'Down Girl' tackles misogyny in the #MeToo era

Kate Manne

Why does misogyny persist, even in supposedly post-patriarchal parts of the world like the U.S., asks Kate Manne, assistant professor of philosophy, in her book, “Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny.” She argues that, despite social progress toward equality, the stories exposed during the #MeToo movement demonstrate that misogyny and wrongful, entitled male behavior is an enduring problem in our society.

Manne draws a distinction between misogyny and sexism. Sexism, she writes, is the belief system that justifies and rationalizes treating women as inferior to men in traditionally masculine domains – such as business; science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields; and political leadership; it also means treating women as particularly well-suited to playing feminine social roles, involving giving sympathy, care, nurture and reproduction. Misogyny is the “law enforcement” branch of patriarchy, which serves to police and enforce a patriarchal social order, she writes. It is the system that upholds patriarchal norms and expectations by threatening and punishing women who try to enter male-dominated spaces, take masculine powers or privileges away from men, or are perceived as withholding feminine goods and services from their socially sanctioned beneficiaries.

Women who violate patriarchal social norms are often met with misogynistic hostility and may be characterized as pushy, shrill, nasty or abrasive, among other possibilities, Manne said. “Women who do not violate patriarchal social norms are still vulnerable to misogyny, however; they may be treated as an outlet for aggression as a representative of a certain ‘type’ of woman, or bear the brunt of misogynistic ‘punching down’ behavior,” Manne said.

Hillary Clinton’s treatment during the 2016 presidential campaign was unsurprising to Manne, and she had predicted that Clinton would lose the election to Donald Trump due to an enthusiasm gap. Manne believes that women are understood to be fully human – all too human – at this point in human history. But she argues women are often positioned as human givers of feminine-coded goods they are held to owe to others, rather than treated as human beings in their own right, free to pursue a wider range of social possibilities. “She is not allowed to be – or aspire to be – in the same ways as he is,” Manne said. Women who compete for powerful roles with men will tend to be seen as morally suspect, she writes, “insufficiently caring and attentive with respect to those in her orbit deemed vulnerable; illicitly trying to gain power to which she is not entitled; and morally untrustworthy, given the other two kinds of role violations.”

Pointing out misogyny is necessary to solve it, but that often makes for a Catch-22 situation, according to Manne. When women do so, they are withholding the approval, admiration, deference and goodwill to which men may be deemed entitled. Moreover, her identifying as the victim of men’s misogynistic behavior can seem like her wronging a male perpetrator by causing him the pain of guilt, shame, embarrassment or being held accountable for his actions. She may also be dismissed as a liar or as self-pityingly “playing the victim.” “It follows that misogyny is a self-masking phenomenon: Trying to draw attention to the phenomenon is liable to give rise to more of it,” writes Manne.

A related form of unwitting gendered moral bias is what Manne calls “himpathy,” when people make excuses for a male perpetrator and sympathize with him rather than his female victim. Manne also notes that people have been prepared to condemn older men like movie producer Harvey Weinstein as creepy, predatory “monsters,” but they are more inclined to find excuses for privileged, younger “golden boys” accused of sexual assault and harassment, like Ed Westwick and James Franco.

Linda B. Glaser is a staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

Media Contact

Jeff Tyson