Books

Down Girl by Kate Manne

Amber Edwards considers a new understanding of misogyny.

Down Girl by Kate Manne is, as far as I know, the first treatment of misogyny by an analytic feminist philosopher (as distinct from a continental feminist social theorist). It provides a fresh interpretation of the concept, restating what misogyny is and what it consists of, and constructs a well-reasoned argument on this idea.

Manne is an assistant professor of philosophy at Cornell University. Her main aim in this book is to develop an understanding of the root and nature of misogyny. She does this by first deconstructing the traditional or dictionary definition of misogyny; namely, a hatred of women. Instead Manne talks of the demeaning and shameful way in which women are treated, that includes elements of hostility and aggression, as misogyny. The book distinguishes misogyny from sexism, and helps to dispel some troubling misunderstandings of ‘misogynist extremism’ seen in public life and politics, by calling into question the typical responses towards such cases.

Manne argues that misogyny must have a dependence on patriarchy, either existing within a current patriarchal society or else having a historical connection with one. Therefore, she examines patriarchy’s underlying assumption of gender relations, whereby women are ‘givers’ of so-called ‘feminine-coded goods’, such as love, care, attention, and support, and men are entitled to take such goods to enhance their position of privilege, and will create conflict when women violate these expectations. This model of patriarchy sets the context for Manne's argument. As a woman, it was possibly the most relatable part of the book for me.

toxic masculinity
March for Our Lives, Portland, Oregon, 2018 © Sarahmirk. CC-BY-SA-4.0

One of the most common responses to crimes against humanity is the humanist one of arguing that such behaviour stems from the failure of some to recognise others as fellow human beings. This is commonly heard in cases of misogynist violence, prompting questions of why women are such easy targets, and why they’re not automatically seen as human beings. Manne outlines five common claims of humanism which highlight how men are psychologically able to behave in a misogynistic manner by reducing women to objects, making their victims effectively inhuman and thereby relieving the men of any guilt or moral tension. This attitude also helps to spawn an ideology about women which is disseminated throughout society so that it comes to seem normal (which also explains why women might themselves exercise misogynist behaviour).

Manne, however, finds fault with this argument. She claims that it rests on a common mistake: that of automatically attributing man’s inhumanity to man to a dehumanizing psychological attitude, coupled with the idea that the very recognition of humanity in another person means seeing shared characteristics that make them more relatable. On the contrary, says Manne, seeing shared characteristics could be potentially threatening, and dangerous insofar as it could create hostile dispositions that may compete with the capacity for empathy. Manne concludes that the humanist outlook does not explain misogyny. There must be additional factors at play which give rise to misogynistic motivations, such as political ideologies or a sense of entitlement. For example, seeing someone as your enemy creates a motivation to try to harm or even destroy them.

The book covers the range of topics you would expect to see in any feminist text on gender relations, such as abortion, family annihilation, and sexual objectification. This helps to highlight the prevalence of misogyny in society. However, Manne also recognises cases of institutionalised misogyny that might not be as obvious, such as accounts of injustice whereby women’s testimonies are not given due consideration or they are not taken seriously as victims of crime. This provides a good link to her discussion of victimhood and the hostile attitudes victims face through micro-aggressions which inevitably build up and harm members of harried social groups. Manne provides contemporary case studies to further support her analysis and her conception of misogyny, making frequent reference to the Isla Vista killings, Donald Trump's presidential administration, and the serial rapist Daniel Holtzclaw, amongst others. These case studies are revisited throughout the book, and while they do provide an excellent framework through which to view misogyny, a more diverse range of examples would have strengthened the argument and made for a more interesting and convincing read.

One of the most insightful parts of the book is Manne’s coining of the term himpathy, describing excessive sympathy towards male perpetrators of sexual violence (which might be characterised by some as ‘business as usual’). Himpathy tends to be directed towards white privileged ‘golden boys’ deemed incapable of misogynistic behaviour and/or crimes of sexual violence. Manne likens this to Hannah Arendt’s findings in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963), and explains that we need to recognise the banality of misogyny and accept that the misogynist need not necessarily be a monster or a caricature.

The book covers a diverse range of concepts to build a persuasive argument for the nature and characteristics of misogyny, providing a comprehensive understanding of the term from a philosophical point of view. However, Manne only touches on misogynoir and purposely omits transmisogyny. She frequently comments on how certain issues are beyond her paygrade and are therefore not discussed. Rather than limiting herself to the stance of a (self-professed) highly privileged white middle class, het, cis, non-disabled woman, she might have found that incorporating some different identity politics enabled her to present a fuller picture. The same can also be said regarding the assumption the author makes that her readers will have a philosophical background, whenever she references fallacies and other philosophical concepts with no further explanation. The book also rather ironically lacks a certain amount of criticism of social hierarchies and systems of power.

Although it’s a dense text, Down Girl is an interesting read for anybody wanting to know more about social inequality. The book is designed so that readers can approach each chapter independently, although it is questionable as to how successful this structure is, since each chapter adds to the overall argument. Nevertheless, it provides a good understanding of misogyny using current and prominent case studies, such as the misogynist behaviour Donald Trump exerted towards Hilary Clinton. It will make its readers critically question gender relations and stir a productive anger, encouraging them to do something about inherently misogynistic systems of power.

© Amber Edwards 2019

Amber Edwards is a librarian working at an international school in Rome. It’s a good bit warmer than Aberdeen, where she studied Philosophy.

Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, by Kate Manne, 2017, OUP, 368 pages, $27.95, ISBN 978-0190604981827842-7

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