» Review Essay
Good Dog, Bad Girl
Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny by Kate Manne
Oxford University Press, 2017/2019
Hardcover/Paperback, 368 pp., $27.95/$14.95
“He is like a dog that barks around women,” my (male) colleague told me. He was referring to the irrational and apparently unaccountable behavior of our male, academic-department head, who had responded with strange aggression to some suggestions I had made at a department meeting. My colleague explained, plainly, that the aggressiveness I had witnessed—that I had withstood—was not atypical; other women had received similar treatment. But in his view, this “barking” at women was to be dismissed as a basically harmless peculiarity. To extend his analogy, the department head (an academic star) was a good, beloved, and valued dog, though a bit snappish, and just as you might keep small children away from a snappish dog, it was best to keep women colleagues away from him. Another male colleague offered a different sort of explanation: the barking department head was troubled by women because he was raised by a dominant mother, a professional woman, and this had somehow messed him up. More than one male colleague advised me to “soften” my speech, to be more casual and “less professional” in my email correspondence, not to “brag” about my publications, and not to act like I deserved the successes I had in fact achieved, lest I come across as uppity. (It is not incidental to observe here that analytic philosophers, my professional cohort, do not succeed by being soft, imprecise, modest, or deferential.)
It will be helpful to summarize and separate the components of the above incident like the analytical philosopher I am. According to my male colleagues, then,
1) I had been treated unprofessionally because I was a woman;
2) my mistreatment was due entirely to the personal idiosyncrasy of one man, the proverbial “bad apple” or, here, barking dog;
3) his difficulty with women was ultimately the fault of a woman, his mother;
4) the best response was for me to steer clear of him;
5) and insofar as I had to interact with him, I should present myself in ways that expressed feminine subservience even at the expense of giving the impression of lesser competence or attainment.
Thus, the whole incident could be characterized as an unfortunate interpersonal problem, and it was incumbent upon me to change in order to avoid future unpleasantness.
There are two remarkable facets to this small story (more on its smallness later). The first is that my colleagues were able to discern that I had been treated unprofessionally because I was a woman. So often, even this fact remains out of focus or inaccessible. And, indeed, as I continued to work among these men for many years, during which time various forms of hostility, exclusion, silencing, and devaluation multiplied, the idea that this was a pattern of mistreatment based on gender became less and less accessible to my colleagues. I also will return to this point later.
The second remarkable facet of this story is, paradoxically, just how unremarkable it is: Such experiences of misogyny are so commonplace that they are often taken to be normal operating procedure—just, you know, the way it is. It barely rises to the level of consideration. My story could be any woman’s story. Shrug.
It is the project of Kate Manne’s incisive book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny to get past that shrug. Chapter by chapter, she offers a compelling analysis of the concept of misogyny and its workings in Anglo-American society. This analytical work is conceptually connected to respected, mainline arguments in moral philosophy not known for addressing gender. Thus, one of Manne’s achievements is almost a side-effect: her work breathes new life and new potential into an area of philosophy that too often leads to dead-end abstractions. Yet, Manne’s style is open to readers completely unfamiliar with contemporary philosophical discourse. Though there are a few passages that may feel prickly to such readers, it would be a shame if that were a deterrent. Manne vigorously employs the first-person (often considered out-of-line in analytic philosophy) and humor, giving the book a sense of personality and wit in addition to intellect. Importantly, her analysis of misogyny is accompanied by compelling examples of national and international significance. She shares research and insights regarding the misogyny directed at political figures, including Hillary Clinton and former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. She examines the disputed misogyny of the 2014 killing spree undertaken by Elliot Rodger at the University of California Santa Barbara in Isla Vista, California. She dissects the speech of conservative radio rabble-rouser Rush Limbaugh. She scrutinizes the Gamergate imbroglio, in which a female video game creator was subject to online abuse, doxing, and death threats. She probes the terrible effect of threatened masculinity in the violence of family annihilators (men who kill their wives and children rather than allow them to witness their own bankruptcy or social demise). She offers examples drawn from the headlines of domestic violence and police brutality against black women. She also uses fictional examples (including Gone Girl, To Kill a Mockingbird, and the TV adaptation of Fargo) to highlight cultural tropes and illustrate particular concepts. With so many points of application, Manne’s philosophical analysis never detaches from the real world; on every page, her analysis remains relevant and accessible to readers outside academic philosophy. In fact, Manne adduces so much evidence to support her analysis that the text risks subjecting the reader to emotional fatigue because misogyny is everywhere, and it’s worse than you think.
I imagine that some readers may feel overwhelmed by all the bad news, by the litany of ways in which women are routinely harmed, physically and sexually assaulted or killed, discredited, denounced, and defamed. (Some of Rebecca Solnit’s writing in The Mother of All Questions and Men Explain Things to Me is similarly freighted by the evidence of misogyny’s ubiquity.) It is hard to read about these facts without feeling your stomach tighten into a knot. But Manne’s intelligence, clarity, and courage come through with such force that I found the reading exhilarating, and I suspect that many readers, if they venture into a book of (feminist) philosophy, will likewise feel that they have found a source of light and intellectual leadership. With Manne’s insights in hand, our pervasively gendered experience of the world makes more sense. And with so much confusion in public discourse, a book of philosophy that makes more sense of any aspect of social life provides a balm.
In case “logic” conjures up painful memories of college exams, it may be a welcome preventative to know that Manne’s subtitle The Logic of Misogyny refers to a cultural logic—a set of interlocking social phenomena that function to sustain certain social institutions, norms, and roles. A cultural logic is not a rational system, nor a structure designed to achieve certain ends, nor a deliberate policy enacted by those with authority (though some such ends and policies may in fact be fabricated in order to sustain the cultural logic). Rather, a cultural logic captures something about the kinds of attitudes, expectations, and norms that govern our social interactions even when we are not aware of them and which allow us to interpret the behaviors and events of social life. Thus, a logic of misogyny must take us beyond what Manne calls the “naïve conception,” according to which misogyny is “primarily a property of individual agents (typically, although not necessarily, men) who are prone to feel hatred, hostility, or other similar emotions toward any and every woman, or at least women generally, simply because they are women.” Misogyny, on her analysis, is not reducible to the feelings or attitudes of individuals.
To see why this might be important, let’s return to my story, summarized in five points above. As I’ve said, it is remarkable that something like misogyny was volunteered by my male colleagues as an explanation for the department head’s behavior. They could see that gender was a salient factor. That takes us as far as (1). But in order for the charge of misogyny to stick, according to the naïve conception, we would have to be able to show that the department head had feelings of hatred or hostility toward me. Support for (2)—the idea that this misogyny rests in the individual’s psyche alone, that he is the bad apple in an otherwise non-misogynist social environment—would come in the form of psychological or biographical facts about this particular man. That might explain why one colleague resorted to (3) as evidence: there must be some personal, psychological explanation for his bad reaction to women, and perhaps it could be found in his relationship to his mother. But the idea that the department head felt hatred or hostility toward me struck even me, the target of his bad behavior, as psychologically unrealistic. We simply had not had enough interaction (and none outside of the workplace) to engender strong feelings of any kind toward me. His barking wasn’t hatred per se.
To make matters even more challenging, in order to make the charge of misogyny stick—and I’m talking about getting it to stick as a matter of everyday explanation, not as a legal finding—we would have to be able to show that such feelings of hatred were directed at me simply because I am a woman, which would seem to imply that he would have such feelings of hatred toward all other women, or at least toward all those with whom he interacted, simply because they are women—and he did not. In fact, he seemed to express great affection for his wife and for at least one woman colleague. So, even though (2) casts the department head as a “barking dog,” who reacts with hostility to women, the naïve conception of misogyny would spare him the label misogynist. He didn’t hate me, let alone all women.
Since reacting so negatively to (some) women, on account of their being women, is plainly misogynist, the naïve conception of misogyny cannot be adequate. It also seems implausible on the face of it that any man could harbor feelings of hatred toward all women: it would be too exhausting for one thing, since half the human population is female. And even the most perverse psychopaths generally retain love for at least one woman, often their mothers. It looks like the naïve conception sets a standard for misogyny that has no real-life exemplars. Manne argues that we need to reconceptualize what misogyny is in order to be able to see it in operation. And we need to be able to see it in operation because it has tremendous explanatory value.
Manne argues persuasively that misogyny “should be understood as the ‘law enforcement’ branch of a patriarchal order, which has the overall function of policing and enforcing its governing ideology.” Misogyny can be recognized not by peering into the hidden depths of the individual psyches of men or probing their personal life histories for clues that would underpin a conscious or unconscious hatred of women, but by examining the kinds of hostility faced by women and girls in particular social environments. Attention shifts from the psyche of the alleged misogynist to the effects of certain behaviors on the women and girls who are the targets of misogyny. This shift allows that both men and women can perpetrate misogynist hostility and that misogyny is sustained by attitudes that extend well beyond hatred.
The logic here is actually pretty straightforward: The patriarchal order is sustained by an ideology of gender norms that mandates particular roles and social functions for men and different ones for women. Misogyny surfaces when women attempt to step outside of their appointed roles and functions in the patriarchal order. Manne argues that women who veer from the normative gender roles will be subject to “punitive, deterrent, or warning” measures that constitute misogyny’s mechanisms for keeping women in their place. Manne remarks on the varieties of misogynist hostility, which include “infantilizing and belittling” as well as “ridiculing, humiliating, mocking, slurring, vilifying, demonizing, as well as sexualizing, or alternatively desexualizing, silencing, shunning, shaming, blaming, patronizing, condescending,” and threatening, and violence. The particular tactics that comprise misogyny will vary with the circumstances, and often enough, multiple tactics will be deployed, especially if the targeted woman or girl does not quickly or readily step back into line and conform to her appointed gender role. Accordingly, the department head’s “barking” could be characterized as an attempt to humiliate or silence me precisely because my professional competence and assertiveness seemed threatening. Women colleagues can be tolerated, even welcomed, so long as they behave in ways that affirm masculine prerogatives to succeed and to lead.
Manne elaborates on the relative positions of men and women in our patriarchal society. Patriarchy, she argues, consists in the “uneven, gendered economy of giving and taking moral-cum-social goods and services.” Roughly, in this gendered economy, women owe (men) emotional and social labor, reproductive service, domestic service, sexual access, affection, love, and respect. Much of what women can provide are genuinely valuable social goods: it really is good to give and to receive love and respect, for example. But if women owe men these goods, then men must be entitled to them, and women who refuse to provide them will be the targets of misogynist attack. To take one of Manne’s most stark examples, Elliot Rodger decided to kill sorority women at UCSB, women with whom he had never even spoken, because he believed he was owed their sexual and romantic attention and had not gotten it. The same misogynist logic inspires the men who call themselves “involuntary celibates” and who see Rodger as a hero. Less gruesome examples of this logic abound. Women who do not volunteer to perform kinds of service traditionally associated with feminine roles—social planning, catering, making coffee, cleaning up, mentoring students—may be deemed uncooperative and receive lower job-performance evaluations, even as their male colleagues who likewise decline to volunteer for such tasks see no negative impact on their evaluations.
Men’s social goods consist in such things as “leadership, authority, influence, money, and other forms of power, as well as social status, prestige, [and] rank.” As Manne observes, the masculine goods tend to be in limited supply and acquired through competition. Women who attempt to partake of these masculine-coded goods constitute threats to the gendered order and will be subject, again, to misogynist backlash. Likewise, for women who challenge particular men’s claims to power, status, or authority. These challenges may be informal and low-stakes—such as questioning a boss’s decision or even just entering a conversation as if one were a peer—or very formal with high-stakes, such as a bid for the presidency. Patriarchy divvies up the social goods along gendered lines. Misogyny is the response when women refuse to give what’s expected of them or break rank and try to get what they are not culturally entitled to have.
Manne’s account of misogyny is superior to the naïve conception for several reasons. It avoids the need to scrutinize a man’s psyche; instead we can look to how a person’s behavior functions to keep women in their place in a social environment. It also allows us to look beyond a single emotional or motivational state, hatred, to acknowledge that misogyny wears many guises and that what it looks like will depend upon the specific gender norms in play in a particular social environment. Manne’s account explains why some women will be targeted (they step out of line) while others will be spared or even rewarded (they conform to the relevant gender norms). Further, Manne’s account allows us to see how misogyny, even when enacted by one person, gets its grip because of larger social dynamics. It reveals how misogyny is ultimately never a matter of purely individual attitudes or feelings, but always embedded in social norms and group responses.
To take up this last point, consider my male colleagues’ advice in (4) that I steer clear of the barking department head. It should be obvious that this was not actually a possible response for me. As department head, he was someone I would encounter at department meetings and committee meetings, and who would have authority over my annual performance reviews, determine my salary raises, and sit in judgment over my promotion. In numerous ways, he served as gatekeeper to my professional opportunities. Avoiding him could only be interpreted as non-collegial or uncooperative. Sensing, I guess, the necessity of my interacting with him, my colleagues suggested (5): cleave to postures of feminine subservience. I have to admit, this is a strategy that I, like many women, have had to resort to so many times that I have developed a scar from biting my tongue so often! (I have also come to loathe exclamation points, which must be used in every email to “soften” what might otherwise look too serious and severe, too masculine, without them: Good work! Great to see you! Thanks!!) But I also have to admit that I am by temperament not very good at playing the part of the docile woman. In fact, many of the skills that make me a good philosopher (argumentatively adroit, verbally adept, assertive, opinionated, perceptive, ambitious) make me a bad woman, which is to say, a woman who breaks with feminine gender norms. Regardless of my own temperament, or the actual strategic value of following my colleagues’ advice, the important point is that the advice itself recapitulates misogyny. In effect, my colleagues said to me, “down girl,” even though it was the department head who was the misbehaving dog. They participated in sustaining the very gender norms that make misogyny possible in this social context. An individual man’s behavior was a precipitating factor, but without reference to well-established gender norms, upheld by other men and women, his misogyny could not have had the effects it did. Misogyny begets more misogyny, as men (and sometimes women) coalesce in reinforcing the gendered expectations and penalizing deviance from them. To the extent that I failed to display the appropriate “down girl” behaviors—to the extent that I refused to heel, I exacerbated the misogynist climate. My defenses became more evidence of my being out of line. Good girls don’t resist their subjugation.
What my male colleagues might have done was challenge the department head, calling him out for his unprofessionalism and misogynistic hostility. They might have done it publicly or in private. They might have reported it to higher administration. They might have voted to remove him from his position of leadership. Or instead of drawing attention to the misogyny, they might have tried to compensate for it by making openings for me in conversations or meetings, recommending me for positions of leadership, publicly crediting my initiatives and ideas, or “bragging” for me about my professional accomplishments so as to sustain my value in the department. They did not. Their silence and reticence in the face of what they themselves acknowledged to be gender-based mistreatment constituted complicity in the patriarchal order. And this, too, is part of the logic of misogyny. Men who appear to be siding with women who are being subject to misogynist backlash may find themselves on the receiving end of the hostility; they risk losing status, that masculine-coded social good, if they break the alliance of men through their recognition of misogyny as an injustice. Over my many years of work among these men, this was perhaps the most painful realization for me—that men who spoke to me in private about the sexism and misogyny of the department would not defend this view publicly and, when push came to shove, even contributed to undermining my credibility. One senior man expressed to me his outrage over my mistreatment, but worried that if he spoke up, he’d lose his favored teaching schedule. Meanwhile, my entire career was on the line.
I said above that my story is a small story. And so it is. What I suffered, over many years, was small in comparison to the brutal violence and psychological abuse that many women experience in misogynistic environments. Small as it is, it is the story of a large stretch of my adult life that has ramified through my professional life and my personal life. Small as it is, it is a story that so many women attempting to succeed in a man’s world can relate to. Like many women, I have been loath to speak publicly about my experiences. I do not do so here out of a desire to aggrandize myself. Rather, it is the very ordinariness of my experience that drives me to insert it here for Manne’s book emphasizes misogyny as it is visible in the lives of public figures, like Clinton and Gillard, and in dramatic or tragic, headline-grabbing events. But the logic of misogyny writ large in these cases is also writ in the fine print of the lives of millions of ordinary women like me. Small as such stories are, the toll in the lives of women is large.
Though I have never met her, Manne is, like me, a professor of philosophy, a field that is approximately 80 percent male, a figure that hasn’t changed much in several decades. Manne’s book would have suffered an excess of scrutiny had she focused on her own experiences of misogyny (which have been expressed in interviews subsequent to publication of her book). Her conceptual acumen, careful research, and steady argumentation would no doubt have been eclipsed by the skepticism that accompanies any woman’s public representation of her experiences of misogyny. (Even as I write this, I am bracing for the possible backlash myself.) She was wise to focus on public examples in order to avoid this problem, and also because exposing the misogyny that operates at the highest reaches of politics and media reveals the extent to which our supposedly enlightened, gender-egalitarian society is still shaped by punitive attitudes toward women.
I observed above that while, initially, my male colleagues could perceive that I was being mistreated on account of being a woman, they seemed to be less able to perceive it as the years passed, even as the hostility increased and spread beyond the one bad apple. I’ve already suggested one reason this might happen: Over time, men may themselves become overtaxed by the risks associated with supporting a woman who is targeted by misogynist hostility. To ally oneself with a vulnerable party is to make oneself more vulnerable to attack. Another reason is that my redoubled efforts to prove my professionalism and competence only worked against me, when these were among the very things that proved threatening in the first place.
But Manne’s analysis supports another sort of explanation. When women lodge complaints against men in positions of power or authority, even when those men are widely acknowledged to be guilty, they often find themselves witness to a bizarre turn-around: the man guilty of abuse, or rape, or harassment becomes the recipient of empathy, while the woman victimized by his behavior is villainized. Manne calls the phenomenon “himpathy.” The accusatory question that women who speak up must face is, “Why do you want to ruin his life (or reputation)?” The questioner summons concern for the well-being of the guilty party rather than the well-being of the woman. The idea that women are entitled to justice, for themselves as well as on behalf of other actual or potential victims, seems to lie hidden behind another layer of misogyny—the assumption that women are devious, manipulative, untrustworthy, lying, or calculating whenever they challenge male power or status. Moreover, as Manne notes, misogynistic crimes against women are also, ipso facto, crimes against society. A just society would not question the legitimacy of calling to account a guilty man.
There is yet another reason why people may find it difficult to perceive the misogyny that limits and damages women in their midst: It is always (yes, always) possible to point to seemingly plausible alternative explanations of the social dynamics, which lay the blame on the woman. This is best known as “victim-blaming,” with the most well-known example being blaming a rape victim for her violent assault because she wore a short skirt, drank beer, or traveled unaccompanied to a nightclub. As Manne carefully explains, there is no such thing as a perfectly innocent victim, so it will always be possible to point to some aspect of her behavior and to suggest that she herself is the cause of her misogynistic treatment.
In workplace environments like mine, especially where one works among the same people for many years, there are bound to be substantive disputes and disagreements, minor failures, occasional screw-ups—on the part of all employees. There are also going to be the exigencies of life outside the office—relationship woes, family demands, illness, financial strain—that generate emotional twists and turns. And there is going to be the social fabric of friendships, romances, and sexual dalliances that forms a kind of unwieldy skein interlaced through the organizational hierarchy of the workplace. In other words, the social environment is exceedingly complex and each of the persons in it has a robust, distinctive personality and array of motives, feelings, and relationships. It will always be possible to point to the woman targeted by misogyny and say of her that she is the problem. “Personality conflict” is one euphemism that often substitutes for, and displaces, recognition of misogyny. She is—I have heard said of so many women colleagues, including myself—crazy. Or, a bitch. Or, difficult. Or, a slut. Or, worthless. Or, stupid.
If a woman persists in her non-conforming behavior (not giving or taking the appropriate, gendered social goods, as described above), she will likely be subject to more misogynist retaliation. The more she leans in, the more men will push back. And as this dynamic persists, she will come to be seen, quite reasonably, as the common denominator. It is (only) when she is around that things seem difficult. Better to keep her away. (And, to be on the safe side, better not to hire any more women, or at least not any with strong personalities or ambitions.)
It is my observation that the more time one spends working in a misogynist social environment, the less likely one will be able to make the misogyny perspicuous to others because the more complicating social factors there are. Here, too, Manne’s framework for understanding misogyny proves helpful. She argues that misogyny does not deny women’s basic humanity. Rather, it depends upon recognizing it. Seeing women as fully human and enmeshed in complex social relationships, allows men (and sometimes women) to cast women in human social roles, including “rival, enemy, usurper, insubordinate, betrayer.” Women who step out of line become subject to the responses such labels inspire: they must be put in their place, destroyed, defeated, undermined, or punished. Thus, when women are accused of insubordination or betrayal, or reduced to epithets, we should not see such “explanations” for their being subject to attack as inconsistent with the logic of misogyny; often enough, these “personality conflicts” are simply a manifestation of misogyny. Part of what makes it so tricky to expose misogyny is that, as Manne astutely comments, it is a self-masking phenomenon.
Sadly, after nearly three-hundred pages of careful analysis, Manne observes that while researching and writing the book, she “became less optimistic about the prospects of getting people to take misogyny seriously [. . . .] The fact that misogyny is killing girls and women, literally and metaphorically, clearly isn’t enough to grip that many people.” Many people will shrug. Or, like people who are busily constructing their counterarguments rather than actually listening to what you have to say, many will simply reinvest in their denial of misogyny. As a society, we have a long way to go to position people to understand gender, equality, and respect. Manne’s efforts in this book are, to my mind, monumental, which makes her concluding observations especially heartbreaking. Heartbreak is a strange reaction to a book of moral philosophy, but one that proves the book’s importance.