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

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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