In her recent book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, Kate Manne offers a framework for understanding how misogyny operates in contemporary Western societies, and a vocabulary (‘himpathy’, ‘herasure’) for discussing some of its more insidious aspects. Drawing on recent events such as the Isla Vista killings, the Brock Turner rape trial, and the 2016 US election, Manne’s work feels as current as it is urgent. This is not a history of misogyny. It is a diagnosis of contemporary misogyny as an immediate social problem tied, in part, to feminist progress.
Fundamental to Manne’s re-framing of misogyny is a move away from what she calls the ‘naive conception’ of misogyny; the dictionary-defined hatred of women. This definition, Manne argues, ‘makes misogyny a virtually nonexistent and politically marginal phenomenon, as well as an inscrutable one.’ For, as Manne goes on to show, if a misogynist must hate all women on a deep psychological level, ‘[t]he defense “no true misogynist…” will almost always be available.’
Manne’s discussion of misogyny shifts the focus from the psychology of individual men to the social problem as it manifests for women. In line with its common usage within feminist discourse, Manne views misogyny as ‘the system that operates within a patriarchal social order to police and enforce women’s subordination and to uphold male dominance.’ While making it clear that individual actions and attitudes underpin this social order and its enforcement, Manne’s emphasis is on how misogyny operates systemically, giving rise to violence and creating injustice.
Manne’s definition of misogyny is elegantly constructed. We are taken through an explanation of, and substantive arguments against, the ‘naive conception,’ followed by an exploration of how the term gets used in contemporary discourse, elucidating ways in which this usage is sometimes not helpful–Manne, for example, urges that the individualised term “misogynist” be viewed as a ‘threshold concept’ to describe ‘people whose attitudes and actions are particularly and consistently misogynistic across myriad social contexts,’ rather than, we may infer, something to be bandied around on Twitter at the slightest justification. These discussions build toward the chapter ‘Ameliorating Misogyny’ in which Manne carefully delineates what misogyny ought to mean based on its utility in relation to existing contexts (again, ‘the system that operates within a patriarchal social order to police and enforce women’s subordination and to uphold male dominance’). This definition is refined throughout the rest of the book. It is distinguished from sexism: ‘misogyny upholds the social norms of patriarchies by patrolling and policing them; whereas sexism serves to justify these norms’ (or, in my favoured phrasing, ‘Sexism has a theory; misogyny wields a cudgel’), and placed in clear relation to patriarchy as, in large part, the ‘uneven, gendered economy of giving and taking moral-cum-social goods and services.’
Much of the important work done in Down Girl is in service of definitions. Whether this is in the introduction of new terminology (himpathy, ‘the flow of sympathy away from female victims toward their male victimizers’), the discussion of existing terminology (misogynoir, ‘Moya Bailey’s apt term (2014) for the distinctive intersection of misogyny and anti-black racism, in America’) (i), or the fundamental project of laying down what misogyny is and how it operates in western societies, Manne’s focus on precision and clear explanation is a welcome boon to a social discourse that is too often muddied by a lack of understanding and throwaway phrases that minimise or otherwise misrepresent reality (“he said, she said”). These terms and their definitions arm Manne’s readers with the language and understanding to articulate their experiences of misogyny, whether in their everyday lives or in their consumption of media. A powerful gift indeed.
Some of the most compelling passages in this book, however, are those that describe and seek to unpack the mechanisms of misogyny behind real-world examples. Manne’s explanation of the case of Elliot Rodger (Isla Vista killings) is rigorous and persuasive and works to deglamorise the murderer and reorient sympathy towards the victims (likewise her discussion of the phenomenon of family annihilators). Her discussion of the rhetoric around Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and the parallels it shared with Julia Gillard’s difficulties in the Australian parliament is immediate and tangible, breaking down and explaining a magnified iteration of many women’s everyday experiences. And her discussion of ‘testimonial injustice’ in relation to rape and sexual assault (specifically the case of Brock Turner) resonates with exceptional strength in the wake of the Kavanaugh hearing. In particular, the observation that we are prone to ‘extending the benefit of the doubt to the alleged perpetrator over his accuser-cum-victim, no matter how thin the basis for doubting her word may be.’ Manne’s discussions of these real-world cases are impactful. Not only do they serve to further her explication of misogyny, but they also demonstrate the significance of her project. They unequivocally establish that misogyny is a very real problem in contemporary western society. It isn’t something that exists “over there” or “back then,” or indeed in a handful of psychologically disturbed individuals. It is something that operates here and now, with real and dangerous consequences.
The strength of this book is in the rigorousness with which it approaches a subject of such vital contemporary import. Manne presents misogyny as a broad but nevertheless cohesive phenomenon, which, in seeking to enforce patriarchal norms, appears in a variety of different guises within contemporary society. Across a number of examples, from the violent to the petty, Down Girl illuminates the myriad ways by which the different standards and expectations we have for men and for women pervert our understanding of individuals and situations. By Manne’s analysis real gender equality is still a long way off, and the book’s impassioned conclusion expresses a relatable frustration with the current state of affairs. But I am hopeful that with scholars like Manne articulating these gendered issues so precisely and authoritatively, more people will come to understand and to recognise them.
(i) Since the publication of Down Girl, it has emerged that Moya Bailey and Trudy aka @thetrudz coined the term misogynoir in 2008, first writing about it online in 2010. The definition was expanded on in 2014, and most recently in 2018.
(ii) aggrieved entitlement is a notion explored by Michael Kimmel in Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era (2013)