Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny by Kate Manne
Kate Manne’s Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny is an accessible and timely exploration of a particular aspect of gendered oppression that has received surprisingly little scholarly treatment. There is a lot of feminist work on sexism, oppression, and patriarchy, but misogyny, as Manne defines it, is distinct from all of these. Her purpose in this book is to describe misogyny as a distinct force present in contemporary society, [End Page E-10] and to show how it shapes public life. The strength of Manne’s account is that it detaches misogyny from the intentions and attitudes of individual misogynists, showing instead how it is a feature of a patriarchal society.
Misogyny, according to Manne, is like the law enforcement arm of a patriarchal social order. Its function is not to justify women, or non-men, as having a lower place in social hierarchy, but is rather to enforce that lower social status. Misogyny is not a matter of individual attitudes or sexist hatred of women, and in fact it is entirely consistent to claim that misogynist acts can be committed by people who desired women, perhaps loved them in some way. This is important, since one of Manne’s primary motivating examples, the Isla Vista killings, was committed by a man who was deeply angry and resentful at the lack of sexual attention he received from women. His reaction was to lash out against what he saw as an unjust state of affairs—a violation of the patriarchal social order according to which he was owed the women he desired—and attempt to punish many of the women he saw as unjustly withholding attention from him by shooting people at a nearby sorority. The tool that Manne has provided us with for understanding this is a framework under which misogynist violence is a matter of maintaining subordination.
The introduction and first few chapters of Manne’s book introduce these basic ideas and other such motivating instances of misogynist hostility. She argues against such things in terms of what she calls the naive conception of misogyny, which sees misogyny as a matter of individual hatred or hostility towards women—individually or as a group. That gendered violence is more complex than simple hatred should not be surprising to anyone familiar with statistics of violence against women, since the majority of violence enacted against women is at the hands of people they know, often current or former intimate partners, and sometimes in the name of love or desire. It would seem more difficult to consider such violence as misogynist under the naive conception, since these crimes seem motivated by something other than hatred of the women who are victimized by it. And indeed, on Manne’s conception of misogyny, it is relatively independent of the individual feelings that the perpetrators of the violence have towards their victims. Rather, it is a matter of their enforcement of a certain social ranking that places women below men. Under Manne’s conception, misogyny punishes women who are not playing their patriarchally approved role. Unlike sexism, its role is not to justify what the role of women ought to be, but, given a system under [End Page E-11] which women are held to be subordinate, it enforces such subordination by means that are sometimes coercive or violent.
One feature of Manne’s definition of misogyny that makes it more friendly to feminist analysis than the naive conception, is that it centers the women who are punished by it, rather than the (typically male) enforcers of the patriarchal system. As such, we are better able to see what unreasonable demands patriarchy makes of women. This is the subject of Manne’s fourth chapter: considering how women are positioned as givers of characteristically moral goods such as affection and care. Now, on Manne’s distinction between sexism and misogyny, it is sexism that determines what women owe and to whom, but misogyny that enforces it, perhaps by punishing women who seem to be shirking their duties, or taking social goods that are coded as masculine. Sometimes, this takes the form of anger and hostility towards successful women, rising, perhaps, above their station, or taking positions that men should rightfully be holding. Though when it comes to the goods that women are supposed to be providing, it is not always the case that there is a particular woman whose duty it is to provide them. In the case of the perpetrator of the Isla Vista killings, Elliot Rodger, his anger was directed at “hot women” in general, who were to be punished indiscriminately, since none of them were giving them the sexual or romantic attention he believed he merited. In calling himself an incel (involuntary celibate), he, and others who adopt the label, mark themselves as being among men who are unjustly deprived of feminine goods.
All this continues to speak against the naive conception of misogyny that views it as a more straightforward phenomenon of anger and hatred. Manne’s conception of misogyny allows us, for instance, to understand the narrowly circumscribed ways in which misogyny can allow women’s strength to be valued—when that strength is used to stand by or support some man or other. Also, it can explain why successful right-wing women are generally less targeted by misogyny; this framework allows us to understand this by noting that in such cases, women’s power is generally being used in support of patriarchal interests, such as “traditional family values.” Another advantage of moving away from the naive conception is that it lets us situate seemingly distinct types of misogynist violence within the same phenomenon of dissatisfaction with status. Family annihilators are typically successful men who, facing some kind of loss, such as bankruptcy or demotion, kill both their families and themselves. But like incel violence, this can also be seen as a misplaced reaction against [End Page E-12] low status (in the case of incels) or loss of status (in the case of many annihilators). So we can situate both types of violence on the same sort of continuum, which also demonstrates how a patriarchal system that associates men’s worth with their hetero-romantic and material success is ultimately going to fail people of several different genders.
The analysis of women as providers of feminine-coded goods is also used in Manne’s fifth chapter, to argue against a view that sees misogyny as an issue of dehumanization. More specifically, she argues against a view called humanism, which is a conjunction of several distinct but interrelated theses. This view takes dehumanization to be a key factor in many different forms of oppression, though particularly war crimes. Under such a view, the failure to treat or recognize others as fellow humans is the best explanation of why we treat each other in cruel, humiliating, and degrading ways. Applied to misogyny, the failure to recognize women as fully human, or the tendency to treat women as objects, is the best explanation for women’s mistreatment. And consequently, the best remedy for it would be to find strategies through which women could be portrayed as fully human, or in which common humanity could be showcased.
Manne’s primary argument against the humanist thesis relies on her insights from chapter four, namely that misogyny involves treating women as distinctively human and positions them as human givers. Given the nature of the moral goods that many perpetrators of misogynist violence see as being unjustly withheld, their stance on women seems incompatible with one of dehumanization. More specifically, incels like Rodger view women as being capable of love, affection, and deep emotional relationships; after all, these are the very things that they are demanding of the women they resent. But these capacities are distinctively human ones, and so dehumanization as an explanation of their cruelty towards women seems difficult to square with their stated attitudes. Further, the hostility displayed towards many successful women, such as Hillary Clinton or Julia Gillard, is explained on Manne’s framework as a result of their occupying traditionally male positions of power, or taking what, on a patriarchal scheme, they are not owed. But such a stance towards them positions them as human rivals or usurpers, which is incompatible with the humanist thesis as it has been characterized.
This chapter, though, reveals the primary weakness of Manne’s book, which is its focus on a single axis of oppression. Manne acknowledges other oppressions, such as racism and transphobia, and notes with regret in her introduction that she is unable to discuss them in much detail, and [End Page E-13] they are noted in several examples, say of misogynoir. It would be unfair to demand that one book do everything, but chapter five does mark at least some ways in which Manne’s analysis could have benefited from further consideration of issues such as racism. While I think she is right, in the examples she considers, such as hostility towards women such as Clinton and Gillard, that dehumanization plays no significant role, much of the literature on dehumanization focuses on ways in which it is applied to people of particular ethnic groups, rather than people of a particular gender identity. Accounts of dehumanization that she considers, like David Livingstone Smith’s, argue that dehumanization portrays a people as simultaneously human and inhuman. They are are seen as ‘uncanny,’ like monsters or beasts wearing human faces, but such characterizations are often given along ethnic lines.
In pushing back against accounts like Smith’s, Manne points out the tension between it and atrocities such as sexual enslavement and wartime rape, arguing that, were dehumanization the mechanism that enabled the atrocities in such cases, we would find more aversion on the part of the perpetrators. We do not, after all, generally want to have sex with monsters, regardless of their outward appearance. Now, I grant to Manne that we do not typically want sexual relationships with the uncanny or monstrous—incels who desire sexual relationships with women might hate or resent women but still view them as human. But it is not clear that wartime rape (and other instances of rape) are sexual encounters, much less relationships. I think that we could view rape in such cases as a way of degrading a certain kind of good or loot, namely women. Soldiers in war might burn homes in a show of dominance over enemy civilians, just as they might steal valuables. They might just as well use rape as a way of destroying or defiling what is seen as essentially property.
What Manne gets right, though, is that we have no reason to think that misogynist violence generally occurs because women are dehumanized. But on an account of misogyny under which it is primarily a matter of putting women back in their place, it is likely not the source of all instances of women’s mistreatment. Factors such as ableism, racism, and transphobia may intersect with both misogyny and sexism in complex ways that are certainly worth further exploration. Women, as Manne argues, are positioned as providers of particular kinds of goods, particularly moral goods of care, service, and attention. But the form such giving is supposed to take might vary with the social identity of the woman in question, as well as the way in which she is to be punished for failing to provide it. I [End Page E-14] think this just shows us, though, how much more work on misogyny has yet to be done, and how Manne’s book provides us with an important starting point for further research.
In chapter six, now, Manne considers the stories we tell about the perpetrators of misogynist violence. Connecting misogyny to the issue of testimonial injustice, she considers how the latter can be seen as a mechanism through which hierarchies of subordination can be preserved. Situations of testimonial injustice are cases in which someone suffers a credibility deficit as a result of systemic identity prejudice. We can see many so-called “he said, she said” situations as instances of testimonial injustice, in which stereotypes about women’s capriciousness or irrationality can make their word less valuable than that of men. This is the flip side of misogyny as punishing women trying to rise above their supposed place; here we see misogyny as protecting more dominant men from falling from their place, namely by shielding them from accusations of wrongdoing. Testimonial injustice in the service of misogyny protects men who do wrong. Part of this protective function is what Manne calls himpathy, which is an excess of sympathy and understanding towards men, particularly male perpetrators of violence against women. We can see this in many media portrayals of those accused of sexual assault or harassment, which sometimes seek to demonstrate how men have their lives ruined by such accusations. What is missing here, of course, is the extent to which such narratives neglect the impact on the lives of victims of assault or harassment. But in a male-dominated social order, such omissions are sometimes what protects the status quo.
What, then, can victims do to be heard or believed? Chapter seven discusses the sometimes disparaged trope of women playing the victim, often dismissed as part of a culture of fragility and melodrama. This goes along with a further image of women making false accusations against powerful men in order to serve their own ends. But, as Manne points out in this chapter, what ends? Those who cast themselves in the role of victim, particularly when the perpetrator is a man with significant social power, do not often get a great deal of public sympathy—the latter, tending as it does, towards himpathy. Victims who deviate from an image of innocence and moral purity are often the subject of humiliating public scrutiny and speculations about hidden agendas which might lead them to have vendettas against those they accuse. Yet sometimes the benefits of exposing wrongdoing end up outweighing the personal costs. Without those willing take such risks and make public their experiences, many predators and misogynists might well continue unhindered. [End Page E-15]
The final chapter in Manne’s book deals with the case study of Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump in the 2016 US presidential election. While I have claimed that the book’s main shortcoming is its insufficient attention to modes of oppression beyond gender, it does provide an ideal way to analyze the treatment of high-status white women like Clinton, as well as the Australian politician Julia Gillard. Both women were notably criticized as being power-hungry liars, and marked by significant suspicion in the public eye, despite a lack of evidence of untrustworthiness. But of course, misogyny gives us a reason not to trust women such as this, who attempt to usurp positions that are traditionally occupied by men. Such transgressions lead to their being viewed with disgust and contempt, as so-called “nasty women.” Since attempting to run for high public office is already against the patriarchal rules, it is easy to see how women who do so are seen as rule-breakers or as unreliable generally. Misogyny, then, explains how a president like Trump, who has been caught in several lies and has admitted on tape to sexual assault (dismissed, of course, as “locker room talk”), is still seen by his supporters as trustworthy. He is, after all, doing what is expected of him.
So where does this leave us with respect to misogyny? Manne’s conclusion is pessimistic. Our society is one in which patriarchal social norms are deeply entrenched, sometimes with deadly consequences. Looking at daily events with her framework in mind reveals an unfortunate abundance of “down girl” moves, in which we see women face negative consequences for disrupting patriarchal strictures. The goal of the book, though, was not to provide prescriptions for ameliorating misogyny, but rather to help us understand the role it plays in our social life. So while Down Girl is not a hopeful read, it is an important one for the time in which we live.
As I said at the outset, the book is also quite accessible for audiences less familiar with feminist philosophy. The discussion of testimonial injustice may be somewhat difficult without the relevant background, as well as some portions of the discussion of dehumanization. But overall, even those parts of the book that engage with and make more technical philosophical points are grounded in concrete examples that make at least the overall shape of the argument clear. As such, the insights it provides make it a valuable addition to feminist philosophy, as well as an important [End Page E-16] read for anyone seeking to understand our contemporary political and social climate.
Victoria, British Columbia, Canada