I am reading and re-reading all things feminist and anti-feminist and getting reacquainted with the rich field of feminist philosophy and theory. A field that took me on many trips to no-woman’s land, theories that often appear to defy the logic of women’s actual lives, and sparked an intellectual curiosity I have been unable to shake off.
Manne starts with the question that still hangs in the air by observing that since we allegedly live in a post-patriarchal society in which women enjoy an unprecedented number of legal and civil freedoms, why is the comedian John Oliver asking, “Why is misogyny still a thing?” (Preface, xii) Why do women continue to suffer a disproportionate amount of humiliation, stalking, sexual assault, and intimate partner violence across every sector of society? Even high-achieving women in journalism, business, the academy, and politics have not shed what should be a remnant of the past. With a demeaning comment, it appears to some, that the most confident woman can be reduced to a whimpering victim. Misogyny could be given as a reason for the continual predatory behavior women encounter. Yet, as feminists have been accused of evoking misogyny for every male slight, the concept of “hatred of women” has become passé among the intelligentsia, losing its explanatory power.
Manne brings a fresh analysis to our assumed understanding of misogyny and the related term sexism. As a feminist and moral philosopher, she argues that misogyny is on the wane as a working concept; not a single book or article-length treatment had been devoted to unpacking what it is and how it works. Historians, pay attention. Manne has stepped up to fill this gap. Her culturist approach reminded me of historian Ruth H. Bloch’s 1993 essay “A Cultural Critique of Feminist Theory,” included in her excellent collection Gender and Morality in Anglo-American Culture, 1650–1800 (University of California Press, 2003). Bloch argues for understanding gender as a cultural system of meaning (rather than a materialist conception) that symbolizes human connection and emotional bonds. At its best, it represents a positive interdependency; at its worst, it includes the possibility of hierarchical power and exclusion. Gender as culture occupies the terrain of moral philosophy, and Manne as a feminist philosopher breaks new ground in a field that is in need of new perspectives.
By a stroke of publishing luck any author would welcome, Down Girl is exceedingly timely in helping us understand Harvey Weinstein-gate, whose shock waves are not only rattling Hollywood but also reaching crisis levels in industries as diverse as publishing, the academy, Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and the harder-to-believe pornography industry. The disclosure of decades (read centuries) of male predatory sexual behavior created a social media tsunami in the #metoo campaign, and men have responded with #HowIwillchange. Every woman I know is part of #metoo even if she didn’t make it public. Many are asking, how did so many stay silent for so long? How many more are there?
Noting the number of incidents in which women have alleged sexual assault and abuse by high-profile men only to turn around and deny their own testimony years later, Manne offers examples from our current political scene. They include Mary Louise Piccard, former wife of Steve Bannon, Ivana Trump in divorce charges against Donald Trump, and Lisa Henning, ex-wife of Andrew Puzder, onetime nominee for labor secretary under Trump. Each of these women made on-the-record serious assault accusations against their former husband—Henning in an incognito appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show in an episode titled “High-class Battered Women”—only to recant later with some form of: “What was I thinking? We are great friends now.” With men denying the allegations and controlling the narrative, the assertion of a wrong experienced and the subsequent recanting by women often appears as self-inflicted “gaslighting” (11). Sounding like another round of the stand-by-your-man narrative, the repeated self-gaslighting contributes to a cultural deafness and denials of misogyny. As we all know, these women have struck a devil’s bargain by attaching themselves to elite men.
Manne does not blame the victim, understanding the phenomenon of misogyny as a cultural pattern of gendered domination. She breaks away from what she considers a naïve definition of misogyny as individual animus or hatred of women, a psychological explanation, and shifts the definition to a cultural-political system of control difficult to pin on any single man. She defines it as “a system that operates within a hierarchical social order to police and enforce women’s subordination and to uphold male dominance” (33). Misogyny is selective because it targets those who fail to uphold the patriarchal standards of a woman’s place in a masculine world. Rewards come to those who comply with those standards. It’s differentiated from sexism, which she defines as “the ‘justificatory’ branch of a patriarchal order, which consists in ideology that has the overall function of rationalizing and justifying patriarchal social relations”(79). Gender is naturalized through beliefs, assumptions, and theories. In sum, sexism is the ideology and misogyny is the policing and enforcement branch.
Non-compliance brings adverse social consequences in the form of condescension, “mansplaining,” punishing, sexualizing —you get the idea—and is a method of policing social norms. The application varies widely by the social rung on which a woman stands. As I read this, I immediately recognized how this applies when stronger men turn to the same methods to “feminize” socially weaker men, an aspect of the gender system Manne does not address (and that is too complex to address here).
What gives misogyny cultural power, Manne notes, is that it “involves men drawing on women in asymmetrical moral support roles” (intro. xiii). Women are expected to provide men, especially elite men, with comfort, care, and sexual and emotional labor instantiated in many different relations: the wife, the girlfriend, the professional subordinate, the office wife, or the ingénue. Women caught in the asymmetrical moral support roles “owe” respect, deference, admiration, and gratitude to favorably situated men. It shows up in conversation; office politics; and the dispensation of favors flowing from a man’s relative status, wealth, or celebrity. In this scenario, even as women are recognized as human beings, they are not simply showing empathy toward their fellows but are acting as “human givers.” To fail to provide asymmetrical moral support is to be the “power-hungry, uncaring, and domineering” woman. In the gender economy, a woman who refuses is “morally in the wrong” in failing to play the assigned role (intro, xiv). She has broken the gendered social contract with consequences in her world.
Misogyny is self-masking in that bringing attention to it will most likely bring more of it and arouse “himpathy” (196). So women are caught in a catch-22. The difficulty in complaining arises out of fear of attracting charges of playing the victim or playing the gender card. Manne understands the nesting of misogyny within other forms of vulnerability, including race, class, and sexuality, what we call intersectionality, and owns up to her own privileged position and that of white straight women who have “narrative dominance.” The consequences of self-censorship by privileged white women fall more heavily on the most vulnerable. Women downstream on the social hierarchy are less able to voice similar experiences, having fewer or no channels of appeal. The price is too great in the loss of jobs; loss of security; and social exclusion as bitchy, slutty, or just plain crazy.
For readers put off by the discipline of philosophy or theory, Manne offers multiple examples from today’s media reporting, covering locker rooms, crime scenes, and national politics along with her philosophical analysis. She contributes to a field that has come a long way since the 1960s. Having fought for recognition for the legitimacy of their method, feminist philosophers are firmly committed to excavating the political, epistemological, and moral aspect of gender relations. Down Girl should encourage historians who trace changes in the meaning and the context of language to revisit some of the old standby terms of feminism. Patriarchy may be up next.
About the Reviewer
Lilian Calles Barger is an intellectual, cultural and gender historian and an independent scholar. Her book entitled The World Come of Age: An Intellectual History of Liberation Theology is forthcoming from Oxford University Press. She is currently researching the history of feminism and the gender revolution.