Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny
By Kate Manne
Oxford University Press, New York, 2018
On August 11, 2020, Joe Biden chose Senator Kamala Harris to be his 2020 running mate. Within minutes, Trump and other Republicans launched misogynist and racist attacks calling her “nasty”, “angry”, and “horrible” and questioning her eligibility to be Vice President.
I’ve read a number of books about racism recently, which I’ve reviewed here and here, but nothing about misogyny. It’s important to understand and confront this form of discrimination because it harms not just prominent female politicians but virtually every woman on the planet.
Originally from Melbourne, Manne is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Cornell University where she works on moral, feminist and social philosophy.
Down Girl is a deep and complex book. In this review I’ll summarize the ideas I found most important.
Misogyny is most often defined as a characteristic of individuals, usually men, but not always, who feel hatred or hostility towards women simply because they are women. According to this definition, misogyny is a psychological disorder like claustrophobia.
Manne calls this the naïve definition of misogyny and she rejects it. It’s true there are some people who have this psychological problem, but its occurrence is too rare to account for the widespread hostility that so many women encounter throughout their lives. No, the naïve definition of misogyny is simply too narrow.
Manne proposes a more sophisticated definition. She argues that,
“… misogyny ought to be understood as the system that operates within a patriarchal social order to police and enforce women’s subordination and to uphold male dominance.” [p. 33]
In other words, misogyny is systemic. It’s political not psychological. Contrary to the naïve conception where misogyny is directed at women in general, under Manne’s definition, misogyny is targeted particularly at women who violate patriarchal norms and expectations.
Patriarchal Norms and Expectations
So what exactly are the patriarchal norms and expectations that misogyny is designed to enforce?
Actually, before we get to that, what is “patriarchy”? It’s narrowly defined as a social system in which the father or eldest male is the head of each family. More broadly, patriarchy is a social and political system where men dominate, and women are subordinated and oppressed.
Our society, like almost all societies throughout human history, is patriarchal. And yes, it’s still patriarchal despite widespread advances in women’s rights over the last hundred years.
In a patriarchal system, Manne says, women are expected to provide “feminine-coded goods and services” including attention, affection, admiration, sympathy, sex, and children as well as safe haven, nurture, security, soothing, and comfort. And men are entitled to receive them.
Men in a patriarchy are also entitled to receive “masculine-coded perks and privileges” such as power, prestige, public recognition, rank, reputation, honor, “face”, respect, money and other forms of wealth, hierarchical status, upward mobility, and the status conferred by having a high-ranking woman’s loyalty, love and devotion. [p. 130]
Manne states that most cases of misogyny fall under two
“… complimentary social norms for women:
- She is obligated to give feminine-coded services to someone or other, preferably one man who is her social equal or better (by the lights of racist, classist, as well as heteronormative values, in many contexts), at least insofar as he wants such goods and services from her.
- She is prohibited from having or taking masculine-coded goods away from dominant men (at a minimum, and perhaps from others as well), insofar as he wants or aspires to receive or retain then.” [p. 130]
Those passages from page 130 are the crux of the whole book. Women are expected to be “human givers” and in a patriarchy a woman’s full humanity is only recognized when she “properly” fulfills that role. When a woman tries to take power or prestige or when she withholds affection, sex or nurturing, she violates these norms. She is met with criticism, hostility, harassment, and sometimes even assault and murder from misogynists seeking to enforce these norms and to preserve or restore male dominance. This is true in private households and also in the public sphere where it is more visible.
“And the victims of misogyny hence tend to include women entering positions of power and authority over men, and women eschewing or opting out of male-oriented service roles.” [p. 51]
Manne explains that it is possible for misogynists to love their mothers, wives and daughters and still treat other women with hostility. Unless of course those family members challenge the misogynist’s dominance, in which case they may be subject to the full range of misogynistic retribution.
Misogyny is intersectional. It frequently combines with racism when directed at women of color who challenge the dominance of white men.
How do we diagnose misogyny? When you hear someone, a family member or a colleague or the President of the United States, making a critical comment about a woman, is it misogyny or is it “fair game”?
Manne offers a simple guide.
- It’s misogyny if a man in a comparable social position (same age, class, race, sexual orientation, etc.) would not be subject to the same kind and intensity of hostility as a woman, or
- It’s misogyny if a person in a world without patriarchal norms and expectations would not be subject to similar hostility.
As a practical matter, we don’t live in a world without patriarchal norms and expectations, so (2) seems mostly hypothetical to me. (1) is sufficient
Sexism & Misogyny
Manne makes it clear that sexism and misogyny are different.
“I propose taking sexism to be the branch of patriarchal ideology that justifies and rationalizes a patriarchal social order, and misogyny as the system that polices and enforces its governing norms and expectations.” [p. 20]
Here’s an example from my own field that illustrates the difference. In 2017, a Google engineer named James Damore posted a memo on an internal company website where he argued that the under-representation of women in the tech industry was at least partly due to biological differences between the sexes. In other words, women can’t code as well as men. That’s sexism.
Damore went on to recommend that Google abandon or roll back certain company policies and initiatives that were intended to increase female representation at the company. Since women can’t code as well as men, it is counter-productive to try to increase their representation. Oh, and it also threatens their male co-workers. That’s misogyny.
Damore was subsequently fired.
It’s possible, Manne argues, for someone to be misogynistic without being sexist. Even someone like Donald Trump, she says, is not obviously sexist in his views about the abilities of the women around him. His misogyny is beyond doubt, but it’s targeted at specific women, like Hilary Clinton and Kamala Harris, who challenge him or threaten him.
Manne suggests another way of looking at this distinction: Sexism discriminates between men and women. Misogyny discriminates between “good women” and “bad women”, as defined by patriarchal norms and expectations.
Examples of Misogyny
Let’s look at some examples.
Let’s start with abortion. Why do abortion rights arouse such fierce anger and resentment from some people? Even in cases of rape or incest? Manne argues it’s because in seeking abortion rights, women are claiming the right to withhold a whole swath of feminine-coded goods and services including child-rearing, nurture, affection, and comfort. Abortion rights represent the wholesale rejection of patriarchal norms and expectations. Likewise for birth control.
How about rape? Why are the victims of rape so often blamed or not believed? Manne says that when a woman accuses a man of rape, she threatens his power, prestige and livelihood. And she asserts her right to withhold sex.
Why was Hilary Clinton so vilified by conservatives during the 2016 election? According to Manne, it’s because Clinton was an ambitious woman competing for the most powerful office in the world. Threatening to wrest that power away from a man. After choosing a career in politics rather than staying at home raising children.
Manne is deeply pessimistic about raising awareness of misogyny let alone making progress against it. From children’s stories that socialize our kids into patriarchal norms to the election of Donald Trump, it’s clear that patriarchy and misogyny are deeply entrenched.
Down Girl is quite brilliant but it’s not easy reading.
I think the book is written mainly for an academic audience. There are passages throughout the book dealing with philosophical and feminist issues that may be important from the perspective of academic rigor but they’re far less interesting to a general audience.
I also found that Manne’s writing frequently gets in the way of her message. She keeps interrupting herself, injecting qualifiers and caveats (often bracketed) that sometimes make it hard to know what she is really saying. Here’s an example:
“A crucial complication in all of this, which the cases of Rodger and Limbaugh both bring out, is that there may be no particular woman to claim their supposedly rightful due from, or to blame for trying to cheat them out of it (again, according to the twisted logic their misogyny). Instead, they each fashioned a narrative that draws a hazy circuitous connection either between themselves (in Rodger’s case) or on behalf of his listeners (in Limbaugh’s). The end of the connection—and the story–is a representative woman to serve as a scapegoat for the resented absence. (Or, indeed, a double absence, for Rodger: a sin of omission committed by nobody in particular.)” [p. 108]
Manne was clearly dismayed by Donald Trump’s election in 2016. She deeply analyzes the misogyny faced by Hilary Clinton in the later chapters of the book. This worthwhile analysis details the discrimination that women still face when they seek positions of power and authority.
The book does not mention the #metoo movement which really took off in 2017, perhaps too late to be included. The fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the US Supreme Court and the sexual assault accusations against him by Christine Blassey Ford took place in 2018, after Down Girl was published. Likewise, the Jeffrey Epstein scandal. These events have all exposed just how prevalent and disturbing the problem of misogyny really is. I wonder if this exposure has made Manne more or less pessimistic.
I was hoping Down Girl would contain recommendations for things we could do to make progress against misogyny, either as individuals or through political or legal activism. Unfortunately, the book contains none of this. I can’t tell if that’s because of Manne’s focus on philosophical analysis or her pessimism.
All that said, the book provides deep insights into the nature and operation of misogyny. And it gives what I always appreciate, a framework for thinking about misogyny and for recognizing it.
I do think there is room for more books on this subject, particularly if they are aimed at a general audience, and propose concrete actions. I’d also like to know more about misogyny in non-Western cultures.
Have you read Down Girl? What did you think of it? Are there any other books on this topic you would recommend? Comments welcome.
Thanks for reading.