If misogyny exists to punish rebellious women, why are obedient women victimized too?

‘Down Girl’ offers a compelling analysis of misogyny, but leaves pivotal questions unanswered.

When Kate Manne was five years old, a boy in her class strangled her with a piece of yarn, causing her to lose consciousness. After she came to, she was told that he had chosen to attack her because “he’d had some trouble processing being runner-up to [her] in the spelling bee.” This childhood experience of male envy, entitlement, and violence, is buried in a footnote of Manne’s new book, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny.

Manne very rarely discusses her own experiences of misogyny in the book, but it’s surely no coincidence that she begins her introduction with a discussion of the power and meaning of non-fatal strangulation. This is a form of violence almost always committed by men and boys against women and girls — a means of asserting authority and domination over a silenced victim. Although strangulation can result in death hours or days after the event, many American states don’t recognize it as a distinct criminal offence, classing it instead under the fairly minor category of “assault.” Victims rarely report these kinds of attacks to the police and, when they do, their complaints are often not taken seriously. They are silenced twice over. It is a distinctly misogynist form of violence, motivated by exactly the logic Down Girl seeks to expose.

Manne is the first analytic philosopher to attempt such an in-depth investigation of misogyny, and the publication of this book could not have come at a better time. An Australian academic now teaching at Cornell, she brings clarity and precision to a subject that seems, finally, to be receiving the attention it deserves.

Perhaps this is why the book has been so successful. An academic text on feminist philosophy would not usually receive glowing reviews in the popular media, but in the time of #MeToo and Trump there is an appetite for this kind of book. In the first few chapters, Manne reiterates some fundamental feminist ideas about patriarchy, and other reviewers have seemed surprised to learn that sexism is structural (what, really?) and that misogynist men are rarely held to account for their crimes (no way!). These central tenets of feminist analysis have been around for half a century or more, but are still a long way from being generally accepted. Unfortunately, the second wave writers who first articulated these ideas go mostly uncredited by Manne, but that seems to have become the norm in feminist books nowadays.

Manne spends much of the first half of the book discussing definitions of misogyny and sexism. She suggests an intriguing — if slightly artificial — distinction between the two, whereby “sexism” is the theory that justifies female subordination (“the law”), while “misogyny” is the means by which it is enforced (“the police”). Misogyny should therefore be understood as a political act, rather than a psychological pathology. A sexist man does not necessarily hate all women, in fact he may well be very fond of those women who “amicably serve his interests.” This system is based on what Manne describes as a “gendered economy of giving and taking,” in which women are expected to give men certain “services” — respect, care, sex, domestic and reproductive labour — and can expect to be punished if they don’t comply. That punishment takes the form of misogyny.

Now here’s where it gets really interesting. Manne takes issue with what she describes as the “humanist” understanding of cruelty — that is, the idea that brutal behaviour towards other people stems from a failure to recognize them as truly human. According to this view, victims of cruelty are perhaps viewed as more akin to nonhuman animals, supernatural beings (e.g. demons), or insentient objects. The humanist explanation of misogyny assumes that if only violent men could come to see women as human beings, the violence would stop.

If only it were so.

Sure enough, dehumanizing language may be purposefully used as a slur, for instance when people are likened to vermin. But the insulting power of this language depends on the recognition that the targeted group are not, in fact, nonhuman animals. After all, what would be insulting about calling a cockroach a cockroach?

Manne quite rightly points out that viewing others as human does not necessarily mean viewing them benevolently. Yes, other humans can be our friends, allies, lovers, helpers, and compatriots; but they can also be our enemies, betrayers, rivals, aggressors, and usurpers. As Manne puts it, the characteristic human capacities a woman possesses, “don’t just make her relatable; they make her potentially dangerous and threatening in ways only a human being can be… Many of the nastiest things that people do to each other seem to proceed in full view of, and are in fact plausibly triggered by, these others’ manifestations of their shared or common humanity.”

Sexist ideology teaches men both that women ought to provide them with “services” (sex, care, labour), and also that women are dangerous beings who may at any moment rebel. So when mass murderer Elliot Rodger railed against the “hot blonde sluts” who had failed to offer him sex and attention, he was furious precisely because of the human traits these women possessed: their ability to reason, make decisions, and bestow their love and labour on some men and not others. His violence was motivated by a desire to punish women en masse because he believed they had denied him his due.

It’s a compelling argument, although there is one glaring problem with it. According to Manne’s model, misogyny is a cudgel wielded against women who refuse to act as “loving wives, devoted moms, ‘cool’ girlfriends, loyal secretaries” — rebels are punished for threatening the patriarchal system. But then how do we explain the fact that obedient wives, moms, girlfriends, and secretaries are still raped, harassed, and punished for the sin of simply being female? Yes, women who step out of line are treated harshly, but then so are women who are entirely accepting of their subservient position.

I wonder if to some extent misogyny is just, well, illogical. Perhaps when Manne’s young classmate took a ligature to her neck he believed he was punishing her for the crime of being a clever girl. Perhaps he wanted to remind her of her subservient position and assert his own authority. But then I’m prepared to bet that the five year old Manne was not the last girl or woman he abused. Most violent men don’t just target women who resist their oppression; they also abuse those who are “good” and obedient, but are unlucky enough to cross paths with a misogynist. While it may be logical to punish women who rebel against patriarchy — including little girls who excel at spelling — where is the logic in also punishing those who don’t? Down Girl is a thought-provoking book that brings clarity to a topic desperately in need of intelligent analysis, but there are important questions left unanswered.

Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (2017) is published by Oxford University Press.

Louise Perry is a writer and feminist based in Oxford, UK. She is currently writing a book on the history of buying and selling human body parts.

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  • Windrix

    Men aren’t really human. Females are human. The primary form of life is female. Good news is the y-chromosome is deteriorating so hopefully men will go extinct eventually.
    These violent men are no exception. Men are consistently aggressive and violent with women. Their mothers, their sisters, etc. It doesn’t matter I’ve seen it all, and I’ve been the one to throw punches at men. It doesn’t matter how “feminine” you are. He’ll always manipulate, coerce, trick, lie, and intimidate you into staying in your role if he doesn’t feel the need to use violence.

  • Omzig Online

    That little boy had an extremely high likelihood of growing up to be a murderer. Typically, women that experience strangulation in DV situations become a homicide victim within 18 months. Looks like that kid was getting a very early start to a career in psychopathy.

    “Prior non-fatal strangulation was associated with greater than six-fold odds (OR 6.70, 95% CI 3.91–11.49) of becoming an attempted homicide, and over seven-fold odds (OR 7.48, 95% CI 4.53–12.35) of becoming a completed homicide.”

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2573025/

    • calabasa

      Oh my God I didn’t know that…my abusive ex (first love) choked me. He once choked me unconscious because I caught him using again and tried to take his drugs away from him (I had no idea about either his violence or his drug habit until I moved in with him, a whole year after we began dating). I’m so glad he never killed me, Jesus.

      I’ve had two different guys choke me during sex, without asking, including the last guy I dated, who turned out to be an abuser (a sexual predator and an abuser)…I found out later (after the horrible things he did to me) that he had abused his ex-wife, including strangling her when she was pregnant.

      Are you telling me *both* of these guys are likely to kill someone?

      • Omzig Online

        That’s what the data suggests, yes. I’d say you really dodged a bullet.

        In my area, it’s listed in the penal code as a felony offense, too:

        “[…]the offense is committed by intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly impeding the normal breathing or circulation of the blood of the person by applying pressure to the person’s throat or neck or by blocking the person’s nose or mouth[…]”

      • Tinfoil the Hat

        Do you have a hard time believing that men who strangle women are likely to kill them?

        • TwinMamaManly

          I don’t believe so, but it is quite confronting to know how close you came to being another statistic

    • TwinMamaManly

      That just gave me chills. I left a violent and controlling ex a few months after he tried to strangle me (a very long time ago) I knew it was a very bad situation, but I had no idea it was that risky.

  • Louise Perry

    That’s a really interesting idea, although I think it’s not just hatred of those who act in a servile way, but also of people who actually are weak, vulnerable, or dependent on others. I wonder whether that idea might also explain why children are so vulnerable to male violence too.

  • corvid

    That’s a good point. I think it might be simpler… they are obsessed with dominance, acquisition and terrified of not being the-most-ultimate-beings. The mere existence of women is threatening to them, and we must be kept beneath them at all costs to preserve their status and self-image. Abusing already-obedient women simply keeps us in line.

  • corvid

    To add to my other comment: they basically want to punish us for existing. It’s like the witch trials: punishment either way. They’ll abuse us whether we do the “right” thing or the “wrong” thing, it doesn’t matter.

  • oneclickboedicea

    I have a slightly different theory, men hate women because they have been told we are inferior and they superior and some of them become enraged when a women proves equal or god forbid, superior to him. As a transatlantic delivery skipper at one point in my life, tall, intelligent,capable, athletic and brave, can’t tell you the amount of men that have exuded outright hostility towards me for being any or all of the above. Its like being a talking pig in their eyes, very disturbing to their world view and therefore needs to be destroyed or driven off to restore their idea of order.

    • corvid

      Yes. The moment we reach their standard, they raise the bar. The moment we approach the goalposts, they get moved.

    • Hanakai

      Dorothy Dinnerstein wrote about the origins of the patriarchy and misogyny. A greatly reduced summary of her notion is this: The infant is helpless and the all-powerful mother is the source of all warmth and comfort. When all-powerful mother does not 100% fulfill all the infant’s narcissistic needs, the infant becomes filled with rage. Men grow up hating women still acting out their infantile rage and hatred of the one that had all the power.

      Here is a start if interested in more of Dinnerstein’s thinking: https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/dinnerstein-dorothy

      • Thanks for the link. I don’t know whether Dinnerstein understood that this rage against women happens in the context of patriarchy and that it’s not just “natural” or “inevitable”.

      • Tinfoil the Hat

        Dubious. What about all the female infants whose mothers don’t immediately fulfill 100% of their need? Why don’t the grow up filled with range and a desire to abuse, assault, rape, and kill men?

  • Alienigena

    It really is ‘damned if you do (comply), damned if you don’t’ for women and girls. I have been in the situation of being both compliant (there was a lot of chaos in my home growing up and I didn’t want to add to it so I went along, I was and am shy and shyness is sometimes read as compliance but it really isn’t) and rebellious (not giving men the necessary respect they feel they are owed (I can be rude, I interrupt men when they are speaking (maybe it is ADHD maybe it is just me), irreverent, or caustic). They are both losing positions.

  • corvid

    Wow, excellent point.

  • Can’tUnseeIt

    Really there is no winning with abusive males. The only winning strategy is to get away as fast and as soon as you can…and to then stay far away. For a long time I told myself the lie that I liked men but just chose not to be with one. Now I don’t lie about liking them whether from a distance or close up. Under patriarchy, there isn’t much to like. I don’t need endless analysis of why they’re abusive…they just are. I wasted decades trying to understand mysogynist behavior as if doing so would make it go away, or take the sting out of it. It didn’t and it doesn’t. Every woman is a target and if you have children with them, you just create more targets for them to abuse. There really is no excuse for the abusive way men, and male institutions, treat women. I don’t want to understand them and I am sick to death of standing under them. I believe that men are incapable of empathy, compassion, love. Their substitute for love is POWER. They get the same emotional intensity from weilding power over women and children as can be found in love. It’s just an empty thing, power is.

  • susannunes

    She is 34 years old, according to a web search. I seriously doubt this vignette happened in a public school, assuming it actually happened. My b.s. detector went off when I read this article where Manne claims this happened when she was five years old. First of all, kindergartners in public schools are not doing spelling bees at that age and never have; these days they are just learning how to decode and read. They are being taught curriculum that, when I was in public elementary school some 55 years ago, was first-grade material. Such an assault would never have been tolerated in any public school district anywhere in the United States. That kid would have immediately gotten help for his violent tendencies and likely removed from the class.

    • Unree

      Manne says she grew up in Melbourne, but I too doubt the story. Age five is too young for a spelling bee in Australia too, I believe (as a USian I’ve visited and have Oz friends but don’t know the society deeply). Maybe children that age would learn spelling, but I can’t see a competition. I also doubt a five-year-old has the dexterity to attempt to strangle a fellow child with yarn. It’s not impossible, but it sounds improbable to me.

      • Funny how many people feel free to accuse women of lying or making something up. Will it never end?

        • Unree

          I wrote in support of susannunes, who I guess you said was lying or made something up. Thanks for playing.

          • No that’s not what I said.

          • Tinfoil the Hat

            All susannunes did was to call Ms. Manne a liar.

      • TwinMamaManly

        Clearly you have not been around many 5 year olds then

    • Louise Perry

      I’m dismayed to see how quick you are to disbelieve women. Manne grew up in Australia, not the US. She doesn’t say there were no disciplinary consequences, just that the perpetrator was supposedly motivated by envy over her spelling ability. She isn’t necessarily using ‘spelling bee’ to mean a big competition, she probably just means a spelling test within the classroom and may be (mis)using an American term for an American audience. I can’t speak for the US, but in the UK it’s not unusual for girls to be victims of violence at school, particularly sexual violence, and the response is often inadequate – https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/dec/12/are-we-ignoring-an-epidemic-of-sexual-violence-in-schools – I’m pleased to hear that such an assault would not have been tolerated in your district, but that’s not everyone’s experience.

    • I’m kind of stunned to hear this. You have a b.s. detector for women? I’d say men handed that detector to you to do their dirty work.

    • Tinfoil the Hat

      Bullshit he would have. Nice dream world you live in.

  • Bleeps3

    Great point. It’s also true that everyone has different rules, different norms, and different perceptions; so, no matter how hard a woman or girl tries to be compliant, it is never “right”. So there is no possibility of compliance, really.

  • Omzig Online

    I really hope so, too, Bleeps3.

  • Hanakai

    People who oppress others invariably see the Other as less than human. Hitler and the Nazis referred to Jews as ‘apes’ and ‘rats.’ In the lead-up to the Rwandan genocide of Tutsis by the Hutus, the Tutsis were referred to in media and by Hutu leaders as ‘cockroaches.’ Racist whites refer to black Americans as ‘bucks’ and ‘coons’ and ‘apes’and ‘monkeys.’

    And men refer to women as ‘cows,’ ‘b*tches,’ ‘dogs,’ ‘chicks,’ ‘hens,’ ‘birds,’ ‘bunnies,’ ‘fillies,’ ‘shrews,’ ‘vixens.’

    Oppressors vie the oppressed as subhuman animals and men view women as subhuman animals, and use this denigration to justify their abuse and oppression of the abused class. Animals are horribly treated by men, and humans generally — animals are kept enslaved, imprisoned, penned, their offspring ripped from them, tortured, beaten, abused and the paradigm for the abuse of animals is the template for male treatment of women.

  • Meghan Murphy

    Men claim they do, of course, because it makes them feel good about themselves and they use this claim to attempt to impress women. Of course, when it comes down to actually being in relationships with genuinely independent, confident, “strong” women, they can’t handle it. Most men still want docile women who prioritize their male partner and their relationship with him over all else.

  • Meghan Murphy

    Hi Kate! I’m glad you’re here! Thanks for your work and for engaging in the discussion here. I have not read your book yet, alas, but I’m curious to know if you see a connection between pornography and BDSM (and the normalization of both, in our culture) as connecting to your analysis of misogyny. The stuff about ‘choking’ really makes me think about BDSM and the ways we are constantly pressured *not* to be critical of BDSM in our culture, as Good Progressives etc.

  • The thing is, male infants don’t come into the world hating women. They learn it. And a lot of that learning takes place unconsciously. I think the psychological and the political are in a cycle with each other, reinforcing each other.

    • Tinfoil the Hat

      Excellent points.

  • Louise Perry

    Hi Kate – Thank you so much for reading and engaging in the comments. I’m sorry you feel I invited disbelief in the way I began and ended the review – that certainly wasn’t my intention, and (in retrospect naively) I didn’t expect such a response on a feminist site. As I hope I make clear, I really liked your book and would love to discuss this further over email if you’d be happy with that.

  • corvid

    Yep. Men like “strong, capable women” whose strength and capability is for doing exactly what men want.

  • Bleeps3

    I have wondered for a while now if sex or pornsturbation is the only self-soothing behavior men are aware of (or allow themselves), and how that affects their psyches.

  • Wren

    I believe you. And I’m sorry that you feel regret for having told elements of your personal story. It’s also horrifying to think that such a damaging experience amounted to a mere “footnote” in your work when I am fully aware that it must have been terrifying in itself and also for the lack of concern from the administration.

    I don’t know if a five-year old could be considered a moral monster or not, but I do know that without significant intervention, he could be on that path. The school failed both of you.

  • fluffywhitedog fluffy

    A Medieval French queen was plain and shy, so the king wasn’t attracted to her. He still proceeded to use her as brooding mare whi ch killed her by age 24 (she’d had 7 children by then). A woman sitting next to me is wearing hijab in 40 C heat. She is depriving herself and any gestating baby of vitamin D, limiting her hearing + peripheral vision, suffering heat and othering herself in a Western country.
    These are compliant women. They get no thanks for this suffering from the men. My body anxiety disappeared once i realized that being compliant with beauty norms gains u nothing – there is no recipe out of the oppression.

  • silverside

    Many years ago, I visited a country that was still being ruled by an authoritarian dictator. During his regime, his enemies would be arrested, tortured, murdered, and then thrown along the roadside as a warning to others. But so were ordinary people who had no interest in politics. The point of this was to throw people off. If you only harm the “bad” ones, people will figure out what room they have to maneuver. But if you’re arbitrary, it makes people feel a little crazy, which tends to be paralyzing. Bad researchers in psychology have found something similar with rats. If there is a consistent system to getting electric shocks, they learn what they have to do to avoid getting hurt. But if it’s random, they break down. Batterers use the same tactics. If you knew you would only get beaten under certain circumstances, you would make sure those circumstances are avoided or minimized. But if you’re never sure what you may be beaten for, that you’ll even get beaten when you presumably complied with his wishes, it will be that much harder to keep your wits about you. So yes, it makes perfect sense that misogynists will punish women for being “bad” and for being “good.”

  • Tinfoil the Hat

    I wonder why the men in your religion are not required to wear hijabs?

  • Tinfoil the Hat

    When I was about 9 or 10, I insisted I could “beat up” a slightly younger boy. Everyone scoffed, of course, and 3 or 4 other kids (one of them my older brother) stood around to watch and see if I really could beat up Ricky. Well, I soon had him on his back, defeated. As he struggled against me, he shouted, “Chuck! strangle her!” and Chuck did. He leapt on top of me, strong and wiry, and put his hands around my throat, squeezing. He pulled me off of Ricky, who immediately scrambled to his feet. Chuck then let me go.

    Rick was declared the “winner” of the fight by the two older boys.

    “Strangle her!” was the immediate first response of a 7- or 8-year-old boy who felt humiliated by a mere girl. Somehow, I don’t think *he* was the victim of misogyny. “Patriarchy hurts men, too,” my ass.

    • Omzig Online

      Something tells me those kids are in prison for DV or homicide by now.

  • Tinfoil the Hat

    I believe you, and who fucking cares if you technically misused the sacred term “spelling bee”? It’s a way to deflect from the TRUTH of what you were saying.

  • Just Me Resident SchoolMarm

    Totally agree with this. By elevating men over women, men can maintain control over women. What ‘obedient’ women don’t always understand is that they think they are ‘winning’ because of their obedience. Winning with men and winning over the women who fight the system. They will blame anyone who would show them a different picture. As we can see with many conservatives wives who continue to defend men like Trump and the whole ‘stand by my man’s side, he knows better.’ ideology that seems to permeate these women’s lives.

  • TwinMamaManly

    I find it perplexing and discouraging that in every other category of crime the victims are automatically believed and sympathised with, even by perfect strangers in passing conversation. But if it is a child or woman reporting IPV or sexual assault or harrasment, they are automatically disbelieved at worst or questioned as to their complicity at best, and the support and encouragement to disclose and report is not automatic as with any other crime.

  • Ashley Braman

    If anything like that happens to my daughters ill be pressing charges against the child and his parents and the school .Asap